The Axel Springer Patent Application

by Graham Leech

Around 1960 I was personal assistant to Raymond Walker, the production director at Sun, and one of my jobs was secretary of the Research Committee. I had to check all British patent applications and pass any interesting ones to particular research or engineering staff for their consideration.

One such application was from Axel Springer, a large gravure printer in Hamburg and a fellow member of the European Rotogravure Association. Their British patent application was for a system whereby a gravure press would deliver each web of paper to a rewind instead of to a folder, and all the webs (‘sections’) would then be run from a number of reelstands into one folder for collation, folding, and stitching.

The advantage of such a system was that each web could be printed at its own best speed, rather than the whole press being limited by its slowest component, and it could be done without having to be concerned with problems, delays, or breakdowns elsewhere on the press. Instead of having one 18-unit press with four reelstands, one would have four separate presses (three 5-units, one 3-unit) each with a single reelstand and each delivering to its own rewinder. A separate, stand-alone folder would collate the four reels and stitch and fold the final magazine.

Such folders could be extended to handle many more than four webs, with a capability of outputting much thicker magazines and books, possibly including a perfect-binding variant. The particular benefits here were the intermediate handling of reels rather than printed sections, and the feeding of reels into a folder rather than sections into hoppers with their slow and clumsy action: again, there were obvious advantages of speed and simplicity.

The main difficulty with the method was the tension control of the webs in each situation and the need to ensure their precise relative positioning in the folder. Other problems would have been the difficulty of conducting adequate inspection of the actual printing, and the absolute requirement that the ink be completely dry prior to folding.

As it happens, there had been a recent suggestion at Sun that such an idea was worth pursuing (the ‘FIR’ system,’ we had called it, for ‘Fast Independent Rotary’). This was merely an extension of an earlier procedure practised at Sun, whereby a pre-printed reel had been run into a normal magazine press. Similarly, preprinted gravure reels had been run into letterpress newspaper presses to add colour advertising and special editorial colour to the usually black-and-white newspapers.

So Sun opposed that patent application and was ultimately successful. I later learnt that Axel Springer had run full-scale production trials but that the tension control problems had been found to be insuperable, and the project was abandoned.

I’ve been out of the magazine industry for a time now, but the concept still seems to me to be a giant step in productivity. It would be interesting to know whether such a concept has been successfully applied yet. Surely, it’s only a simple matter of electronics?