Challenges in Perfect Binding

by Jen Clark, The Binding Edge
Employees insert items into books that were perfect bound at Pacific Bindery.

In the last decade, declining run lengths and quicker turnaround requirements have left little room for error in the bindery. Long-standing binding methods, including perfect binding, have had to evolve because offline production machines and shorter turnaround periods result in expensive short-run applications. Recent innovations in machinery have made the process of completing a printed book much more efficient, which saves time and expense. But that same technology also has brought challenges for binderies trying to keep up – not only with the technology, but the competition as well.

Printing with digital technology is an economical and efficient way to disseminate information, but digital printing has had an effect on all aspects of bookbinding, said David Reindl, president of Reindl Bindery, Germantown, WI. “In perfect binding, many small run jobs have switched from offset printing to digital printing,” he said. “Many printers with digital printing capabilities also can bind the smaller quantities, taking work out of our shop.”

Some digital printers, especially those that are relatively new to the print industry, don’t have a strong understanding of bindery, said Kris Bovay, general manager of Pacific Bindery Services Ltd., Vancouver, BC, Canada. One of Pacific Bindery’s clients is an architectural firm that prefers to print its content in-house, but then sends the documents to Pacific Bindery for binding.

“They are not printers by trade – they are architects,” she said. “Working with them to produce their bound books requires more assistance and training than would be necessary if our client had hired a printer to do the work. However, with the entry of affordable digital print equipment, some customers like the flexibility of doing some of the work in-house.”

Roswell Bookbinding educates its clients on the 12- to 24-hour drying period required with PUR glue.

Mike Roswell, president of Roswell Bookbinding, Phoenix, AZ, agreed. “The learning curve steepens with the lack of experience,” he said. “Trying to educate a novice is difficult at best, especially trying to convey specifications that require terminology that they have zero experience with.  The ability to educate and inform the client has a direct effect on how smoothly the job runs.”

For example, he noted that digitally-printed books that come in as pre-collated book blocks make feeding more difficult, especially on perfect binders that are designed for signatures. But Reindl pointed out the biggest challenge that digital printing presents has to do with the ink used, which has a direct effect on the type of adhesive binders should use. “We need to consider the proper adhesive when binding any digital product,” he said, adding paper quality is another concern.

“Paper quality is not as good as it was in the past,” Reindl said. “Choosing the proper adhesive for binding these difficult stocks can be very challenging.”

Since there is no ink absorption with digitally printed books, that creates many issues – especially with hardbound books, Roswell said.  “Since the text cannot absorb much moisture, it tends to go directly into the cover, which creates the potential for warping. Softcovers have not been as much of a problem,” he explained.

Bovay agreed, noting some digital processes leave an oily film on the sheet that interferes with the gluing process. “One solution is to bind those books with polyurethane reactive (PUR) glue both on the spine and on the side. However, not all binding equipment has that capability,” she said.

For binderies that deal with many different kinds of stock papers, PUR is the best adhesive option. “PUR allows us to create solid bonds on nearly all paper types,” Reindl said. “In fact, we are able to bond directly to coatings and some plastics.”

Added Bovay, “The challenges the industry faces in working with adhesives for perfect binding is really tightly connected to changing substrates, inks, solvents, varnishes and coatings and other inputs that can affect the chemistry of the adhesive. We’ve found that for the most part, PUR is the most successful adhesive for a variety of uses; however, working with PUR has its own challenges in terms of operating efficiency.”

Roswell noted that since the advent of PUR, his company has had little problem with adhesion. “It’s been minimal,” he said. “We don’t have much difficulty with adhesion. The only problems in using PUR are the expense and curing time. Some clients do not understand that the book is not usable for a period of 12 to 24 hours until the adhesive has cured.”

Perfect bound books require adequate binding strength to prevent the pages from being pulled from the binding. Spine preparation and adhesive choice is critical because inflexible adhesives can result in books not lying flat, and the spines often can be distorted with repeated use. “The newest machines do a much better job of preparing spines for whichever adhesive the bindery is using,” Reindl said. In the last two years, Reindl has installed Kolbus’ newest perfect binding machine. “Quality and run rates improved immediately.”

Roswell said manufacturers have developed more equipment geared toward handling pre-collated, short-run jobs, “and we have purchased one,” he noted. “We will be installing another short-run binder with PUR in the coming months.”

Pacific Bindery has a 21-pocket Muller Martini Corona binder with PUR and lay-flat capability, an 18 pocket Muller Martini Starbinder and a Horizon BQ for short-run work. “Our five-year capital expenditures plan includes a commitment to changing some of that binding equipment to better integrate with anticipated changing customer needs,” Bovay said.

Perfect binding, according to Bovay, is in the mature phase of its life cycle. “There is a growing market for short-run, self-published books, whether those publications are photo books, journals, diaries, etc. Within that market, there is a need for perfect binding, along with casebinding,” she said. “There still is a market for perfect bound magazines, books and even catalogs.”

In the last couple of years, catalogs, for example, have fallen out-of-fashion, but Pacific Bindery has noticed a change-of-heart from clients. “They had stopped producing print catalogs and went online,” she said. “Those customers came back after finding that their sales dropped with only online media delivering the sales and marketing messages. Now, they are doing shorter, more targeted print runs that complement the online marketing efforts.”

Roswell said there is no reason to believe the steady decline in perfect binding volume over the past 10 years will not continue.  “Annual reports, statistical abstracts and many other single-color publications have either disappeared or grown smaller,” he said. “The influence of technology seems to be the reason for this and does not appear to be stopping any time soon.”

But, while technology and attitudes may change, Reindl and Bovay agreed that perfect binding always will have a place. Roswell believes that long-run perfect binding has peaked and runs will continue to shorten. “It will not disappear completely, and I think that the demise of the book in general has been greatly exaggerated,” he said.

Investing in new technologies is the key for binderies to “win the race,” Reindl said. “Those companies will be able to offer better quality in less time and at lower prices.”

The reality is that binderies need to keep looking for new partnerships and services that complement their existing capabilities and provide stronger opportunities for growth, Bovay said. “That commitment to adapting and evolving will enable us not only to survive, but also to grow,” she stated.

Added Reindl, “Those companies that don’t or can’t invest in the future will more than likely be left behind or will just go away.”

The Binding Edge would like to thank David Reindl, Reindl Bindery, Germantown, WI; Kris Bovay, Pacific Bindery Services Ltd., Vancouver, BC, Canada; and Mike Roswell, Roswell Bookbinding Phoenix, AZ, for contributing to this article.