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Build it or buy it?, Part 1

Oct 1, 2005 12:00 AM


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PrePress

When a company evaluates a prepress workflow solution, it is usually attempting to improve or automate the flow of work through one of its production departments. Forward-thinking companies might even be concerned with improving the entire process beyond the walls of their own operations from the content creators through to the final published media—a basic precept of the Job Definition Format (JDF).

There are two primary ways to build a prepress workflow solution: Acquirie a single-vendor “turnkey” system or put together a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) system. With a turnkey solution, a single vendor provides most of the workflow components, often including both front-end software and output devices. While some turnkey systems might carry a price tag beyond smaller printers’ budgets, solutions are becoming increasingly affordable. Nonetheless, a DIY prepress workflow can do just about everything a turnkey system can.

Automation is the real issue
Assembling a DIY workflow entails obtaining all of the individual software applications (in addition to the hardware devices) required for prepress production. Assembling a complete workflow easily can include six or more vendors’ products. But it’s easy to amass individual workflow functions—automation is the real challenge. Unless your company has a scripting expert, disparate tasks are in danger of remaining disconnected islands. Options for coordinating a collection of third-party applications include production automation platforms from Gradual Software and other companies.

Regardless of the approach used, most workflow automation systems will tackle basic prepress tasks, including:

  • Inspecting material provided by the content creator (preflight).
  • Manipulating this material to make it viable for printing (editing and color correction).
  • Laying out pages for printing and the bindery (imposition).
  • Accommodating possible misregistration on press (trapping).
  • Generating a proof for client verification and/or press match (soft or hard proofing).
  • Interpreting the data into dots for printing (RIPping).
  • Imaging the actual plates that will go on press (when using an analog printing process).
Beyond these rudimentary steps, other workflow tasks might include managing client supplied or working files (asset management) and keeping those files for future use (archiving). Increasingly, however, workflow automation involves gathering more information about each step and using that information to manage or improve processes outside the prepress department. JDF has become the file format to contain this information—most turnkey systems are now JDF compliant or enabled. Collecting ink key data through a workflow system component and sending that data on to the pressroom to reduce makeready time is an example of this functionality. Well before JDF was introduced, this was part of certain turnkey workflow systems, such as Creo’s Prinergy and Agfa’s Apogee, through the Print Production Format (PPF), a predecessor to JDF.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at some software that can be used to build a DIY workflow. We’ll start with a look at some tools that address a specific segment of the workflow (like imposition) and then move on to products that tie individual processes together.

PDF: The core component
The Portable Document Format (PDF) has revolutionized the concept of file exchange, whether you’re talking about delivering digital graphic arts materials or distributing information via the Web. A DIY workflow might also be called a PDF workflow because it has become the de facto standard for electronic file exchange—just about every graphic publishing application either creates or digests PDF files. A core desktop application required for a DIY prepress workflow is Adobe Acrobat Professional (list $449).

With the release of Acrobat 7, Adobe continues to address the needs of the printing industry, adding a Print Production toolbar that puts a whole suite of prepress production tools in one location. On the Print Production toolbar, the new Trap Presets tool lets users define traps in a PDF without using a third-party plug-in (note that it requires printing directly from Acrobat to an Adobe RIP). There is the Output Preview tool, which allows for the sorting of the preview by color space (you can display just the RGB images in a file, for example) and can show precisely where colors exceed maximum Total Area Coverage (TAC) values. There is a nicely revamped Preflight tool with much easier profile building capabilities than were available in Acrobat 6 and a Convert Colors tool for mapping or converting colors from one space to another. In addition to cropping pages, users can now enlarge PDF files and add crop marks. Most prepress operations, however, will require some additional Acrobat plug-ins and applications to effectively prepare files for print.

Preflighting and editing
Markzware FlightCheck (list $499) is one application many prepress facilities already have in their arsenal. FlightCheck has been around since 1995 and was the first desktop tool to preflight native application files. Today, FlightCheck is one of the few desktop applications that can preflight PDF files outside the Acrobat environment. It also checks more than 40 file formats, including Microsoft Word documents.

Beyond basic Acrobat tools, Enfocus PitStop Professional (list $599) is the most common application prepress facilities use to preflight and edit PDFs. Because it uses profiles defined for specific output scenarios, PitStop Professional lets users preflight more efficiently. A user might have one series of profiles for four-color process work, one for black-and-white work, another for for two-color work and so on. PitStop Professional also has extensive editing features, such as repositioning and editing text, font embedding, and—a big one for print production—adding page bleeds. Note that under OEM arrangements, PitStop Professional also is bundled with many turnkey workflow solutions, providing built-in preflight and PDF repair capabilities.

