‘Understanding people is the biggest thing of all’

Jo Francis
Monday, July 9, 2018

It’s fair to say that Peterborough-based Printondemand-worldwide does exactly what it says on the tin – on-demand printing, specifically of book products.






Founder and managing director Andy Cork has spent more than 20 years developing a slick specialist service for publishers based on his just-in-time and on-demand manufacturing knowhow. Now, with his latest investment in high-quality colour inkjet quality, he’s set his sights on an ambitious sales goal and – unlike most printers – is actually expecting run lengths to increase. 

Jo Francis How did you get into print in the first place?

Andy Cork I started off as an estimator at the inplant department of ICL, which was owned by Fujitsu. While I was there I went on to do a Master’s degree in world-class manufacturing. ICL were subsequently acquired by a company called Orbital Press.

Orbital Press as in David Mitchell and the beginnings of Astron?

Yes – I was just leaving as David Mitchell came on board. I went to work for Unidigital, an American company in the City to set up their just-in-time printing facility for the banks.

And then in 1995 you set up your own business Copytech – was the vision books at that stage?

It started off as facilities management. That was one of the things Astron was doing, offering facilities management. That’s what I did for the National Farmers’ Union. I took on their non-core mailing and printing business.

And how did that shape-shift to where you are today?

I had a five-year contract to automate the print side. In that time I acquired another facility management site which was Rebus Software. We then set up a site in Peterborough. I then grew the business enough so that after the five-year NFU contract expired we would still have a business, and that grew mainly into books. One of the things we were producing was perfect-bound books for a law school. 

So the book type of product just evolved?

Yes, and we could see the way the market was going, so we started specialising in a clear vertical market. 

How difficult was it to get that going? It seems to me that there was a whole period where publishers struggled to shift their mindsets away from unit cost. 

We could see the vision of just-in-time manufacturing, going back to the ICL days. From there I’ve been stubborn and focused, making sure we stuck to that vision. 

I guess it’s been a marriage of enabling technologies – from the workflow to the equipment?

Yes, and that’s where world-class manufacturing comes in, and it’s manufacturing that is key. You come away from being a printer to being a manufacturer of books, of global books, working with like-minded global partners. 

Tell me a bit more about these partnerships. 

True partnerships is quite key. We have four worldwide partners. You’re going through a journey, going through the good and the bad. 

I do a lot of research into top industry sectors. Of the top 25, books was third. It’s a growing market and it’s all around software. You can’t buy off-the-shelf book-of-one software. 

I guess that explains why you developed your own BookVault software. 

Yes, our software is a complete end-to-end solution where it links in and ingests files from API portals, it feeds content out to global markets.

So your customer might want some books delivered in America, and you link with your partner there?

We all share the same content, it recognises the zip code and automatically sends it to the appropriate production location. Our two biggest markets are the US and Australia. 

What was your eureka moment?

Actually, I’d say now. We outgrew the equipment we had so we had to invest. Now with the equipment we’ve got we can do double the turnover. Last year was quite painful, managing the change in terms of people, technology, and software as we’ve moved from being an SME to a medium-sized business. The guys here have done great work implementing it all. 

Tell me about your current kit setup.

We have recently invested in Screen colour inkjet and Muller Martini finishing equipment. We now have two inkjet lines, one new Screen Truepress Jet520HD and one Screen Truepress Jet520 that’s a couple of years old. Our two Hunkeler Booklines connect onto the inkjets and then the book blocks go to the Muller Martini Vareo perfect binder and from that to the InfiniTrim variable three-knife trimmer. We also have case-making equipment, foiling, laminating, and wire binding among a raft of other finishing systems.

From your plant list I see that you also have cut-sheet equipment from Xerox, Canon and Ricoh and you had HP kit in the past – you must have one of the broadest experiences of all the digital suppliers.

I think we probably have. I think certain machines fit certain markets really well, so it’s about finding the market that suits the box. And when manufacturers sell it into markets where it’s not very strong, that’s where they have issues. But I think the manufacturers are trying to focus more now. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Once you know the good, the bad and the ugly you work on its strengths. 

With the new Screen Truepress Jet520HD, are you expecting to do a lot more colour books?

Without doubt, yes. We had been running at about 15% of the 20 million books a year we manufacture in colour. I think the amount of colour books we produce will double this year. I really believe that by the end of the year we will have another inkjet machine in. We will go with what is the best in the market at that time. I don’t care whose machine it is, which is why we have had Ricoh, Canon, Screen, and Xerox and HP equipment. 

Congratulations on being the inaugural winner of Muller Martini’s Finishing 4.0 award, by the way, you must be really chuffed about that. 

Yes, we are very proud. Finishing 4.0 is our future. Seamless automation is the only way forward in a touchless workflow. We measure how much each book costs, and it was surprising how much trimming cost as part of that. In the past, trimming wasn’t far off the total cost of binding, now with this Muller Martini setup it is only 20% of the cost of binding so that’s a massive change. 

It sounds like the Vareo/InfiniTrim combination has delivered a lot of benefits. 

Previously in that department’s Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) measurements the main issue was waste, physical waste. We would cut a book incorrectly and have to reprint it. Reprints are a real killer to our industry. For example, a library could order 60 books. You could have 59 books ready to go out and be waiting for that one reprint, and that makes the order run late. In 22 years in this business the InfiniTrim is the best machine I’ve ever bought. It’s an absolute delight and it just worked within 24 hours of installing it. Now we just measure the books coming off it, and could do 10,000 books a shift.

Tell me a bit more about your touchless workflow. How many touchpoints are you on now?

There was a touchpoint at every stage, from taking the order to prepping files, to sending the files to machines and having 30 different material types. At one point we were at 23 touchpoints, and we’re now down to seven. Every touchpoint is in effect a waste because there’s downtime and errors can occur. Our inkjet lines are effectively our pre-press, print and finishing departments now because it’s all inline. Our pre-press department at one time was six people, now it’s none. If someone has to touch a file before it goes to a machine, then that’s a problem. On the production floor, the first time we see the job is when it emerges as a book block. It’s all around the software, and everything is batched. 

And that’s something you’re constantly finessing?

Absolutely. Some printers just think ‘I’ve printed that very fast, job done’. But what they might have actually done is give the finishing department a huge amount of work to do. But if printing can be set up in such a way that it helps finishing do their job quicker, then that’s a win-win. We’ve reduced the number of papers we use to six, and I believe in time there will only be two sizes of book: Royal and below, and above Royal. In fact, we only have those two sizes on our inkjet lines now. 

What’s next on your ‘to-do’ list?

We will add the Muller Martini binding line onto one of our inkjet lines. That means the first time we would see the job is when it comes out as a complete book. 

You’ve seen a huge amount of change in the way you produce books, and I guess that more technology inevitably means fewer people. 

We currently employ 50 staff. I want to give people jobs for their lives and I want this business to be here in five, 10, 15 or 20 years’ time. Machinery is a lot more reliable than people. I know that sounds like a horrible thing to say, but it all goes towards a same-day, or next-day service. I have to look after the business and keep investing, and then the business can look after our people. 

Your factory is absolutely immaculate, how do you keep it that way? 

Our employees follow a standard operating procedure. If anything, the difficulty is with maintenance. There is a 15-minute window between each shift for housekeeping, we call it hygiene. Has the employee left their station clean and well maintained? And the staff member has to sign that off.

I noticed that alongside all the computer screens and high-tech kit, you also have some good old-fashioned analogue info boards on the walls. 

At one point that was all on the system too, but that was down to my naivety. I soon learned that it didn’t work as well. Sometimes you need to feel-touch-see. By using the boards instead, people can walk in and immediately see how we’re performing and how we’re doing through the day – green is the status we’re striving for, it indicates we’re producing even quicker than the expected schedule. Amber signifies that we’re meeting customer expectations, and red means we’re outside of that. It really is quite powerful. It’s a living, breathing board. 

I can see that this sort of information just works so much better on a board, rather than having to scroll around on a computer screen. 

Exactly. The other key thing is that we used to have our continuous improvement forms on the system, but we made them manual too. If somebody has a solution to something, or wants to flag up an issue, they note it on the CI cards and it’s visual. It helps the manager with today’s challenges. 

So you’re empowering your teams?

Having good managers is absolutely key. My brother-in-law is in banking and they all learn about behaviours in that sector. That’s what I want my managers to learn. The company hierarchy used to be from the top down, but it’s actually from the bottom up now. Our staff flag up problems and potential solutions, and then managers help drive that through. Our management team are measured on implementation of continuous improvement ideas: whether it’s something that can be done in one day, one month, or is something for the future. Employees receive perks for their ideas. 

What shift patterns do you operate?

We run double-day shifts, sometimes three shifts at peak demand time and sometimes seven days, although now with this current setup we should be able to keep to five-day working. 

Do your employees multi-task?

We’re trying to get to the stage where everybody should be able to use every piece of equipment. One of my sayings is ‘if my grandma can’t operate it, we don’t buy it’. We want equipment that is user-friendly.

