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Espresso Book Machine: The replicator for books

Blackwell book shop has unveiled the UK's first on-demand book printer, which spits out hard-to-find books in a matter of minutes. That noise you just heard was the sound of our minds being blown

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Richard Trenholm
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One of our favourite bits of kit from Star Trek is the replicator. You simply walk up to it and announce, "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" or, "Stripper, Puerto Rican, hot" and it conjures your wish out of the air and delivers it to you. If that sounds like your cup of tea -- hot -- then head to Blackwell book shop on London's Charing Cross Road for the Espresso Book Machine, which prints whole books while you wait.

Yes, actual, proper books in about five minutes -- hot. The EBM allows you to browse a catalogue of books and print out a bound, trimmed paperback in five to ten minutes. It'll spit out 110 pages per minute, complete with a full colour cover.

Gareth Hardy, head of buying for Blackwell, told us that most of the titles in the catalogue so far were out of print or out of copyright books. Different languages are also in the database. It's perfect for anyone after a hard to find book.

The EBM is also a self-publishing tool. As well as choosing from the catalogue, customers can bring in their own PDFs on a USB stick and print out their projects, dissertations or even books they have written. All you need is a PDF of the cover and another PDF of the interior. Blackwells is provisionally planning to charge about 2p per page, and you can print as many copies as you like. Once your book is printed, you can choose to leave it on the server for future printing.

An EBM costs about $100,000 and is, as you can see, a hefty chunk of hardware. But for all that, it's surprisingly simple: a computer for the catalogue and software, a Konica Minolta Bizhub 1050ep industrial printer for the interior pages, an inkjet printer for the cover -- all of which are off-the-shelf -- and a big box of tricks that automatically binds and trims each book. There are only three of the second-generation EBM: two in Canada and this one in London. There are about a dozen of the 1.0 and 1.5 models, mostly in libraries in the US. Version 2.0 is half the size, breaks into bits for easier transport, and has a more reliable method of binding by gripping the paper safely throughout the whole process.

The computer system includes a level of DRM to follow who has printed what, mainly for the purpose of tracking royalties. Blackwells is planning to integrate the catalogue with its Web site, so you'll be able to browse, order and print your book online, then pop in to collect it.

Books will be available at their retail price or on a page rate for those that don't have a retail price. It'll be open for public use from Monday.

Thor Sigvaldason, co-founder of On Demand Books, talked us through the printing process. Click through the pictures to see how a book is made, replicator-style.

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You browse the catalogue of books, stored on a server in the US. There are 400,000 books currently on the server, with Blackwells hoping to reach a million by the summer.
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When you've selected your book, hit 'Make de book'. Simultaneously announcing this in a cod-Italian accent is mandatory.
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Black and white text and pictures can be printed in the interior.
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The cover is printed simultaneously by a colour inkjet printer.
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An average book, of about 300 pages, takes about seven minutes to print and be bound.
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The cover is applied and dropped to a heated roller, which heat-binds the spine.
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The main printer churns out 110 impressions each minute, and can in theory print all day.
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Your book takes shape. After it's bound, it's trimmed and finally...
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...your book is delivered into a neat basket.
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The result is an actual, proper book. These were all printed by the EBM. You can feel a difference in the cover, but that depends on the paper used. The cover feels tacky to the touch even after it's dried. That goes away in a couple of hours.
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We can't help thinking this would be a great model for record shops. Instead of filling shelves with pop pap that record shops think they can shift in quantity, you could have jukebox-style covers on the shelves for that lovely physical browsing experience, and a CD burner behind the counter. That's the future, that is.

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