Agile printers can make the world their oyster

This is the fourth industrial revolution, says Andy Cork from his hyper-connected printing operation. As such its engine room is powered neither by manufacturing nor automation, but silent software – connecting, analysing, optimising. “And that is very powerful,” he says.

The managing director insists his business, Printondemand-worldwide, is not just a printer. It is a complete publishing solution, and like many revolutions it comes with slogans. Cork’s favourite is “think globally, print locally” and other book printers need to join the revolution or probably fail.

Also like revolutions, this one involves risk, visionary thinking and someone to wage it who is a bold, strategic thinker. Someone like Cork, who has been running his book-on-demand business as part of Printondemand-worldwide in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, for around 10 years.

The challenge

His team makes short-run black-and-white and colour books for self, independent and mainstream publishers specialising in training, academic or trade fields. This is Amazon territory, he points out, which has jumped publishers into rethinking business models dangerously reliant on daunting cashflows, warehouses stacked perilously high with books and costly fleets of trucks on standby.

People have long come to understand this market, but Cork beat them to it thanks to a background in manufacturing that taught him the power of small-batch production and world-class manufacturing. Warehouses full of books are a thing of the past, he insists. To survive, publishers must reduce stock and cut transport costs – drastically – and become much more “systemised”.

Cork reckons 21st-century book production is a so-called ‘disruptive market’, driven by innovation that creates a new market to disrupt, and eventually displace, the existing market. Like all revolutions it can be scary for some, he agrees. Cork has been sharpening his focus on book-on-demand for ten years, but his company launched in the mid- 1990s, somewhat late in the revolutionary cycle.

The first industrial revolution, of course, started in the 18th century in Europe and the US. The second was triggered by booming steel, oil and electricity markets before and after the first world war; the third, or digital, revolution started in the 1980s; while this one, the fourth, was defined by the millennial melding together of our physical and digital worlds.

“The message now is: it’s not about print but content. Clean, tidy content,” says Cork, who in many ways sees print production as little different from lean car manufacturing and realises print purists might feel uneasy. It’s about forging partnerships throughout the whole supply chain, not focusing on a single market, and taking both a business-to-business and business-to-consumer viewpoint.

“Even in the last few years we have seen phenomenal change in areas such as files, PDF and ripping. Publishers have had to relearn how to supply files in the right format, while printers who think only ‘print, print print’ each day will not only come to find that mindset a bit soul destroying, but potentially dangerous for their future.”

The method

Cork was convinced he could translate car and other lean manufacturing principles to print and saw parallels to the way mailing companies worked – rather than a thousand mailings, Printondemand-worldwide could produce “one mailing but which might have 300 pages”. It helped that about a decade ago his company had bought a mailing firm, two years after snapping up an IT company.

“We therefore had all the skillsets to focus our efforts on book-on-demand, and many of them involved software,” adds Cork who charged his team with developing what he calls a bespoke “proprietary end-to-end package” called BookVault for journals as well as books. “The key thing to begin with was not just technology but people.”

Cork and his team worked with suppliers as partners, “likeminded people who wanted to go on the same journey”. Staff too had to buy into the revolutionary ethos. If his book-on-demand venture was to compete with the likes of Amazon, Cork’s team would have to streamline processes and grasp the concepts of connection and multiskilling.

On the shopfloor this has translated in a massive reduction in processes – from 21 to seven, he trumpets. Out has gone the pre-press department and waste has been eliminated. High-speed sheet and web-fed digital printing presses eliminate the need for plates. Use of a collator and stacking unit meanwhile has done away with the need for people to guillotine paper.

“This technology and speed of change leads us on an endless process of learning and training of staff to be multifunctional. They must be agile: one day they could be running printing machinery, the next finishing equipment, while the third day could see them in the despatch department. Print is a percentage of this fourth revolution, but making sure content is correct, clean and tidy is crucial.”

As the team improved, so did others, recalls a reassured Cork. Royal Mail and DPD, for example, were also becoming more “proactive and polished”. No longer were customers being left in limbo wondering whether packages were being delivered or not. And as print technology has developed, Printondemand-worldwide has been continually investing in technology.

The result

For Cork’s book-on-demand service, the perfect coming together of competencies and circumstances was helped earlier this year when his team went live with its latest investment. The new Screen Truepress Jet 520HD colour inkjet web press was part of a £1.6m splurge. The kit enables his team to print offset papers for colour and once again, the timing was perfect.

“Before we had the kit we were used to using cut-sheet, but had just seen three huge paper price increases. This is the first time that coated paper has been cheaper than bond paper. That is a massive breakthrough for us because, as with many other printers, a lot of our costs are on materials. The last two years has seen us make big strides in the automation of colour books, making production affordable while leaving enough margin for retailers.”

Timing right and technology in place, Cork is ready to ramp up the revolutionary rhetoric with his “think globally, print locally” call to arms. Printondemand-worldwide has a road map, he says, and it is about supplying content globally to the world’s seven major English-speaking countries.

“We are trying to get metadata to those countries, so people can pick up the books in file format and be able to work with their own partners to produce them, therefore putting into practice the ‘think globally, print locally’ principle.”

Printondemand-worldwide is also working with one of the world’s biggest wholesalers, Baker & Taylor based in the US, to supply books on a much wider scale. The world, he insists, “really is your oyster”, especially if you can use your revolutionary heft to muscle into promotion.

“This will make yourself part of an entire supply chain that used to be fragmented, with everyone taking a small percentage but not necessarily working together. Much of this is down to software: ours is an alternative to Amazon and it is a very powerful, clever player.

“So the message is this is not so much about print, but software and content; software, content and partnerships.” 



Location Peterborough, Cambridgeshire 

Inspection host Andy Cork

Size Turnover: £5m; staff: 50 

Established 1995

Products Perfect-bound, wiro/spiral or notch-bound books, printed in black and white or in full colour for distribution around the world in runs as low as one copy up to 2,000 copies for self, independent and mainstream publishers 

Kit Screen Truepress Jet 520HD colour inkjet web press, a Screen Truepress Jet520 press, Hunkeler line, Muller Martini line, despatch equipment 

Inspection focus Building a book-on-demand business


Get into the book-on-demand mindset: no more warehouses full of books and soaring transport costs; streamline and systemise production based on data, software and files

Make sure your staff have relevant skills, not just IT, software, mailing and fulfilment, but in the principles of lean manufacturing and small-batch production

Streamline processes, by using equipment that allows you to strip out now-obsolete jobs: Cork used equipment that eliminated waste, storage and the need for plates

Train staff to be multifunctional so they can adapt to the speed of change in print and operate not just presses but finishing and despatch equipment

Work with likeminded suppliers and other partners – people “who want to go on the same journey”, says Cork – and forge partnerships throughout the whole supply chain


© MA Business Limited 2020. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .