UK Bookbinders brings case binding in-house as business booms

Hannah Jordan
Thursday, January 27, 2022

A Kolbus DA 260 casemaker and an automated ribbon inserter are the latest in a string of machinery investments made by Weston-super-Mare-based UK Bookbinders since the start of the coronavirus pandemic to support its new, in-house case-making operation.

UK Bookbinders is looking to push its turnover towards the £2m mark
UK Bookbinders is looking to push its turnover towards the £2m mark

Operating from its three Weston factories and covering an area of 2,000sqm, UK Bookbinders has previously specialised in fold, stitch, trim, perfect and PUR binding and thread sewing of limp bound titles.

But over the last 10 years demand for its large Aster Multiplex sewing system with 12-station inline gathering has slowly declined with the emergence of PUR limp bound work, increased online financial reporting and shorter run lengths, according to general manager Lee Gray.

“We were left in a position where we had this large device that we weren’t using to capacity so we had to find a way to use it or downsize it because it was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” Gray told Printweek.

Around four years ago the business dipped its toes in the case-binding market, collaborating with a third-party by doing thread-sewing components for books and outsourcing casemaking and casing-in, Gray explained. The experiment grew to a successful six-figure turnover operation before summer 2020 when UK Bookbinders' income fell off a cliff, like so many other businesses, as a result of the pandemic restrictions.

“Before the pandemic I thought I was in the manufacturing industry but afterwards I realised I was in the assembly industry because if my customers have nothing to do, I have nothing to do. It was a stark awakening,” Gray stated.

He added: “A couple of larger customers were reviewing expenditure and took perfect binding in-house and a couple fell victim to the pandemic so we were facing a large deficit and needed to make a change to move forward.”

The business took the decision to bring case binding in-house, so a CBILS government loan was taken to invest in a raft of kit in July 2020, including a BDM Hörauf casemaker, a Gantenbein Bufalo 500 binder for backlining and gauzing, a Hunkeler end-papering machine, a Schmedt casing-in wing and forming and pressing units as well as a Kolbus board cutter and a number of ancillary machines, all of which were operational by the September, Gray explained. 

“We went into it with confidence that we could grow into it and were very pleasantly surprised that within three months our sales had already covered our investment costs.

“We found that once our customers knew we had all this under one roof, it gave them the confidence to give us the opportunity to show what we could do,” he said.

Striking while the iron was hot, Gray said boardroom discussions in December 2020 led to the decision to make the leap to fully-automated case binding, in-house.

“We discussed the changing nature of the market, the changes in the Chinese market with lead times and transportation cost increases and other factors, couple that with Brexit where there are issues with importation, customs and again lead times, plus the fact that the book market was one of the only markets in the industry that didn’t shrink during the pandemic and we realised that we had an opportunity to really have the business we wanted coming out of the pandemic,” said Gray.

The company installed a Kolbus BF511 casing-in line, with inline head and tail banding as well as round and backing station, in April 2021, bringing production speed from 150bph on the Schmedt kit, up to 1,800bph. Meanwhile the firm’s two perfect binding lines were converted to carry out backlining and trimming, processing 2,000bph.

“So, with the Hörauf giving us around 2,400/hr, we were in a position where we had eliminated bottlenecks,” said Gray.

“Whilst organically going fully-automated was potentially six to 12 months too soon, we needed to take advantage of the CBILS loans that allowed us to purchase the kit and then grow into our skin. We can now cater for runs from 50 to 60,000 units and we’re probably in the top three independent trade finishers for case binding in the UK,” he said.

Gray added that the impact of bringing case binding in-house had virtually doubled utilisation of the previously underused kit, which was averaging around 40% utilisation before 2020.

With work continuing to roll in, the business decided to retain the Schmedt kit while investing in a 3,000 unit/hr ribbon inserter, due for delivery next week. Meanwhile a fully-automated Kolbus DA 260, which produces 2,400 cases/hr, will replace the 23-year-old Hörauf in February.

The investments will drastically cut makereadies and spoilage, while increasing production speed and output quality, Gray said.

“It will give us the ability to support trade later in the year. The Kolbus is a 40 cases/min machine which is ample for our needs and will give us sufficient headroom to expand and support trade,” he added.

The ex-demo Kolbus device is one year old and has been bought from the Kolbus showroom through a German dealer who will deliver and install the device. Gray has opted to appoint Kolbus engineers to carry out staff training.

Alongside the new kit UK Bookbinders also runs a huge array of equipment including Muller Martini, Polar, MBO, Morgana, Horizon, Col-Tec and Komfi devices.

Bookbinders UK was established in 2011 and until Covid struck it was turning over £1.8m and employed 40 people across its growing business. In the past two years seven redundancies were made while two people left voluntarily and turnover for 2021 was £1.5m.

Gray said that the business would now look to grow headcount back to pre-pandemic levels and push turnover towards the £2m mark.

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