Me & my: Smyth Digital-88

Simon Eccles
Monday, September 28, 2015

Last year was a momentous one for 135-year-old Bookbinders of London. It moved to Hertford and sold the building it had occupied since its 1880 start in Holloway Road, Highbury.

The name remains but it’s no longer in London. The installation of a Smyth Digital-88 sewing line last summer has helped the firm return to its roots in craft bindery of sewn sections, but with costs and efficiencies suited to the digital era. 

You don’t keep a company running for well over a century without moving with the times. Bookbinders of London has embraced the trend to short-run digital production and has its own digital press, first a Xerox 700 and now the latest C75. 

“We deal directly with the public as end-users, such as students, and with printers, publishers and niche binding for luxury brand companies,” says production manager Ian Bailey. The company introduced websites with online ordering of photo products and school yearbooks, prompting the installation of a Duplo DPB-500PUR binder in 2011. 

Four generations of the Bailey family have owned the company since it was set up as Bailey Bros, a name it kept until the 1970s. Now aged 50, this particular Bailey started working for his father aged 17 and learned his trade and craft at the London College of Printing. He’s been variously listed as owner and managing director in PrintWeek over the years, but today he’s happy to call himself production manager. 

“This used to be a big company – in my dad’s day we had 80 people,” he says. “But how many binderies now employ so many people? Small is beautiful these days and I don’t think the industry can support many big binderies any more.”

Downsizing and London costs prompted the move out of London late last year. “We couldn’t justify running a bindery in such an expensive premises any more,” he says. “We decided to sell the building and move to Hertford, where some of us already lived as directors. We had been there so long that we were worried about moving out, but after a year we can see that it hasn’t affected us in the slightest – which we’re very relieved about. Our customer base has been very supportive and stayed with us.”

In the pre-digital days the company had six sewing lines, two from Muller Martini and four from Smyth in Italy. “When things went digital I couldn’t maintain an investment strategy around litho,” Bailey says. “The Kolbus and Muller kit is big and expensive and there were already companies who were developing along mass-production lines. I didn’t want to go there, I always wanted to run a more niche bindery with a smaller workforce. 

“As the market changed I could swing with it and it’s harder to do that if you’re more heavily invested in being a big company. We decided to move to service digital in the PUR market, but then everyone else got PUR,” says Bailey.

As a result the company made the decision to reinvest in its core skills and go back to craft sewing.

“We needed to move again and establish a niche, which sewing does for us. As a bookbinder that wants to stay a bookbinder, we have to offer a capability that the digital printers can’t take on in-house.

“Where those digital printers need to up-sell their work or find they have a customer who has a requirement that they can’t fulfill, I’ll be able to pick up that work again, which is what is happening.

“For me as a lifelong bookbinder it brings a sense of pride, to be able to actually service digital like we do and give our clients a real quality product, with a section-sewn book at an affordable price. 

“Traditionally you just couldn’t do it affordably. We can do that now and still make money on it,” he says.

Must-have machine

In 2013 Smyth announced the development of the Digital-88, which combines a folding unit for flat pre-collated sheets with an automated thread sewer, all set up though an LED screen. “I think I got wind of it in PrintWeek, actually,” Bailey recalls. “It was one of those things where after reading the first paragraph you think ‘I’ve got to have this, it will be really good for my company’. I looked at the capability and it really excited me. I knew that I could generate business with it.”

The Smyth Digital-88 is a combination of two main units: the Model P feeder-folding unit and the F3088 automated sewing unit. It is intended for short to medium-length runs of sewn books with sections assembled from flat single sheets. This fits in with digital presses’ abilities to produce pre-collated sets. 

“We can fold and stitch 15 sections per minute,” says Bailey “It was that folding ability that was key to us, to be able to go straight off a digital press into sewn books.”

Up to four sheets can be fed into the folder, which then drops them together onto the saddle of the sewing unit to make 16-page sections. Two or three sheets will make eight or 12-page sections. Very thick sheets can be fed singly and gathered on the saddle. 

