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KNOW YOUR RIP

May 1, 2000 12:00 AM


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RIP is an acronym for raster image processor. What it does may be a little tougher to explain. To truly grasp the concept, think back more than 150 years to the invention of the telegraph. Samuel Morse discovered that he could send a message by alternating the current, off and on, and by varying the length of how long it was off or on. Now let's jump forward about a hundred years. Computers take the concept of using electrical impulses to carry information a step further. Computer programmers develop a way to express these electrical impulses as a series of zeroes and ones (for off and on). For example, the series "11010010" is translated as the decimal number 210.

That's pretty much how our modern computers still handle information. They translate it all into a series of zeroes and ones. So when you sit down and use your desktop publishing software to lay out a page of text, graphics and images, the computer translates all of your instructions and keystrokes into a long series of ones and zeroes. This is "digital" information.

The problem comes when you want to make this digital information actually appear on paper. (And, in the printing industry, that's usually what we're involved in doing-getting the images on paper.) You don't want your output device to print a series of zeroes and ones on the paper-you want it to print the dots and lines that make up the images you've designed. You need something to help your computer translate the information it has stored as a series of ones and zeroes into a series of dots that either will or will not be printed on the paper.

That something-the device that translates the digital information to dot information-is the RIP. It consists of a software package that is run on a small computer, usually connected between the computer you use to prepare documents and the output device. The most popular place to find a RIP in today's print shop is hung on a digital copier, either black-and-white or color, where we often refer to it as a "connectivity device" because it "connects" your Mac or PC to the copier. In effect, the RIP accepts files prepared on your-or more likely, your customer's-computer and translates them into a language the copier can understand.

Another place where more shops have a RIP device is between their computer and their platemaker. In this case, the RIP translates the file for the platemaker to burn a plate that will be hung on the press-without the intervening step of printing out a hard copy.

For example, you may prepare a file with desktop publishing or word processing software on the computer. That software describes exactly where you want each color, mark and letter in its own page description language (or using a language licensed from another software manufacturer, such as Adobe's PostScript). You decide that you want 500 copies of the page you've prepared. Since the page has a picture on it, you want to print out 500 "originals" rather than printing one original, laying it on the copier's glass and making 499 more copies.

Your computer is connected to your digital copier, so you can do this. You send your file to the copier-except that it doesn't go directly to the copier. First it goes to the RIP. The RIP translates the desktop publishing software's directions for laying out the page into a language (a series of commands about where to place dots and where not to) that the copier can understand. Then the RIP sends that information to the copier, and the copier begins to churn out your multiple originals.

Clock speed and RAM This may sound like a relatively simple process, and for a page or two that contains simple text and art, it usually is. The bigger the document, however, and the more complex the graphics, the more data the file contains and the more complex the page layout and printing instructions become.

Chances are your print shop can't wait 20 minutes for a job to even begin printing. The RIP will crunch a file like this in just a few seconds. As is usually the case in the world of computers, exactly how long it will take the RIP to prepare the file is dependent on a variety of factors-hardware, software and compatibility. The clock speed and memory capacity of the hardware will set the outer limits for exactly how fast the RIP can prepare the file. The sophistication of the software will also play a part in both how fast and how well the preparation takes place. Finally, how well the software and hardware work together will determine just how fast the entire job gets done.

The clock speed and memory capacity (RAM) of the computer's central processing unit (CPU) are factors in how fast the RIP can do its work. The faster the clock speed and the more memory the machine has, the quicker the RIP will handle the files it is fed. (The size of the unit's hard drive may be a factor, too, as most computers slow down as the hard drive fills up.) Some RIPs run on simple PCs that you can buy at your local computer dealer, but some use more powerful machines such as Sun or Silicon Graphics workstations and Unix operating systems.

Software RIPS Some RIP manufacturers don't even get involved in hardware at all. These "software RIPs" are programs designed to be installed on the computer you already have. This may save you the cost of buying a new computer-especially if you already have one that will serve the purpose well. It will also allow you to upgrade the computer on which you run the program as new machines-ever faster, ever more powerful-come on the market. (The current rate seems to be every three to six months for a newer, more powerful generation of PCs.)

