Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Inside Ingram

By Catriona Troth

Many of you who have your paperback books printed by the Ingram Content Group – whether through Lightning Source or Ingram Spark – might be surprised to realise that on any given day your book might be printed alongside a best seller from Penguin Random House, an academic text book from Oxford University Press, or even an indie published book from Amazon’s Createspace!

The family-owned firm, Ingram, which started in Tennessee, is now the major provider of Print on Demand services in the UK, US, Australia, France, and through its various Global Connect Partners, in many other parts of the world too. Italy is coming on stream soon, then India. South Africa is over the horizon. Ingram currently boasts 39,000 retail partners around the world, and that is growing constantly.

I was privileged, just before Easter this year, to have a chance to view the printing process for myself, at their UK base in Milton Keynes. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs (apparently there have been some suspected cases of industrial espionage in the past) but Ingram have kindly provided some stock photos to give you a flavour of the process.

The whole operation takes place in a large, brightly lit warehouse-like building. For the amount of heavy machinery they use, it is surprisingly quiet. It’s also temperature and humidity controlled. On the day we were there, the atmosphere was quite dry; so, high in the rafters, we could see jets of steam being sprayed into the air.

From all the orders that have been received, they ‘draw down’ approximately ten thousand pages at a time, of books that are to be printed on the same type of paper (either cream or white). This might represent ‘n’ copies of one book, or one copy each of ‘n’ different books – or more often a mixture of many different books and many different sizes of print run.

That set of books is then sorted by size, to minimise the number of times the machines have to adjust themselves. Covers and interiors are printed on different machines, but in parallel and in the same sequence.

Three main types of printers are currently in use. Printers using gel inks are used for all covers, as well as for premium quality coloured interiors. Then there are the toner-based printers, once used for most of the standard interiors. These, however, are gradually being phased out and replaced with newer ink jet printers, which can now match them for quality. The old toner based printers needed to heat the paper up in order to set the ink and then cool it again. Not only did this expend a lot of energy, but it also meant that the paper would shrink, as it dried out with the heat, then expand again, sometimes causing it to warp. The newer printers are thus both faster and more energy efficient.

It is amazing to see the half-ton rolls of paper being fed into the presses, which print continuously without pausing to take breath. Systems of rollers take up the slack and feed it out again, to allow for any changes of speed. One machine prints one side, before the paper is fed seamlessly into another to print the other side. Pages are printed either two or three abreast, depending on the size of the final book, and a machine called a plough folds the pages as they pass through, ready for cutting.

Out of this sequence of machines come stacks of pages forming each book’s interior. At the binding machine, these are matched up with the corresponding printed and laminated covers, using bar codes. If the bar code on the interior doesn’t match the bar code on the cover, the binding machine will simply refuse to proceed! If all is well, though, the machine cuts the pages (thus removing all the codes and markers using in the process) then folds and glues the cover to the interior. A separate process, requiring slightly more manual intervention, produces the ‘case bindings’ for hardback books.

It’s a system that never stops. They operate a day and a night shift, and print thousands of books a day. Already, the whole process works with surprisingly little human interaction, but that is set to be reduced even further, as robot technology from Germany is introduced.

Next time I place an order for one of my books with Ingram, I’ll picture it on its journey through that warehouse, from digital file to great rolls of paper, unfurling, printing, folding, stacking, then cut, glued and bound, and finally boxed, labelled and packaged – all in the matter of a few hours.

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