Me & my: Kolbus PE 312

Simon Eccles
Monday, March 1, 2021

With a heritage that stretches back 200 years, FLB Group puts quality first and found this machine matched all its KPIs.

Landells: “We are extremely pleased with the performance and the quality is excellent"
Landells: “We are extremely pleased with the performance and the quality is excellent"

This replaced three older manually loaded Kolbus presses and boosted embossing productivity in a factory that combines traditional binding techniques with modern litho, digital and finishing.

Two centuries of history

FLB makes largely diaries, business books and bibles, whose brands stretch back a couple of centuries in some cases. A lot of them have embossed covers, so the Kolbus kit is kept busy.

The story starts just after the Napoleonic Wars, when London based publisher John Letts invented the pocket diary in 1816. It’s hard to believe that it actually needed inventing, but Letts was the man who did it with his “Letts’ Diary or Bills Owed Book and Almanack.”

Before that there had been almanacs, which were yearbooks full of dates with useful stuff like tides, sunrises and sunsets and astronomical positions. Then there were notebooks to gather your thoughts and observations in. Lett’s bright idea was to combine the two – a yearbook of all the days and dates and useful information, with space to make notes on every page.

Letts’ son Thomas and later his grandson Charles took over the business based at North Road, New Cross, and further expanded it with different diary formats, interest tables, specialist clerical and medical diaries, calendars, parliamentary registers, ledgers, and logbooks. Anyone who was anyone in the mid-1900s had a Letts diary, including Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.

In 1885 grandson Charles relaunched the company as Charles Letts & Co, which traded successfully and independently for more than a century until it was bought by Bemrose in 1999. Although today the brand is still Letts of London, in 1963 the printing and binding production was moved to a modern new factory in Dalkeith, a small town to the east of Edinburgh.

After four years with Bemrose, Letts was bought out in 2000 by its managing director Gordon Presly and financial director Gordon Raw. The following year they acquired the Filofax Group for £17m and renamed the company Letts Filofax Group.

The origins of Filofax go back to 1910 when JC Parker in Philadelphia invented the Lefax, a pocket organiser that proved popular with engineers whose technical handbooks had grown too big to carry. In 1921 a London printer and stationery marketer, Norman & Hill, started importing Lefaxes and after a few years it started making its own, which it called the Filofax. It renamed itself after its most famous product in 1930.

When the six-ring Filofax became fashionable as a business accessory in the yuppie 1980s it expanded rapidly to a peak of 6.5 million sales per year and by 1987 it retailed through 1,250 outlets in the UK alone. Stores around the world stocked Filofax. After digital personal assistants such as Psions and Palms took off in the 1990s, Filofax sales tailed off, though they were still a very respectable 5 million by the time Letts acquired it.

In 2012 Letts Filofax Group was in turn acquired by HSGP Investments, owned by the Canadian Harolde Savoy, who already owned Blueline, a maker of office books broadly equivalent to the Letts range. The merged company was renamed FLB Group, for Filofax, Letts and Blueline.

Blueline’s history also goes back more than a century, to when Harolde’s great grandfather George A Savoy acquired the Dominion Blank Book Co in Quebec, which grew over the years to become Canada’s largest office supplier. It was renamed Dominion Blueline in 1981.

FLB Group Ltd is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of “quality stationery and lifestyle accessories,” with operations on three continents.

Production in Dalkeith

There are factories in Dalkeith, Canada and Texas. Dalkeith handles production of diaries, notebooks, bibles and loose leaf products. These include the Letts and Filofax ranges, as well as diaries and similar products for other brand customers, including Asda, Harrods, Niceday and WH Smith. There are bespoke special editions for sectors such as racing, banking, agriculture, and academic ranges. Personalised products are offered with online ordering for individual items and initialling.

Bindery manager Rob Landells has worked in Dalkeith for all his career. “I started as an apprentice some 40 years ago in 1980 and gradually worked my way up through the ranks, eventually becoming bindery manager in 2019,” he says. “I have a great team and experienced workforce behind me and we all work very hard to achieve the manufacturing plan. FLB is a great company to work for. Looking to the future, we have six apprentices on board at the moment with a view to increasing that number this year.”

Production equipment includes sheetfed and web-fed litho and digital presses, and all sorts of finishing and bindery kit. “We have a wide range of machinery so we can offer many different styles of product from hardbacks to more flexible soft covers,” says Landells.

