Timsons shape-shifts for digital future

Richard Stuart-Turner
Monday, September 29, 2014

Bespoke UK litho book press manufacturing came to an end this month when Kettering-based Timsons ceased production of its conventional book presses to concentrate on the manufacture of digital presses as it looks towards the future.

Managing director Jeff Ward notes that the decision was largely driven by wider trends in the book market that has seen the industry move to shorter run lengths and, increasingly, to digital production methods over the past few years.

“Litho run lengths aren’t ultra short yet, but they are declining. There is a market for litho presses on an ongoing basis but the difficulty at the moment is for how long that will continue and how quickly are those run lengths going to come down?”

Many traditional litho book printers are already diversifying into digital. St Ives Clays installed the first digital Timsons T-Press in 2012.

“We’ve had a partnership with Timsons that goes back to the early 1970s and have bought many of its presses. We now have a partnership with the company on digital and I wish them well,” says the firm’s strategic director Kate McFarlan.

And with other innovations, such as Amazon’s print-on-demand service and the rising popularity of e-readers and tablets, the book industry has taken on a new shape that many firms have already successfully capitalised on.

“I think digital is the way forward. The change in the industry has been phenomenal recently and our turnover is rising month-by-month. The book-of-one and stock replenishment is the way forward,” says Andy Cork, managing director at Printondemand-worldwide, a book printer that specialises in short runs and print-on-demand services. 

“Run lengths have dropped dramatically but at the same time people need to embrace new technology such as iPads and e-readers. Today it’s about supplying content – supplying the customer with what they need.” 

But other firms have found that, despite changing book formats, people will always look for quality products. And Stephen Docherty, managing director at Bell & Bain, a Scottish book printer, believes that quality is currently digital’s major downfall. 

“I think there’s room for us both, but for me the quality of some of these on demand and run-of-one books is absolutely shocking and I just think that the world will change its mind about them.

“We’ve seen run lengths fall and we seem to get more and more quotes for sizes that we would have never done in the past, but we’ve always been very fast at making ready so can do all of these quick turnarounds.”

Timsons is due to install its last conventional press in the Washington area of the US in early November 2014. The restructure resulted in “between 30 and 40” redundancies according to Ward.

“We’re going to maintain our services and offer full support and spare parts to our existing customer base, but our future now is going to be based on a digital strategy,” he says.

According to Ward, Timsons has had no true competition in its market. “Everything that we manufacture is bespoke to the book market. On the fringes of that we would, depending on the format, sometimes compete with Goss and KBA. 

“I think they have more recently been a bit more focused, but they tend to have standardised formats rather than bespoke equipment.”

Opportunities

And with no new Timsons litho presses on the market going forwards, there could be an opportunity for not only the likes of Goss and KBA, but also for resellers of the 300 conventional Timsons presses that are still in operation worldwide, half of which are based in the US.

Newman International, a firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, has a contract with Timsons to sell its used presses worldwide. Owner John Newman believes that Timsons’ decision may boost the market for used Timsons presses, as printers with longer runs will not be able to move over to digital for financial reasons.

“The kinds of products produced by printers with average run lengths of 5,000-10,000 or 20,000 cannot support the unit cost associated with digital buyers. So it will embolden the market for used Timsons, I hope,” he says. 

“The market worldwide for books in run lengths 3,000-25,000 is gigantic and notwithstanding it is a declining market, it will not go away anytime soon.”

But while litho book printing seemingly remains buoyant, printers have tended to use reliable presses they have had for years, even decades, rather than investing in new equipment. And this has proved problematic for Timsons, which reported a pre-tax loss of £1.9m for the year ending 31 March 2013.

The firm had to make some sort of forward-thinking decision to survive and with 118 years of trade behind it, it has already weathered many storms. Ward is now setting course for a digital future. 

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