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The Birthplace of Digital Book Printing?

- Andy Tribute
- Oct 26th 2010

The digital printing of books has become a major area of interest, and it is a business focus where there has been substantial investment this year. This investment has been in many of the new continuous feed high-speed color inkjet presses. Digital book printing however has been around for a long time, since before we saw this latest stage in its development. This latest move into color book printing allows for longer print runs using digital printing, which then become more economical. The short run printing of books using digital printing has been a major development for some time, with leading printers like Lightning Source and CPI having significant operations using both sheet-fed and continuous feed monochrome xerographic presses. Book sellers like Amazon have also entered the business to convert stored digital libraries into printed books on demand, whenever an order is received. We have also seen a major growth in self publishing of books using web sites like lulu.com and printers like Colorcentric.

In following up on the new inkjet printing technology I recently visited one of the printers that had invested in this technology. King Printing in Lowell, MA was perhaps the first book printer to invest in this new inkjet technology when it became the first commercial printing company in North America to install the Screen Truepress Jet520. Not only was it the first book printer in the USA to invest in inkjet technology, I believe it may have been the first book printer to invest in digital technology two decades before. Then earlier this year it installed an HP T300 press and also made a commitment for a Kodak Prosper 1000 monochrome inkjet press. My reason for visiting King Printing, apart from the fact I was on my way to a meeting near Lowell, was that I was intrigued to see what was special about them. I had been in contact with the company and met the Chinai family, the owners of King Printing, at IPEX earlier this year.

Now I am used to visiting many of these progressive printers, and I often find them in modern large facilities, and they often can be subsidiaries of large organisations. King Printing did not fit this mold and I found them in a modest, but well kept, plant on a business estate. The company had no plush reception or grandiose meeting rooms and was just like many small and medium sized printers one finds all around the world. What I did find however was a company that may well have started the market for short run digital book printing.

King Printing was founded just over 30 years ago by Sid Chinai and his wife as a very small print shop, or really a copy shop. This operated with Sid selling by day and running the press and finishing systems by night working alongside his wife. Today both of them still work in the organization that is run by their son Adi Chinai. Soon after the company started it received enquiries from a major book publisher despite the fact they had no suitable equipment for printing books. They did however build a good relationship with this publisher for doing work that was appropriate for their equipment. Seeing the business opportunity they invested in equipment for book printing with both sheet and web offset equipment. The business built up with work from many book publishers.

During the 1980s they looked for a better way of handling short run printing, and in 1988 they installed their first digital press a 5090 Digital Press from Xerox. This was a success, and they soon had multiple Xerox presses in operation. Note that these were the days before the Xerox Docutech. The short run business took off and King Printing concentrated on it, eventually transitioning into one of the first installations of a series of Docutech presses. They did however later switch from Xerox to using Heidelberg (now Kodak) Digimaster sheet fed monochrome digital presses.

In 1994 again the company moved at an early stage into another new technology (CtP) to feed its offset presses with the installation of a Creo 3244 platesetter imaging Kodak thermal plates. To put this into context it was not until drupa in 1995 that Creo really became known and the Kodak plate was officially launched. Today King Printing uses the Kodak Magnus a derivative of that early Creo platesetter. This makes plates for some of the remaining offset equipment, such as a Heidelberg Speedmaster CD74 and a Strachan and Henshaw web fed book press, to name a few.

Seeing the potential of moving short run book printing into a wider market and also being able to produce color books, King Printing installed the Screen Truepress Jet 520. The location of this became a challenge for Screen and it became the first such press to be installed with a turner bar between printing units so the press could be installed in a corner of the factory. An inline Hunkeler finishing system was also linked into the press via a turner system. The workload on this press rapidly built up with both monochrome and color work. The HP T300 press followed and was installed this year. This too was squeezed into another corner of the factory. When I visited, a Muller Martini Sigmaline finishing system was being installed, also via a turner bar system. The Kodak Prosper 1000 press has been put back for the moment but is planned for installation in early 2011. The factory also has a large paper warehouse and a very substantial bindery. The company runs a Kodak Nexpress to provide book covers for the digital printing operations.

I was interested to find out why King Printing had chosen different equipment and what they saw as the differences between the presses. Initially they purchased the Screen Truepress 720 as it was the only available technology. While they were very happy with the Truepress it saw the wider web width and higher speed of the HP T300 press that would open up the market further. They have also found that the print quality and media flexibility of the HP press is better. Adi Chinai claims that for book work in color it is essential to use pigment inks rather than dye based inks as the quality is superior and replicated offset printing better. He also stated that while they were very happy with the Hunkeler finishing system on the Truepress, he could not wait for them to produce the wider measure version of their equipment so he installed the Muller Martini Sigmaline on the HP T300 press. It is interesting to note that he will be visiting the Hunkeler Innovation Days event next February in Switzerland, so perhaps we may see a Hunkeler finishing system on the Kodak Prosper press when that is installed.

One area of growth for the inkjet printing operation is via the company's plans to move out of toner-based printing where possible and transfer this to inkjet. The company is not just advanced in identifying and moving into new areas of business, it is also very innovative. It has its own programming staff and has developed its own book production workflow. It also maintains most of its equipment, particularly the offset and digital toner presses.

Visiting King Printing was a breath of fresh air. It showed that small printers with vision and the ability to implement it can succeed against much bigger competitors. I really look forward to visiting King Printing again next year when their next press is installed.

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