It’s suited to ‘book-on-demand’ work as well as oversized books since it handles large signatures up to 520x320mm. Even larger sheets, up to 520x550mm, can be sewn with manual front feeding of pre-folded sheets.

Does it add new capabilities? Yes and no, says Bailey. “Historically we had many sewing machines, pre-digital. Moving to digital with PUR was great, but now we can go back to sewing and still work with digital, which is ideally where we want to be. We needed to establish a niche, which sewing does for us.”

Bailey was pretty confident about his equipment choices so he didn’t consider any other options. “Smyth is a proven technology and the basics probably haven’t changed for 60 or 70 years,” he says. 

“The method that this brand new machine uses to sew the books is almost unchanged. It’s a proven system and in having the Smyth name we know we’ve got a good piece of kit.”

Smyth’s UK agent is Perfect Bindery Solutions near Oxford, run by Steve Giddins. “Steve sent engineers in to assist with the installation,” Bailey says. “They were very good, they got it set up and then Smyth sent their own person for a couple of days from Italy to do the on-site training. He was very good, and understood what we wanted to do. We had two staff trained up on the machine in a couple of days.” 

Travel bugs

“We had a couple of teething problems, the sort of thing you’d get with any new piece of kit that’s had to travel across Europe on a vibrating lorry.

“We sorted that out by taking photos on mobile phones and sending them to Smyth with the bits sent back to us by next-day delivery. It was painless really.” 

“I don’t get enough time off work,” is Bailey’s only gripe. “But that’s a good problem to have.” 

In fact good problems seem to be a common complaint: “The only minuses are that when it’s working it creates bottlenecks further down the line. These are problems that you want to have as it shows that it’s working.

“This is why we’re looking into investment in capabilities after the sewing has been done.”

Asked if he’d make the same investment again, Bailey says: “Yes, very definitely, I’m glad I made this decision. In this industry it’s rare to say you’ve got something absolutely right. It’s paying the bills and I’m pleased with the decision.” 


Model P feeder-folder

Max mechanical feeding speed 22 cycles/min.

Sheet size Max: 640x520mm, Min: 150x150mm

F3088 sewing machine

Side feeding/folding (from Model P)

Max mechanical sewing speed 22 cycles/min

Signature size Max: 320x20mm, Min: 75x150mm

Front feeding (manual) Max mechanical sewing speed 14 cycles/min

Signature size Max: 550x520mm, Min: 65x125mm

Number of sewing stitches 14

Sewing stitch length 18mm

Combined footprint 3.1x1.4m

Price £56,000 (£68,500 for fully automatic)

Contact Perfect Bindery Solutions 01993 840077

Company profile 

Set up in 1880 in Highbury, North London, Bookbinders of London offers both trade services and sells directly to end-customers. It handles a lot of student theses, photobooks, school yearbooks, as well as craft binding work with soft or hard covers, including traditional leather. 

It currently has a staff of seven, with the latest recruit joining this month. In addition to the automated Smyth Digital-88 and Duplo DPB-500PUR it has manual binding equipment and the skills to make more or less anything in short runs. 

It handles most of the print itself for its binding work on its Xerox C72 SRA3 toner press. There’s also an HP Designjet Z6200 large-format inkjet, used for covers. Larger formats for book blocks are either supplied by customers or sent out to other printers, typically those with B2-format HP Indigo 10000 digital presses. 

Why it was bought...

After investing in PUR binding equipment to serve the digital print market, the company found it was having to compete with mass-market rivals, something it never intended. As a result it decided to go back to its roots. “It’s important for me to be able to move my company back into its core craft niche, as the skill set has been acquired over a long time,” says production manager Ian Bailey. 

How it has performed...

“We’re very pleased with it,” Bailey says. As the staff are already experienced book binders, getting started on the new machine didn’t create any problems. “It’s pretty straightforward to set up, the LED interface is straightforward – we were into production very quickly.

“We were immediately up-selling books from PUR to sewn. Then we had a £20,000 export order for the Middle East, which we got purely because we could sew that particular size of digital. Within the first couple of months we knew the decision was warranted, because the work the Smyth was generating proved it was a worthwhile investment.”


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