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Imposition software, CIM & you, Part 1

Feb 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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With the arrival of computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), the graphic arts industry is teaching disparate islands of computerized production to communicate. Estimating systems can now talk to prepress, which can share data with the pressroom, bindery and shipping departments, all through the magic of the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). With better integration and streamlined tasks, it’s no wonder some pundits have predicted the prepress department’s demise. But as long as there are jobs that need imposing, prepress will remain a vital function.

On your desktop since 1989
Imposition always has required a thoughtful analysis of many variables. Consider the decision-making skills required for the best arrangement of multiple pages, boxes, labels or other graphics onto an oversized sheet of paper. Should the cover run as work-and-turn to reduce plate costs and makeready time? What about the front cover? Is the ink coverage sufficiently heavy to warrant a sheetwise approach?

In the old film-based days, we relied on a journeyman stripper reading a new job ticket. Today, many former strippers have acquired the computer expertise needed to master imposition software.

Although imposition first appeared on desktop computers in 1989 when Ultimate Technographics introduced Impostrip, human operators determining press sheet layouts are still only assisted by technology. No application, for example, can recognize a crossover image within a job and recommend splitting a 16-page signature into a pair of eight-pagers in order to put both halves of the crossover spread onto the same side of the same press sheet.

It’s not just for layouts anymore
As the publishing process becomes increasingly digitized, imposition operators are doing far more than simply creating layouts. Many also are creating Print Production Format (PPF) files for controlling ink fountain keys, paper cutters and other bindery equipment. Now that these programs can funnel Job Definition Format (JDF) data downstream to pressroom and postpress workstations or back upstream to a management information system (MIS), the latest generation of imposition software is playing an even more crucial role in streamlining production. The evolving JDF specification defines a format for the exchange of print-related data—it can grow and expand as new opportunities emerge. (See JDF without the geek speak,August 2004.)

Using an industry-common format for storing and sharing imposition data isn’t a new concept. Currently, leading vendors can produce (and, in some cases, import) standard imposition generic interface (SIGI) files, typically for use with advanced RIP systems. The language allowed within JDF files, however, can contain a multitude of details on specific topics related to the job at hand. JDF can be used to describe the designer’s intent (what they want to have produced), contain information about the estimate shown to the customer, even detail the actual production tasks that have been performed as well as those that are about to occur. Even better, the XML roots of JDF mean that vendor compatibility—perhaps even user-customized workflow adaptations—eventually might be as simple as updating the HTML code on your Web site.

It’s totally automatic
Today’s automated workflows depend heavily on JDF-enabled imposition tools. Consider the "interface objects" announced by the Networked Graphic Production (NGP) initiative. (Creo launched NGP, a multivendor effort, in 2000 to facilitate JDF implementation.) Interactions between prepress, press, postpress, MIS and production planning systems can be summarized into a total of eight unique pairings. Three of these interface pairings involve prepress—and for the moment, imposition applications are the only prepress software tools that can create, import and export JDF data. This key role can be attributed to early development efforts from imposition and MIS vendors, allowing them to bring real systems to market first.

What can a JDF-fluent imposition application do, beyond arranging graphics for output? Most imposition programs create and/or consume JDF data, but more sophisticated implementations also can broadcast and request data via the Job Messaging Format (JMF). At a minimum, early implementations could open imposition instructions saved in a JDF-compliant format or export press layouts as JDF. Today, the first wave of interactive JDF tools are emerging that can automatically check hot folders, import job ticket instructions from an estimate, communicate with scheduling and track job flow—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

What to look for in an JDF-compliant imposition program
Here’s a checklist of attributes to look for in a JDF-compliant imposition program, as compiled from a cross section of today’s hottest products:

Do you need a specialized application?

Regardless of its JDF chops, the primary reason to use an imposition application is to arrange items for platemaking. The majority of programs cater to the commercial printing industry, but a few spin-offs from these products are targeted at digital printers (Ultimate Technographics’ Impostrip On-Demand) and packaging (Creo’s Pandora).

Other vendors offer user-friendly applications with reduced capabilities targeted specifically for label printing, newspaper page pairing, directory publishing and other niches. Packaging printers need a program that can recognize and automatically impose die line data from a variety of CAD formats; such systems often are extensions of specialized RIPs.

Does the program provide special layout capabilities?

If you’re working in flexo or printing on extremely thin substrates, don’t overlook plate distortion capabilities. Many programs let you resize a specific color up or down, but Dynastrip’s (Quebec) Dynagram won acclaim for allowing rotation of individual plates as well. Label printers need to mix objects of different sizes. Envelope converters need to repeat the same artwork at multiple angles. Folding carton printers want to save their unique sets of custom marks for reuse.

Publications that print in multiple languages or for multiple geographic regions need versioning capabilities. Few programs offer all these capabilities in a single package. Test the functionality of any new imposition solution before you commit to a purchase.

Consider the source for new jobs.

Today’s crop of "JDF-compatible" applications offer varying levels of process automation. Although the JDF specifications clearly define how jobs can be initiated at the order entry stage (or even further upstream, by the customer), few programs can currently "open" a JDF job ticket to obtain customer information without manual rekeying.

Creo’s Synapse UpFront 3.0 production planning tool is one notable exception. While not technically an imposition program, this wizard-driven tool lets customer service reps and job planners define signatures and layouts for estimating or initiate job tickets. The newest version of UpFront features Creo’s family of Synapse applications, providing increased connectivity within the workflow. By allowing job data to be imported directly from JDF-enabled MIS systems, UpFront helps streamline processes and reduce data entry errors. Jobs can then be saved in JDF format for further processing with Creo’s Preps.

Will it create PPF files?

Many observers were relieved on July 14, 2000, when the fledgling JDF effort joined forces with the CIP4 organization, ensuring that nearly a decade of development effort spent on PPF would not be abandoned. JDF workflow systems can embrace PPF data to create process automation on printing presses as well as in postpress operations such as folding and trimming.

One of the first systems to add PPF capabilities, Heidelberg’s Prinect Signa Station 1.0 upgrades this legacy imposition engine with a more intuitive user interface and step-by-step wizard support. Other new features include automatic, dynamic marks creation and improved ease for moving jobs between presses or adjusting to changes in stock size.

Will you truly be fluent in JDF?

You can be confident that virtually every JDF imposition product will allow you to save or export your imposed job in the format prescribed by the JDF specification, but check the fine print! A live job would be "populated" with job information—handy, but suppose you’re trying to create a template for use with multiple jobs? In that case, you’ll need an application that can also export unpopulated JDF files. Ensure that choosing JDF output doesn’t reduce your ability to mix document sizes or bring together impositions for multiple press sheet sizes.

DynaStrip 4.3 from Dynagram creates both populated and unpopulated JDF files, and has been certified for use with several JDF workflow systems (including Agfa’s ApogeeX; Creo’s Brisque and Prinergy; Artwork System’s Nexus; Dalim’s TWiST; and more). This newest release from Dynagram allows JDF imposition data to be sent to the RIP via both the traditional hot folder layout (where files are saved into a specific folder on the RIP’s hard drive for batch processing) as well as a new JDF Transmission function. This transmission occurs over any HTTP connection, allowing files to be submitted for RIPping from within your network or via the Internet. Details on the status of each transfer are logged for later inspection.

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