Emma and I like visiting our printers. Currently that's CPI and we had great fun having a really good look around their Chippenham site recently. Even though we're a small customer, whenever we visit any printers we always have a fuss made of us, they always seem glad to see us and we always learn so much. And that was certainly true of CPI. Even if there were no good commercial reason for gawping at all the machinery, it's still enormous fun to see a monstrous drum of 'web' paper weighing a couple of tons feeding some gigantic Heidelberg press and then follow the printed web until it becomes stacks of cut sections on a conveyor belt. And from there watching those stacks have their backs glued and their covers fitted - until they're all trimmed up, finding their way onto pallets, where they're shrink-wrapped ready for loading on a truck. On one side of the warehouse are big drums of paper; on the other side are stacks of books ready for the store. Every publisher should watch that process happen if they get the chance. So that's the fun tourist-y part of the visit. But there's always a commercial benefit to a printer visit. We don't know what it will be in advance but we always come away with exciting ideas for the future. Sometimes it's new processes we could use: CPI have a machine (well, several actually, within the group) about the size and shape of a Stargate - called an HP T350 - that will print around 600 feet a minute of hi-res, full-colour content on uncoated paper up to about A4 size. And because the whole thing is digital, you can mix and match different content within your print run. Print 706 copies of one title and 1 of another. Or customise each of those 706 copies to have a different reader's name on the title page. Cool, right?
An HP T350 printing systemPaired with the T350, but looking slightly less like salvaged alien tech, is an HP Indigo 7500 for printing the covers. It's fabulous, but you have to live without the usual cover treatments: no matt lams or foils or spot UV. You get a very nice glossy finish, but personally, I think CPI should work out how to combine litho-printed covers with the pages from the T350. It would be a headache, but it would also allow them to compete with all the benefits of 4-colour litho and yet be economical on a 500 unit print-run (or smaller if you combine a few of your tiny print-runs into one big one).
Indigo gutsAnother benefit of visiting printers is having them talk about their problems. That may not seem like either a fun or a useful thing, but get them to open up about what causes them headaches and you're in a position to do a deal. I don't want to go into loads of details just in case you steal all our cunning ideas, but we talked with one team about waste and how we could reduce that waste by specifying our print jobs in a way that's complementary to how they work. We talked to another team about rejigging our scheduling of jobs to save them money. And we talked with a third team about being guinea-pigs for their new software system and then acting as a reference site when they want to roll it out. The first two of those ideas involved saving CPI money: that's good because if it all pans out, we can ask for a share of that saved money knocked off our future bills. The third is about helping them with their future plans and the quid pro quo will be that we are on great terms with all the key staff and we're making use of their latest services while other publishers are still dithering. Of course all of this relies on you really understanding the nitty-gritty of your own print needs and a fair amount about the technology of printing. If you outsource all your cover designs, your typesetting, the buying of your print jobs and have very little interest in what happens to your print-ready PDFs once they leave your computer then all you might get out of a printer visit is a look at some cool machinery (and very probably a nice pub lunch too). But if you've already rolled up your sleeves and investigated every part of your own business, then doing a little of the same with a printers will almost certainly pay dividends. Help them take costs out of their part of the supply chain and they can often help you take cost out of yours. Learn the best and latest ways of working and you'll give your firm an edge that others don't have. And persuade your printers to tell you what causes them the most headaches when dealing with publishers and you can make sure your firm isn't causing your printers - and yourselves - avoidable delays and unnecessary costs. And did I say it's fun?