Why did Timsons' digital dream go so wrong so quickly?

By Simon Nias, Monday 26 January 2015

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Launched less than three years ago at Drupa 2012, as of next month the Timsons T-Press, the 200m/min duplex, monochrome, inkjet book printing line, will become a collector’s item.


The historic Kettering-based manufacturer announced this month that its digital arm would go into voluntary liquidation following a meeting of creditors on 4 February. This leaves Timsons Engineering, the component manufacturing business that was spun off when Timsons decided to stop making conventional presses in September 2014, as the sole survivor of this once dominant British manufacturer.

In announcing its CVL, Timsons revealed that it had failed to sell a single T-Press in the quarter following the restructure it initiated to focus on that very product (and associated finishing kit such as the T-Fold). The reasons for Timsons dramatic slide from world leader to a parts and service business are many. However, one significant example can be found on the opposite side of the Atlantic this month, where one of North America’s largest printers Quad/Graphics announced an investment in not one, but 20-plus HP colour inkjet web presses.

As Timsons managing director Jeff Ward noted last autumn: “Litho run lengths aren’t ultra-short yet, but they are declining. There is an ongoing market for litho presses, but the key questions at the moment are ‘how long will that continue?’ and ‘how quickly will those run lengths will come down?’”

The answers would appear to be: ‘not long’ and ‘rapidly’. Just to be clear, the worldwide market for books in run lengths of tens of thousands and up into the millions is huge and is not going to disappear anytime soon. However, the printers of mass-market books, the Clays and CPIs of the world, already have an abundance of offset firepower.

Furthermore, with Timsons no longer manufacturing conventional presses, the only options for investing in web offset would be secondhand Timsons or new, more costly presses from the likes of Goss, KBA and Manroland Web that are not bespoke for book printing. And then there is digital.

Although it had had commercial success in the transactional print sector prior to 2008, it was at that year’s Drupa that colour inkjet hit the mainstream with the launch of HP’s inkjet web press (among others).

Areas of book printing, academic journals in particular, had been migrating to digital for some time of course and the likes of Lightning Source had been pushing ahead with a digital strategy for many years.

However, the combination of the worldwide economic crash, plus advances in the speed and quality of inkjet printing, as well as reductions in its cost, led to a revolution in book publishing and printing that has put an end to “the days of speculative printing against unknown future sales”, as Kate McFarlan, strategic director at St Ives Clays puts it. 

Publishers increasingly want shorter runs so that they can access the long tail while exercising greater control over their inventory (and reducing the costly risk of pulping books that have underperformed).

One thing Quad/Graphics’ investment tells us is that the largest printers – and by extension their clients – think the market for colour books is going to go the same way as the market for academic journals did a long time ago.

Quad/Graphics chief executive Joel Quadracci suggested as much when he said that the firm’s mammoth investment would support the “broad industry transition to a print-on-demand, zero-inventory model”.

But if the industry is going digital, what went wrong for Timsons? The company was clearly on the right track in focusing its efforts on digital over litho, but its strategy either came too late or its core digital product was not able to compete against those from pure digital manufacturers like HP, Kodak and Canon Océ.

Only Timsons’ management know for sure and they are not commenting beyond the official statement regarding the liquidation. However, as Print Research International managing director John Charnock points out, the T-Press was a hybrid product and as such had certain limitations [see Opinion].

Poorly conceived

While the industry is understandably saddened by what has happened to the Kettering firm, some observers have suggested that the reason the T-Press didn’t achieve widespread success was because the introduction of Kodak inkjet printheads into what was otherwise a conventional press architecture proved not to be a winning formula.

“The software and integration of the two was complicated and troublesome,” says one source. “Of the limited number in the field the ramp-up process was extensive and problematic and Timsons did not have the infrastructure to support this.” Meanwhile, the print quality of the T-Press was not accepted as a viable replacement for litho in all markets, limiting its application and making the device itself a compromise rather than a ‘best of both worlds’.