Quite a Box of Tricks (QABOT) from Quite Software (list $210) is an easy-to-use editing and repair plug-in for Acrobat. With QABOT, users can perform functions in a PDF such as reducing PDF file size (via downsampling and compression), setting hairline rules to a specific point size, and transforming color in a number of ways, including converting all text to black and converting RGB color to process or grayscale. Quite also offers Quite Revealing, a tool that allows users to “reveal” specific elements of a PDF file, such as the text in a certain font, for quick and easy preflighting.

Making imposition easier
Imposition is a key requirement for most press workflows. Most imposition software programs support both PostScript and PDF files, and some can import, impose and output PDF files without any PostScript conversion. Most imposition offerings are easy to use and extremely versatile. Creo (now a Kodak company) offers Preps (starts at list $3,995), a product it acquired along with parent company ScenicSoft. Preps, in addition to being the top stand-alone imposition application on the market, has been the licensed imposition component of a number of turnkey systems. Dynagram Software’s DynaStrip (starts at list $2,495) is another stand-alone imposition application. Both applications support PDF-in/PDF-out. By maintaining the integrity of original PDF files, these programs preventing transparency flattening and other issues that have been inherent in PostScript while enabling users to soft proof layouts in Acrobat (because the result is an imposed PDF file).

Quite Imposing (list $299) and Quite Imposing Plus (list $599) from Quite Software are Acrobat plug-ins for imposing directly within the Acrobat environment. Both Quite Imposing and Imposing Plus can re-order pages, split or merge even and odd pages, and build booklets—an option that converts readers’ spreads into a printer’s spread in just a few easy steps. Imposing Plus adds more functionality to the base product, including step and repeat, manual imposition, and the ability to define bleeds.

On the Windows-only side, there is PDF Snake (list $340) another Acrobat imposition plug-in, and the latest version of plug-in ARTS PDF Crackerjack (list $370), adds imposition to its PDF separation and printing capabilities. Apago’s PDF Enhancer Professional (list $399) is a stand-alone application that some describe as “PDF Optimizer on steroids.” It offers PDF file imposition as well as page resizing and numbering, ICC color conversion support, font conversion to outlines, hairline correction, and hot folders for automation.

RIP-based imposition is becoming more cost effective as well. Xitron Navigator, for example, a lower cost Harlequin-based RIP, offers Simple Imposition, a $1,000 add-on that provides automated imposition right at the RIP.

Trapping options
Remember when trapping was a skill laboriously honed in prepress departments? Operators used layout applications’ trapping functionality to apply overprinting strokes to vector objects in illustration applications or relied on desktop trapping applications such as TrapWise (still available from current vendor, Creo). As we mentioned earlier, trapping of PDF files can be accomplished using the Trap Presets Tool in Adobe Acrobat Professional. This tool does not actually trap the objects in a PDF—instead it creates a set of instructions that is downloaded to the RIP where the trapping is performed. One major caveat: The trapping instructions defined here are only compatible with Adobe-based RIPs. Heidelberg’s Prinect Trap Editor (list $5,900) is a powerful PDF trapping solution. Traps defined using this Acrobat plug-in will trap the objects within the PDF file, so the operator can actually see them. This a real advantage for users who want to “do it all” to their PDF files and send them off to a printing partner. Lucid Dream’s off-the-shelf I-Trap can be used as a RIP plug-in to add in-RIP trapping to existing (mainly Harlequin-based) RIPs. It runs on the Mac or Windows platform.

RIP choices
Most RIPs available on the market today are based on licensed Adobe or Harlequin technology, but there are some independent solutions on the market, too. Many offer in-RIP trapping capabilities and can accept PostScript or direct PDF input. As PostScript doesn’t “understand” transparency, it’s critical for prepress workflows to flatten transparency in the RIP. Only certain RIPs, such as Harlequin Eclipse, can do this. Most stand-alone RIPs available today are essentially software products, delivered on a CD or via the Web, and loaded onto a PC or Mac. Most RIP software requires considerable memory and hard drive power to achieve peak efficiency, so potential buyers should factor these costs into the RIP’s total price. Many RIPs augment the base product with automation features. Xitron, for example, offers a stand-alone RIP, Navigator 7, but also offers Navigator RIP Manager, with hot folder automation and built-in preflight capabilities.

