Commentary & Analysis
Fast Books from a Faster Workflow
By Noel Ward,
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: September 7, 2005
By Noel Ward, Executive Editor September 7, 2005 -- The rocky, tree-clad hills and valleys of northeastern Pennsylvania seem an unlikely place for production of half the trade paperbacks sold in the United States. But the towns of Dallas and Laflin, just outside Wilkes-Barre, are home to Offset Paperback Manufacturers and some of the most automated production printing on the planet. Offset Paperback Manufacturers, Dallas, Penn. That corner of Pennsylvania makes for a great road trip from my base in New Hampshire, and since digital books are one of my hot buttons, I hit the road some weeks back to get a closer look. Joe Makarewicz, Executive Vice President at OPM made sure I got the full tour and the whole story. Tom Clancy books hot off the press at OPM.) The Dallas plant is offset from the get-go, with about a dozen high-speed offset presses that spin out some 360 million paperbacks a year. The softcover works of John Grisham, Tom Clancy and other authors familiar with 8-figure advances are printed here, wrapped in covers coming off Heidelberg Speedmasters and trimmed on massive Polar cutters. The numerous steps in the production process are impressively automated. Some are literally company secrets, using custom-designed and purpose-built machinery that helps keep the entire process running smoothly. While the plant has plenty of employees--the number has grown even as automation has increased-- relatively few people actually handle the books. Once the plates are hung and the big presses begin turning, the books just keep on coming--and coming. Makarewicz guided the transition to automation at the Dallas plant, a process he says raised concerns among employees. "When we first began automating people were concerned they would be losing their jobs," relates Makarewicz. In reality, automation actually enabled OPM to handle more volume, and publishers were eager to have additional titles produced in Dallas. "There are actually more people working here now, because it we were able to grow the entire business." OPM's Laflin Digital Print Plant At a much smaller scale and is OPM's digital printing operation in Laflin. A beige steel-sided building between a steep hill and a railroad track houses a variety of cut-sheet and continuous feed digital print engines and associated finishing and binding devices. These machines run around the clock, producing an endless array of short-run perfect-bound books from some well-known publishing houses plus others from smaller imprints and a growing clientele of self-publishing authors. There are texts, manuals, children's titles, novels, and an impressive range of non-fiction works. In all, the Laflin plant cranks out some 1.5 billion pages a year, all of it digital from cover to cover. Like its offset counterpart in Dallas, the Laflin plant runs with remarkably few people. And here the reason is an automated workflow. Digital cover to cover Automate, automate While the Dallas plant is a paragon of a physical workflow--moving lots of pages and covers efficiently--the Laflin plant is equally adept in handling the hundreds of jobs that pass through its systems each week. Reaching that level required developing new approaches and partnering with technology vendors to keep their digital presses up and running. What has made us successful has been the ability to change by updating the technologies we use and automating our processes. "What has made us successful has been the ability to change by updating the technologies we use and automating our processes. The more we do that, the better we can serve the marketplace," says Makarewicz. Digital Vision Over a decade ago, Makarewicz saw the potential of digitally printed books and began looking for the technologies to make it a reality. It began with cut-sheet operations and a continually evolving manual workflow that worked well--up to a point. Makarewicz realized continuous-feed machines were the real future of digital book production, but knew the sheer speed of such devices demanded a workflow that was the digital equivalent of the physical processes in Dallas. Dale Williams, Director of Prepress, Sheefed and POD Operations at OPM's Digital Book manufacturing operation says the old workflow was rife with manual steps. "We were using up to eight different steps to prepare a job," relates Williams. Files had to be opened to ensure the correct fonts and graphics were present. Then ISBN and copyright information was added. Next, pages often had to be resized to fit the format of the final printed book with minimal waste, any resulting widows and orphans eliminated, and front-to-back page registration checked. Covers, typically full color, required similar steps. It was a time-consuming process that limited OPM's ability to keep up with customer demand for short print runs. It was also costly, and controlling the cost-per-book is absolutely critical in digital book publishing. "Those separate steps might be alright for offset runs of several hundred thousand copies, but not if you're doing multiple digital print runs as short as 50 copies," notes Williams. "So Joe said we had to get it down to five steps. And we did that. Then he said we had to get it to three." The automation that cut the first steps out of the process was primarily due to OPM's internal efforts which were led by Williams. To lean the process further, Williams and OPM worked with a team of Xerox workflow experts who recognized the value of automation and shared the goal of minimizing the steps involved. Today, the process has been fully automated using components of the Xerox FreeFlow Digital Workflow Collection. When a new file comes in, it is opened and run through a filtering process that converts it to a PDF based on OPM-specific criteria. The process automates the once manual steps that dealt with page sizes, formats, front-to-back registration, and so on. "Now, we can actually prepare a job in a single step for customers sending in properly prepared files," says Williams. "And jobs we've run before that are in our document library can be run without opening them at all." Job Ticketing Interestingly, much of the solution really comes down to intelligent job ticketing. Instead of sending the whole job to the printer, Xerox FreeFlow sends only the job ticket which simply sits in the job queue. When it's time to print, the job ticket pulls the PDF of the book file from the document repository. Then the DocuSP RIP reconfigures it on-the-fly (if needed) based on which print engine will be used. Perfect-bound books are printed on Océ or Xerox continuous-feed machines, while saddle-stitched titles are produced on Xerox cut-sheet devices. The cover, meanwhile, is routed to one of the company's three Xerox iGen3s, then laminated or UV-coated and mated to the book block in the bindery. Part of the continuous-feed digital production line at OPM Strategy, Plan & Vision Makarewicz says digital book printing can be successful as long as the strategy, plan and vision are correct. Any printer can put toner on a page, but the real key to success--and profitability--is workflow, a fact that's clearly in evidence in Laflin, Pennsylvania. Any printer can put toner on a page, but the real key to success--and profitability--is workflow, "We believe the same workflow productivity gains we've seen so far will allow us to print tens of thousands of titles each year, and go from a billion and a half pages a year now to five billion pages in just a year or two. For our customers, it means we can go from five-day turnarounds to one-or two-day turnarounds," says Makarewicz. "It's going to be the most exciting time for our business."