Book Sewing Technology Responds to Digital Printing Era

by Jeff Peterson, editor-in-chief, PostPress
The Smyth Digital machine is a modular system that allows book manufacturers to produce lay-flat “Smyth Sewn” books with a minimal investment.

The process of book sewing dates back to 1871 when David McConnel Smyth obtained his first patent. In 1882 the Smyth Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, began the production of the first sewing machines, resulting in significant progress in bookbinding technology at that time in history, hence the industry term “Smyth Sewn.”

Once a tedious process that took considerable time for set-up and a very skilled operator, today’s book sewing technology is vastly different.

“Prior to the addition of computers for inputting the book product parameters, an operator had to manually make all the settings to the book sewing machine, which was a lengthy process and left room for operator errors,” commented Jennifer Moffa, account manager for Smyth® USA.

With advancements in computerization and electronic components, operators now can input the size of the book, the number of signatures per book and instructions on how to open the signatures (by lap or suckers, or both) and the computer provides an automatic set-up that is much more precise and efficient.

The Muller Martini Ventura MC features a guided signature transport for the processing of especially challenging signatures.

“The emergence of servo technology reduced set-up, and better control of the thread tension have vastly improved book sewing productivity,” stated Jim Kaeli, solutions manager for the Book Technology and Hardcover Division of Muller Martini. “In addition, barcodes now enable individual books to be sewn with unique content.” Kaeli went on to say that the introduction of digitally produced signatures in the last few years has sparked technology for ultra-short run production combined with sewing – a binding method that was not possible before.

Book sewing has certainly evolved over the last century, changing with the market needs. “On one hand, integration of the processes, automation and increased efficiency have been the drivers that shaped the modern book sewing machines and lines,” explained Manrico Caglioni, president of Book Automation, part of the Meccanotecnica Group. “On the other hand, the disruptive innovation brought by digital printing technology has driven a complete re-thinking of the sewing process and the rise of new solutions for digital print finishing.”

Advantages and application

Book sewing is considered a superior book binding operation when compared to the adhesive binding process, primarily because it allows the book to open and lie flat more easily. It’s a strong construction method that is not affected by inks and coatings, type of paper stock or other environmental conditions – which add up to a binding method with superior longevity.

New technologies in book sewing have allowed the introduction of specialty inserts or gatefolds, previously not possible in thread-sewn products. “There are machines available today that have the capability to stitch products featuring signatures of different sizes and positions,” said Kaeli. “Today, there are endless opportunities for optimum-quality sewn products to now include a standout feature that can differentiate a book, catalog and brochure and engage readers.”

Another advantage of book sewing, especially with the growth of digital printing and the associated quick turnaround times, is that thread sewing is a process that can be validated and checked as soon as it comes off the sewing line. “It is immediately ready for the hardcover preparation or for the application of the soft cover,” said Caglioni. “With other chemical binding methods, to guarantee the best results, you may have to wait several hours for the glue or adhesive to dry before validating your job.””

Another advantage of book sewing is that it is considered a green (environmentally-friendly) process, since it does not use any type of glue or adhesive.

Applications for book sewing are numerous. The most common are Bibles or other religious publications, children’s books, school books, yearbooks, technical manuals and patent ledgers. Book sewing is an excellent choice for any type of product in which the user will write on a regular basis. “When a book is glued, the pages can flap up, which will not allow the user to properly write or – in the cases of record, log and ledger books – properly input the data,” commented Moffa. “Smyth Sewn books are very durable as well, which is extremely important for these applications wherein the books must stand up to the trials of time and usage.””

Although book sewing is a high-quality binding option, it is certainly not the best option for all applications. Overall costs can be higher than perfect binding or saddlestitching. But, as mentioned above, for applications when the customer has a need to guarantee the pages will not become detached from the book, it is the best choice for many jobs.

Newest technologies

Changes in the marketplace have propelled machine manufacturers to make adjustments and add valuable options to their machines. The Ventura MC thread sewing technology from Muller Martini includes tight-sewn book blocks, with each signature correctly positioned, even at high production speeds. Books with spine lengths ranging from 120 to 510 mm can be manufactured efficiently in both one-up and multiple-up production runs. Many of the settings are automatic and are easily reproducible. The retrofittable Tween® option makes the Ventura MC the first book sewing machine on the market that is capable of stitching products featuring signatures in different sizes and positions, known as tweens. Other advantages of the Ventura MC include its guided signature transport for the processing of especially challenging signatures, the option of production without blind stitches for maximum productivity and its thread welding option for maximum stability and quality. The Ventura MC also is equipped with inbuilt monitoring of the correct sequence and opening of signatures through the automatic Asir 3 optical image and barcode recognition system. It is a quiet, stable sewing process, thanks to thread loop formation with blown air and a two-piece sewing saddle.

The UNIVERSE can perform sheet feeding, scoring and folding, collating and sewing on the fly.

To continue to grow with the ever-changing digital finishing world, Meccanotecnica has introduced its new UNIVERSE™ “sheet-fed” automatic book folding and sewing unit for digital print finishing, which is a significant upgrade from the previous versions in terms of performance and the ability to reach higher productivity levels through improvements in process efficiency. The UNIVERSE can perform four processes on the fly, including sheet feeding, scoring and folding, collating, and the final sewing of the product. UNIVERSE allows cost-effective binding of short runs and the production of high-quality books with hands-free workflow due to the auto-programming feature and the reading of barcodes. The UNIVERSE also provides automatic set-up according to book format within minutes and a hybrid feeding system that allows the operator to combine sheets from digital runs with offset signatures.

Smyth USA has tackled the need for book sewing capabilities in the digital printing arena with its introduction of the Smyth® Digital machine, a modular system that allows book manufacturers to produce lay-flat Smyth® sewn books with a minimal investment. Customers can upgrade from the standalone manual book sewing machine by adding an automatic feeder, turning the machine into an automatic book sewing machine for faster production outputs.

Another option available is a digital flat sheet feeder that can be added to either the Smyth® standalone manual book sewing machine or to an upgraded automatic Smyth® book sewing machine. The Smyth® digital machine can produce lay-flat Smyth® sewn books consisting of only folded digitally printed flat sheets or it can produce books consisting of folded digitally printed flat sheets and offset signatures coming from the book sewing machine’s automatic feeder. This provides customers with flexibility, as the equipment is able to “grow” with production requirements. The Smyth sewing systems can be purchased fully integrated with the automatic feeder for offset signatures and the digital flat sheet folder or in modular steps, as described above.