Workflow automation products
Turnkey systems streamline many production tasks, with jobs moving from task to task with little or no operator intervention. Some turnkey systems achieve at least some automation using hot folders. Generally speaking, hot folder options tend to automate only a portion of the workflow. Hot folder-based PDF creation is part of Acrobat Distiller, for example, and Acrobat offers hot folder automation of tasks that can be batch processed. ARTS PDF Crackerjack includes Pilot, a hot folder-based automation tool for imposition, separation and printing of PDF files direct from Acrobat.

More powerful hot folder-based systems include Enfocus Pitstop Server (list $2,999), used by many organizations to fully automate the preflight and editing of PDF files. Another advanced hot folder-based system that focuses on PDF files in the workflow is callas software’s process|prepress (list $4,151), a product that automatically converts PostScript or EPS files into PDF, preflights the PDF file and corrects it where necessary. Both products are available for trial download from their respective Web sites.

Markzware offers FlightCheck Workflow ($399), another visually-based DIY workflow automation application. It’s undeniably affordable, but it might stymie some smaller operations. Markzware is teaming with a number of integrators who can offer customers what they call a “turnkey” solution, a custom workflow build around the Markzware FlightCheck Workflow product. They refer to these integrators as Markzware Authorized Solution Providers (MASP) and there are details about how to contact them on the Markzware Web site (www.markzware.com).

Turnkey prepress workflows
Many vendors’ out-of-the-box workflow solutions include most of the previously mentioned tasks: job preflighting, editing, soft proofing, trapping, imposition, job tracking and job archiving. With these systems, most of the integration already has been done. Many of these PDF workflow solutions are based on Adobe’s CPSI architecture and can accept both PostScript and PDF as input, create PDFs for the control of workflow and processes and, increasingly, use JDF to control work as it travels through the workflow as well as to extend the workflow beyond the prepress environment. There is a growing number of independently-developed solutions, such as DALiM TWiST, that can do the same. Pricing on turnkey prepress workflow systems ranges from $15,000 to $70,000+ and will vary based on hardware configuration options, format (maximum output size), training and hardware/software support.

One of the major benefits of these systems is that processing typically is spread out over multiple workstations or processors for more efficient throughput. Additionally, this kind of workflow solution might compress large files so that network traffic is significantly reduced when files travel from workstation to workstation. Finally, most systems are client/server-based, freeing up users’ desktop workstations to move on to the next job while files are being processed.

Making the right choice
Should you build or buy your workflow? Considerations include:

  • Prepress department’s skill level.
  • Product support preferences.
  • Throughput requirements. (Is yours a 20- or 200-job per day operation?)
  • Cost (of course!).
Getting a DIY prepress workflow’s software components to work together requires a skilled prepress staff. On the product support front, one call typically does it all if you’ve got a turnkey PDF workflow system. If, however, your vendor’s support is less than stellar, your single phone-call advantage is negligible. With a DIY prepress workflow, resolving any application/interaction problems is a fix-it-yourself (FIY) proposition. Nontheless, while DIY workflow users might have to make a few more phone calls, they may also reap the benefit of a combined technical support staff’s expertise.

When weighing your workflow options, consider your prepress throughput requirements. Do you specialize in short-run work with many jobs flowing through prepress or long-run with fewer jobs? What is the range of complexity? Are you (or will you be) in a CTP workflow? Heavy job traffic combined with more complex designs and speed requirements to keep a platesetter productive will more likely require the efficiency of a turnkey prepress workflow system or, at the very least, a RIP with multiple processors.

Finally, there’s the cost factor. The bottom line is, “You get what you pay for.” In addition to automation, efficiency, and ease of use, most turnkey systems include onsite installation, off-site training classes, and product warranties that might be additional (or unavailable) when “rolling your own” workflow. Ultimately, each company must determine its own priorities. But whether you build it or buy it, automating the workflow process is most certainly going to improve efficiency, and with that, the bottom line.


Julie Shaffer is the director of the PIA/GATF Center for Imaging Excellence (www.gain.org). Contact her at jshaffer@piagatf.org. Joseph Marin is a senior prepress technologist/instructor for PIA/GATF. Contact him at jmarin@piagatf.org.


Part 1 | Part 2