The drawback may be incompatibility. As anyone who has ever installed software knows, it does not always run on your machine the way it's supposed to. In that case, to whom do you turn for help? If the software RIP manufacturer says the problems lie with your hardware, what recourse do you have? Make sure you get this question answered before you buy a software RIP.

If you do buy the hardware and software bundled together, though, it is probably the software that will play the key role in the speed and quality of the job the RIP does. Some RIPs have software that handles color better, others may process photographs faster.

If the RIP device you are considering will be driving a color copier, it is critical to understand how the software allows for color adjustments. A file your customer prepares on his machine may specify "red" for his company's logo. He understands this to mean the color of a fire hydrant. Then he passes that file to your computer. Your computer passes it to the RIP, which, in turn, passes it to the color copier. It has gone through four hardware devices, with four different software languages, with four different definitions of "red." The output isn't "fire hydrant red," it's "burgundy wine red." How can you fix it?

The RIP should have several options for adjusting the color and should allow you to build a database so that every time that particular customer brings you a job, you can instantly recall his (corrected) definition of "red." Some RIPs use the color copier itself for automatically adjusting colors, outputting and rescanning a color until it "learns" what you want that color to be, then capturing that information and storing it. Similarly, various RIPs will have different levels of resolution. Don't let the numbers fool you in this area. Although higher resolutions are usually better, the way the software handles those higher resolutions may be more critical than the exact number of dots per inch.

The RIP's options for correcting images and handling files may be critical to the overall productivity of the RIP in your shop. For example, some systems allow you to output certain pages of a long document without having to process the entire file. Others will allow for color corrections without re-RIPping the file. Still others give the ability to control the queue, the ability to work on one job while the other is being processed in background, or to output collated sets without having to reprocess the entire file each time. These "bells and whistles" in the RIP software may not be critical to the output, but they may save you hours of production time each month.

We mentioned compatibility between software and hardware, but there is another critical element of compatibility to consider. The RIP has to communicate with the copier or platemaker in a language that the copier or platemaker understands. Copier and platemaker manufacturers usually build their machines to be run only by certain RIPs. They work closely with the RIP makers to eliminate any miscommunication between the machines. In some cases, the copier or platemaker will support only one RIP. More typically, though, the machines will support any of three or four different RIPs, and you will be asked to choose.

This same process works in reverse: A RIP may be able to drive more than one copier or platemaker. In fact, many shops have one RIP driving two or more copiers. In either case, it is critical to know that the RIP and the final output device are compatible.

Built-in rips A growing trend in the industry, however, is to have RIPs built into the copier or platemaker. This eliminates questions about who will be responsible for upgrades and maintenance on the unit, but it also eliminates your choice of which RIP to hang on your copier. Using one RIP to drive multiple machines probably won't be an option anymore, either. If you already have experience using one type of RIP, this may force you to learn an entirely new system. And,

if you have had a bad experience with one particular brand of RIP device, you may be upset to learn that it's the brand built into the copier you want to buy. If your shop isn't already meeting the demand of customers to convert their computer-generated documents directly to print, you should be concerned-you're behind the curve. According to consultant John Stewart, a recent survey by PrintImage International shows that 70 percent of all respondents reported that their color copier was connected to a RIP. Even more importantly, that figure had jumped by 15 percent in only one year. Another 27 percent have some type of computer-to-plate system, and that number is expected to double this year.

RIP devices aren't mysterious "black boxes" anymore. They're money-making devices every bit as important as your other equipment. If the printing industry is going to remain vital in the imaging marketplace, we must stop treating our computers and RIPs as something we consult only after a disaster has occurred. Get to know yours now-it may be time to upgrade or buy one for the first time-and maybe you can prevent a crash landing.

Unfortunately, there is no benchmark in the industry for determining exactly how fast and how well a particular RIP will process a file. Different RIPs handle different jobs better. The best thing to do is to take a disk or two containing jobs that are typical of the type you often do to a demonstration. Run your jobs on the machines (don't be satisfied with using the manufacturer's jobs-most have been optimized to ensure they run well). Use a stopwatch to time the job and take notes on the quality and other features that are particularly useful. Then do the same at two or three more demonstrations.