“We print onto linen and paper which gives us endless choices of designs for our covers and cases. We use many different types of materials from leather to man-made poly-urethene and paper.

“There’s a wide range of finishing and binding equipment, covering folding through sewing, binding, gold and silver edging and ribbon insertion. We also offer enhancements such as case-edge sewing, gold corners, round-corner cases and elastic closures.”

Casemaking equipment includes cloth and board cutting Horauf casemakers, Kolbus casemaking and casing-in machines.

What’s a PE 312?

It’s a mechanised press that can embellish cover materials with blind, relief or film embossing. It’s sold well into the UK book sector wherever there’s a need for embossing covers, says Greg Bird, managing director of Kolbus UK, including at big players such as Clays, TJ International and CPI Books.

It takes hard covers up to 660x405mm, enough for A3 portrait or A4 landscape covers opened flat. The soft cover maximum format is smaller at 400x300mm.

Heated dies allow for hot foil stamping, adapted for different materials by stepless adjustment of temperature and embossing pressure and by adjusting embossing time in steps of 10 seconds.

The matrix plate has a honeycomb pattern of threaded holes to take screws that attach the embossing blocks. Gluing is an alternative, although less secure, option. A second matrix plate can be prepared offline, while another job is printing.

Unlike FLB’s earlier embossing press, the PE 312 incorporates servo motors that allow automatic setup from the touchscreen. The operator just enters the sizes and the machine does the rest.

There’s also a stacker for cover loading, unlike its predecessor. This allows the press to run at its maximum of up to 80 impressions per minute without needing an operator to stand by and load.

The PE 312 can feed three rolls across the working area, in different materials if needed. This lets it embellish different areas while cutting waste in the areas it isn’t needed.

Why was the PE 312 chosen?

“We have been looking at this machine for some time and decided to invest last year,” says Landells. “Our Kolbus contacts highlighted this machine during one of their visits to our plant.”

Bird adds: “They sent us lots of difficult sample jobs and the PE 312 passed all their tests. Then they went to Germany to test the machine and its quality and times – this was in late 2019 before lockdowns were a thing, and the order was placed early in 2020. This included difficult materials with large areas of embossing. All passed. There’s 4.5 tonnes of mechanical pressure, so there are smooth indents even over large areas.”

How did the adoption go?

“Installation was seamless and we were up and running within three days after it arrived,” says Landells. “The training was completed very quickly, although it must be said our operators have a wealth of experience in blocking different types of materials, which helped to get us up and running very quickly. The machine area was revamped to make it a brighter and tidier place to work.”

How has it been in practice?

“We are extremely pleased with the performance and the quality is excellent,” says Landells. “Its temperature, dwell and blocking pressure adjustment screen gives instant results. It has reduced our costs significantly.

“Part of our thought process around purchasing this machine is that it gives us a massive leap forward in technology and it has not let us down.

Service support is also praised: “We had a problem with the lubrication system and the response from Kolbus was second to none. First-class service.”

In summary, he says, “Very few machines will get near the quality or output of this machine and Kolbus is a very professional company to deal with. If you are doing high volume work then I would recommend this machine. Going forward our strategy will be looking at similar machines that can take the same leap to reduce our costs.”


Functions Blind, relief or film embossing

Materials Rigid, flexible and plastic cases

Size range Opened case (WxH): Hardcover 155x100mm to 660x405mm Flexible covers 135x100mm to 400x300mm

Mechanical speed 10 to 80 embossings/min

Price From €180,000 (£160,000) dependent on configuration

Contact Kolbus Autobox 01525 379359


The origins of FLB Group can be traced back to the early 19th century, and it is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of stationery and lifestyle accessories, with operations on three continents and distributors in more than 40 countries worldwide. The group is comprised of the brands Filofax, Blueline and Letts of London, each with an impressive heritage – and in most cases the original innovators of their founding product category.

The group employs 200 people in the UK and 500 in total worldwide, for a turnover of £25m. Its purpose-built manufacturing site in Dalkeith produces approximately 20 million units per annum. It also has manufacturing sites in Texas and Canada.

Why it was bought...

FLB wanted to update its embossing machines with a modern, cost-effective machine that was capable of processing high volumes of work.

How has it performed...

The servo-driven settings, pre-set dies and stacker loading have allowed the new PE 312 at FLB to replace three older embossing presses. The machine also represents a “massive leap forward in technology”.


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