And your average run length is under two books?

Yes, 1.75 is our average order. What we will see now though is a change as we move into the auto stock replenishment market. Where most print manufacturers are going down in run length, we are now going to eat into the longer run market. Because we’ve become so efficient and the book of one solution can now offer that. 

What sort of run lengths do you expect to be producing?

Our sweet spot used to be 250, but now I think we are sub-1,000. The academic publishers are doing batches of 100 to 200 now, and the auto-stock average is about 250. On average, we do about 3,500 books of one per day. We average about 5,000 books per day and in a busy period we could do 7,500-8,000. Obviously now we’re geared up to do a lot more. Previously, if you tried running too much through the equipment in one day it would break. We should now be able to do 10,000 books in one day. 

Who are your customers?

Our main customers are training, trade, academic, self-publishing and journals. Self-publishing platform Lulu is one of our biggest customers. They are a very demanding custo-mer, and our view is that if we can delight them, then that’s a good place to be. 

What’s the split in the type of books you’re producing?

Around 70% of work is perfect-bound and 30% is casebound. I think we were the first company in the world to produce a POD casebound book. It used to take 72-hours, now it takes the same time as a perfect-bound book. And then there are what we call the ‘uglies’ non-standard work such as wire-bound or saddle-stitched. Non-standard products that just take longer. We need uglies, because in time uglies become standard. They are important to us as they develop into new everyday products. 

What are you planning to take on next in terms of these ‘uglies’?

My next project is automating foil blocking. We’re re-writing some coding and I hope it will go live in Q3.

How do you work out the charging?

Pricing is based on how complex the book is – for example, a batch of jobs that includes foil blocking or having a CD inserted in it. All we say to our customers is, the more complex you make it, the longer it takes. If it’s straightforward perfect-bound and as long as they can provide the feeds and data correctly, we can do it the same day. 

What’s the turnaround time for titles that are just flowing through, is everything done straightaway all the time?

About 25% is same-day production. Customers can set up their contract to do same-day, or it could be 48- or 72-hours. Then there is the timing of when the feeds come in. For one of our clients, as long as their feeds are in by noon, then their books are out by 5pm. We recently asked one of our customers, why do you want them so quickly? If you do it in 72 hours instead, you’ve saved yourself 20%. So there is that balance between time and cost. 

What about notoriously expensive inkjet ink costs, how will you manage that aspect?

If we look at certain sectors, we know the average ink coverage of that sector. Our biggest cost now is ink, hence we are quite particular about which markets we go after. The majority of our work is around 12% ink coverage. 

So you target sectors that are the best match for the technology and the coverage?

Yes. And we’re then close to litho print unit cost, with comparable quality, and publishers can order what they want when they want it.

How are you talking to publishers?

We do a huge amount of marketing to spread the word, we’re letting publishers know that inkjet has come of age. The key thing is the colour and the quality. Now we’ve invested in the plant, and got that right, now we will really invest in our marketing. If you’ve got good branding, I believe customers will come to you. My view is to be known globally, which is why we do talks all over the world. 

Do you think publishers have really shifted their thinking now, to a print-on-demand model?

This is the change they’re going through, and why there’s such a big opportunity there. The opportunity we’ve got now is selling a colour book of one at the lowest unit total price – rather than the lowest price of the book. Our message to publishers is ‘say no to stock’. Publishers do want to go to a book of one, but can they? Our IT guys can help them. 

The whole end-to-end thing?


Slightly offbeat question. I subscribe to The Week magazine, and it makes me frown to see so many of the books that appear in the ‘my best books’ article are out of print. I can’t understand why.

This is it. Today, they shouldn’t be. In five years’ time there will be no book out of print. For academic books, as soon as the first print run is done it automatically goes into POD. It’s not the same in trade books, but they could do that. 

Your turnover is about £5m now, but you say you are planning to grow that, what’s your goal?

We will get to £10m in the next three years – that’s our ambition.

With the same number of people?

I don’t think it’s going to change much. All the development has been done, it’s just a case of sales. 

What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far in your print-on-demand journey?

Understanding people. Each year I get better and better at it. Even though I say a lot about reducing the number of people involved, at the end of the day empowering people and understanding people is the biggest thing of all. It’s a very good life skill. I’m not saying I’ve cracked it though! 

Who do you admire in the industry?

Adam Carnell and James Kinsella at Bluetree Group. I recently visited their site, and I admire their vision and direction. And Gary Peeling at Precision Printing. 

Final question. Fast forward three years and you’ve hit that £10m sales target. What next?

I’d rather keep that one to myself! 


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