To get you started on those demonstrations, we talked to some well-known RIP manufacturers. (There are many more that are worthy of your consideration, but space and time limitations drove us to narrow our choices.) To give you a flavor for the variety of approaches manufacturers of RIP devices have taken, we chose four companies that offer not only competitive, but completely different types of machines (See related story on p. 86).

If you want to drive a high-end Xerox copier-either black-and-white or color-you might be looking at a Splash RIP. Splash has worked closely with Xerox to develop RIPs that drive Xerox's copiers, such as the G710 for the Xerox DocuColor 40 and the new ColorPort for Xerox's DocuColor 2000.

The G710 runs on an Apple Power Macintosh platform, which features a 400 MHz PowerPC G3 processor and 320 MB of system memory (and a 256 MB pipeline buffer). It outputs 400 x 400 dpi on all page sizes. Among its notable features are reverse-order printing and simultaneous RIP-and-print, which gets the job started faster. The G710's color management system allows for mixed images (RGB/CMYK) and mixed file types (TIFF/EPS) in a document.

If you're looking for an entirely different approach, AHT's Image Manager qualifies. Instead of driving one or two large, production-sized copiers, Image Manager is made to handle up to six linked Hewlett-Packard printers running on a standard Windows NT platform. The concept is that all of those smaller laser printers together can output up to 240 pages per minute, making the entire system outperform a costly Xerox DocuTech at a fraction of the price. The built-in redundancy also means less downtime. Since you can decide how many laser printers to hang on the system, you can scale up or down as business grows or shrinks, and you can upgrade at a fairly low cost. You can use the multiple printers to print several small jobs at once, or dedicate them all to producing one big job-flexibility not available from a big copier. But, you won't get some of the finishing capabilities that the big boxes offer, either. Image Manager software includes tools for impositions, book making and scanning. The hardware consists of a 300 MHz-or better-Pentium PC, with 96 MB RAM and a minimum of 4 GB hard disk drive. You can buy your own computer or buy one bundled with the software from AHT. (See p. 62 for a discussion of T/R Systems' MicroPress cluster printing system.)

Electronics for Imaging, Inc., better known as EFI, may have the best-known brand name in RIPs with its Fiery line. Many copier manufacturers include at least one Fiery RIP as an option for driving their machines. The top of the line is the Fiery Z4, which runs on a Pentium III CPU with a clock speed of 500 MHz and a minimum of 256 MB SDRAM (2 GB maximum). It also has a 9.1 GB hard disk (and an optional 36 GB second disk), an internal 40X CD-ROM and an internal ZIP drive (handy for accepting large files from customers). It operates on the Windows NT system.

The Z4 has all the special features you would expect from RIP software, from continuous RIP while printing to job merging and editing. It comes with a boatload of PostScript fonts and the PostScript 3 page description language, and outputs up to 600 dpi. The company didn't scrimp on color management, either. The machine has a color editor to customize color profiles for various customers and a calibrator to dial in a color, along with multiple calibration sets. It supports just about every standard-SWOP, Euroscale, DIC and more-as well as trapping and overprinting commands.

If wide-format applications are what your company does or if you want to do in-house color separations for flexography, Wasatch could be an option. Wasatch sells several software packages, the most-popular being SoftRIP (formerly known as PosterMaker). SoftRIP drives large-format printers from "most major manufacturers," according to the company. Not only will it make your large-format printer work faster and better, but it will also convert it into an imagesetter from which you can pull color separations. These can be used to produce films for making screens and flexo plates.

Want to brush up on the basics of digital connectivity? "The Guide to Printing Systems Connectivity: >From Interfaces and Protocols to Output Management" might be just the ticket. Published by Interquest (Charlottesville, VA), it offers an overview of the means and methods for connecting and sharing and managing printing systems in LAN, production and mainframe environments. Topics covered include physical and logical interfaces, connecting, sharing network printers and digital copiers, network print management, device interoperability, enterprise-wide printing and output management, and print command and page description languages. Cost is $59.95. To order call (804) 979-9945 or see www.inter-quest.com.