However, McFarlan, one of the few printers to have direct experience of the technology, stresses that the T-Press and T-Fold both live up to Timsons reputation for manufacturing excellence, although she adds that few printers in the UK had the scale to justify investing in the former. “The T-Press is a mass-market printing press,” she says. “It’s a volume-hungry machine, so in that sense it was a niche product.” For McFarlan, the real problem may have been the transition to a highly competitive market rather than the technological transition to digital that Timsons struggled with.

“Timsons for many, many years was the sole manufacture of choice for monochrome book presses in the UK, and were also dominant in Europe and the States, [but] the advent of digital print brought significant competition into this market,” she says. “Timsons was a world leader that manufactured world-class production systems that helped mass-market book availability for the past 50 years. It’s really, really sad that a world leader in paper conversion with specific use for book manufacturing has gone.” 


Transition technologies rarely survive very long

John Charnock, managing director, Print Research International

john-charnockIt is always a tragedy when an organisation like Timsons closes its doors. The lost book manufacturing knowledge from the only specialist book press company will be sorely missed.

Timsons struggled with the transition to digital and pinned its hopes on the T-press. Unfortunately, hybrid technologies, such as the T-press, often have a relatively short life: remember Misomex’s hybrid Laserstepper, Heidelberg’s DI or Manroland’s Dico? These products all appeared during a transition between technologies and, for a brief period, were attractive because they were familiar and overcame some limitations of the emerging technology. But hybrid technologies are often cumbersome, not designed from the ground up and rarely survive.

The Timsons T-press was always going to have a challenge where colour was required to complement mono books. The infrastructure on the T-press would have had significant challenges adapting to colour. This is fine today as there is still a sizeable mono trade books market, but as the four-colour digital books market developed, the T-press would have been competing against custom inkjet machines from the likes of Kodak, HP, Ricoh, Screen, Xerox and Fuji - major digital suppliers who manufacture the technology but more importantly the ink.

As the book market and the book supply chain continue to evolve, suppliers to the retail trade book market will seek to develop similar print-on-demand solutions for colour books, if only because there aren’t many volume colour book printers left! As volumes decline the economics of manufacturing in low-cost emerging markets and shipping across the world will become less attractive. Replicating the agility of the UK trade book market with colour books will be attractive to UK publishers and I’m sure that this is what Quad/Graphics is planning in the US.

Sadly, Timsons will not be part of this digital books future, but I hope its skills and knowledge find their way into other companies and don’t just vanish.


Do you think you will ever buy another litho book press?

Kate McFarlan, strategic director, St Ives Clays

kate-mcfarlan“For several years publishers have been running their inventory leaner. We offer 48-hour manufacturing plus delivery direct to store, which enables best-sellers and long-tail books to reach their destination very fast. The days of speculative printing against unknown future sales disappeared some time ago. So yes, the tipping point probably is past, and major investments for book production have been largely or entirely in digital printing and finishing for the past five years in the UK. At Clays that is certainly the case.”

Allan Gray, operations director, Ashford Colour Printers

allan-gray“With the quality you can get from inkjet, for further education it’s a case of why wouldn’t you buy digital? I’m a litho printer and I have to get a linen tester out to tell the difference. I think I’ve got one more litho investment in me; we’ve got three presses all doing different jobs so it would make sense to replace those with one press that we could run 24/7 alongside three or four digital presses, as long as it was flexible enough to do all the different types of work.“

Ian Browning-Smith, chief operating officer, CPI UK

ian-browning-smith“CPI will continue to invest in all technologies both conventional and digital. In the past 18 months CPI has invested in the latest conventional Heidelberg B1 XL press in our commercial arm CPI Colour, Indigo digital presses for short run colour, and CPI Antony Rowe’s second and third HP T-series digital webs and complementary finishing lines. We aim to have the best available technology for any product at any run length. In our opinion HP digital web presses are proven to provide the highest levels of quality and productivity in both mono and colour.”

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