By Brittany Willes, editor, PostPress

As the saying goes, “The only thing that remains the same is everything changes.” Anyone involved in the printing, binding and finishing industries in the last several years has seen a number of those changes firsthand. From evolving technology to entirely new processes, there is no denying the industry has experienced significant changes, some of which are requiring binders and finishers to reevaluate their methods and offerings to remain competitive in an ever-evolving marketplace.

“I’ve been in the industry 44 years,” said Greg Greenwald, sales manager for Lander Binding & Finishing. The St. Louis-based company has been serving the industry since 1921, during which time it has seen a number of shifting trends. “I go back to the time when there were printers that had no paper cutters, no folders and no finishing equipment to speak of,” he continued. “They would send jobs to the local binderies. As time went on, printers started to add their own finishing equipment.”

As printers began adding folders and cutting equipment to their own shops, it had a noticeable impact on finishers.

“A lot of local binderies were a little uncomfortable taking in a folded signature and putting it on their saddlestitchers,” said Greenwald. “What if the printer didn’t do a good job? Or did it wrong? It was a learning process and kind of a scary relationship for everyone that created a lot of drama.”

That scary relationship would continue to evolve as many printers eventually put in their own saddlestitchers as well, further impacting the binding and finishing side of things. “Work started to leave the binderies as the printers started doing it themselves,” Greenwald explained. “In the St. Louis market, we had some finishers that were huge, and they’re gone now. That was a sad thing to have happen.”

Naturally, not all finishers had the same experience with the challenges and changes. For instance, Universal Bookbindery, Inc., San Antonio, Texas – which specializes in hardcover and softcover books using high levels of automation rather than traditional fold/gather/stitch/trim, etc. methods of binding – has had a somewhat different experience with the shifting industry.

“We’ve been around for a long time, so the company has been through all kinds of evolution and changes,” explained President Trip Worden. “Our forte is using automation to make short-, medium- and long-run hardcover and softcover books, turned edge ring binders and packaging, and more. We also do highly decorative covers. One of the big changes we’ve seen, especially in the last few years, is a shift in buying preferences.” One of these shifts came from the music and entertainment industry. For many years, Universal had been a large supplier of hardbound, deluxe edition sets. Now, that market has almost completely dried up.

Another big shift Worden noted was the significant shrinkage in the graphic arts market as a result of the rapid acceptance of digital printing. “It’s like the Walmart-ization of our industry,” Worden said. As the world continues to move at an ever-faster pace, customers now want and expect projects to be done cheaper and faster. Digital does allow for greater flexibility, but it brings its own challenges to the profession. As Worden noted, “In the world of digital printing and binding, oftentimes there’s plenty of money to ship the product to the end customer, but there’s no money to ship printing to a finisher to finish and then ship to the end customer. So, products pretty much have to be finished where they’re printed. That puts finishers like us in a tough position. You either have to embrace printing or partner with a printer close by to provide a turnkey solution. However, that can be hard to do.”

Despite the challenges presented by shifting trends within the print industry, finishers and binders are managing to find ways to meet those challenges. For starters, being able to offer specialized services and technical advice often gives binders and finishers an advantage over shops that focus primarily on printing.

“Good finishers that have a trained staff, this is what they do all day, every day,” Greenwald affirmed. “The printer may or may not be doing this sort of thing every day. The efficiency of the binders, of the finisher, inherently puts them in a position of setting the job up and turning it around faster. Plus, they often have more resources in-house to get the job done faster than a traditional printer. I hope the printers see value in that.”

Finishers and binders also are investing in services that may not make sense for printers to invest in, further increasing their sets of specialized skills and knowledge. “The binderies and finishers probably are a little more tuned into the technology of the finishing world than the printer is,” said Greenwald. “They’re probably more aware of equipment in terms of digital control or little things that are after-market add-ons that they can put on their equipment because it makes sense from the finishing standpoint. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for the printer to have some of those add-on items.” Such situations can prove mutually beneficial, giving finishers a competitive edge while also serving as an additional resource for printers.

