Clays' digi move is one to watch

Changes are afoot in the world of digital book printing here in the UK. For us print dweebs it's something of a disappointment that CPI's decision to install its first HP Inkjet Web in France means we won't get to crawl all over this intriguing press at a convenient UK location any time soon, but reading between the lines it seems likely that - assuming of course it functions as expected - CPI will put one in here eventually.

But in the meantime St Ives is doing something just as interesting up at Clays, also with inkjet but with an integrated system involving a high-speed black-and-white Kodak Versamark print engine linked to Muller Martini's Sigma binding line so that the two machines function as one unit. When St Ives announced its year-end results last October the company said it was talking to customers about a suitable economic model for digital book printing, and it seems to have found it.

I must add a note of appreciation for the work of group technical director John Charnock, who's been so active in getting the bosses of print power players such as HP, Kodak, and Muller Martini to sit down and talk to each other to ensure some joined up thinking about future print systems.

While it's easy to think about Clays as some sort of book printing powerhouse, and of course with the capacity to produce 400m books a year it is, it isn't always churning out thousands and thousands of copies of the same book in a Harry Potter stylee. In fact, the firm is engaged in constantly making things to order, and they're often very short-run orders. Even with its conventional presses it's producing runs as low as 250, so one of the interesting things about the upcoming digital installation is that it's not going to be some sort of separate or special department only to be used for certain types of short-run work. Rather, it will function as a continuation of Clays' total service offering. That's not about printing books more cheaply, but is instead focused on helping customers reduce their risk by guaranteeing the supply chain.

St Ives also has the option to upgrade to Kodak's much-vaunted Stream inkjet technology (now renamed Prosper), if the Prosper kit performs as stated. Earlier this year Kodak's executives were showing Prosper book samples produced on an integrated book production line that they said would ship in early 2010. Assuming Prosper does shape up as planned then ultimately the print engine will be able to keep up with Muller's amazing binder, which can produce 1,000 books an hour at full whack. I can't wait to see it.