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Books Printed on Request: Innovation, Just in Time and Natural Resources

By Catherine Chabiron, Lean Sensei and Board Member of Institut Lean France


A book editor, PUF, recently announced in Paris that they were now able to print books within the store, upon request: just step in, select a book, have it printed and binded for you in five to 10 minutes depending on the size, with no additional fee.

It started in the United States back in 2006 as an approach to counteract ebooks, arguing that readers still preferred handling paper books: they just wanted them immediately, once they had set their mind to it.

Is this a vision into the future? Will we go to shops tomorrow and have plates or spoons or furniture 3D-printed on request ? Time will tell, but the experiment is interesting on three counts:

  • Innovation is the only way to fight back and recover clients deemed lost or tempted by concurrent technologies. Innovation includes understanding our clients (changing) preferences, in this case, the pleasure of paper books yet as immediately available as an e-book, and experimenting new products or services to match those. There are plenty of lean stories along that line.
  • It is also a great demonstration of the interest of Just in Time: produce at the signal of a customer pull, with a one-piece-flow. The result is good news for librarians : no unnecessary finished goods stock (only paper and ink as raw material), no heavy handling of book crates, no obsolete stock of unsold copies to be sent out for scrap, less square meters, even if we account for the printer which is the size of a copy machine. Again, a nice lean demonstration.
  • Lastly, printing Just In Time and On Request is another way to protect our forests and reduce the cost of paper recycling, if such an attempt is made on unsold books.  This is a very green practice, since 40 to 50 % of the customers are not yet all ready to move over to ebooks unless they can see a real financial breakthrough.

Lean and green both address the evermore important need to preserve our key resources on earth. Natural Capitalism by Lovins, Lovins and Hawken reminds us that companies consume natural resources in ways that prevent ecosystems from regenerating our air, water and food supplies. Not to mention human resources. But neither are accounted for on the balance sheets.

We must therefore engage in new manufacturing strategies: design production systems that produce the minimum amount of waste, stretch the productivity of natural resources used in production, and share and conserve key resources rather than own them unused.  

Books have opened our eyes to greater possibilities and alternative ideas for centuries. Now they can be a catalyst for innovation in sustainable and green production practices. 

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