For Greenwald, adding services is critical for binders and finishers looking to remain relevant in the marketplace. “You’ve got to keep adding services,” he said. “Little things can be a big thing to a finisher. What are those little things? Is it UV coating? Is it specializing larger or smaller sheets? Maybe you have the ability as a finisher to fold extra-thick cover paper. Maybe the printer doesn’t have a plow folder and you do, so there you go. You have an opportunity to help the printer out.”

As Worden noted, another avenue for binders and finishers is through partnerships with printers. While this can be difficult to put in place, it is not impossible and certainly worth pursuing in the right circumstances. “We have some strategic alliances, if you will, with certain customers that make for a good fit when we do get those opportunities to provide turnkey solutions,” Worden explained. Because printing most often is more expensive than binding, when those printers have customers with products that need to be printed and bound, it makes sense for the printer to send those projects on to Universal for finishing, saving the printer time and expense.

Like Greenwald, Worden also advises that offering specialized service and knowledge is, and will continue to be, a crucial tool for finishers and binders moving forward. “Trade finishing evolved because it made more sense for printers to invest their assets in what they did best. I think, to a degree, there’s still a lot of that on both sides,” Worden stated. “Why not use someone like myself, where this is all we do and we’re really good at it, and we can offer spot-on technical advice and be in partner with them?”

For Universal, this is especially important when it comes to the prevalence of digital printing. “We’ve got a large geographic footprint,” said Worden. “I’ve got customers in a broad part of the country. You won’t have that for digital. That will have to be kept close. Of course, that presents its own challenge. We’re still entrenched in serving offset printers, but we do serve digital printers.”

While digital printing certainly has changed the way many in the industry operate and brought its own strengths and challenges as a result, Universal’s commitment to offset printers is one thing that has not changed for the finishing company. According to Worden, “Offset always will have a place because of the economies of scale.” This is good news for finishers and binders like Universal. In fact, “We did a job recently during the slow time that was a very nice run of 55,000,” said Worden. “You can’t do that on digital. You just can’t.”

Economy of scale isn’t the only advantage that offset continues to hold over digital. “The other thing you run into is that digital doesn’t register very well sheet-to-sheet,” he noted. “When you start taking digitally printed sheets and run them through a folding machine, critical crossover jumps don’t line up like they do with offset. Designers may start figuring out how to design around that, but for now it just doesn’t reproduce very well digitally. Plus, you’ve still got the issue that, when you look at a digital sheet from an angle, you see the sheen of the toner on top of it. I just find that to be very unappealing compared to a nicely done offset job.”

Thus, while some tried and true processes likely always will have their place, there is no doubt that as things continue to change and shift, finishers and binders will have to shift as well. “You have to look at where the population is going and what the trends are,” said Greenwald. Naturally, not all of those trends are good. For instance, “One of the bad trends we have noticed is a lot of stitching work seems to be going away,” he said. “You have to look at why that is. Why are these traditional finishing services falling away?”  Of course, it is not enough to look inside the industry for answers to these questions, as Greenwald noted. Instead, finishers will need to, “look completely outside of the print industry – outside of everything we do to see why.”

With some traditional finishing services falling away, it becomes even more imperative for finishers to prove their value – namely by being much better at what they do than the standard printer. “Printers may have an in-house bindery,” said Greenwald, “but if they’re good printers with their customers interests at heart, we hope they would know when they’re in over their head. At that point, you would hope they would call their favorite finisher, their favorite binder, and say ‘I’ve got this project, let’s get it done.’ They can do that with confidence, and everyone wins.”

Like Greenwald, Worden also feels that finishers will have to pay close attention to future developments taking hold in the industry. “As the runs are getting shorter, do we lean more toward digital finishing equipment? We’re already seeing more digital equipment with softbound lines, and I think we’re going to start seeing more of the digital finishing equipment for hardbound as well,” he said. “Those of us in the binding and finishing world, we’re just going to have to go where the trends are.”

“It’s a brave new world for finishers,” said Greenwald. “What do we as an industry do? We’ve got to be really good at what we do. We have to accept that certain things are going to change. We have to be nimble; we have to be quick and we have to be willing to jump over the candlestick when someone needs us to.”