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THE OUTLOOK FOR PDF

Sep 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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Paul Beyer sees the coming of PDF-based workflows as a major leap forward in process automation for the graphic arts. He suggests that improvements in productivity in the range of 300 percent to 400 percent will be the eventual payback, once PDF becomes a data standard as common as EPS is today.

As director of Banta's digital content solutions lab in Cambridge, MA, Beyer believes that acceptance of PDF already is expanding quickly. He also sees PDF as virtually eliminating the preflighting process and also any need for a dedicated OPI processor. Instead, one PDF production server will handle trapping, color space transformations, impositions, and even back-end items such as bindery and cutting options.

In fact, industry powerhouse Agfa, which demonstrated the industry's first PostScript 3 RIP (running on DEC Alpha) at last spring's Seybold Conference, is one of the most prominent leading the PDF charge with its new Apogee system, components of which will ship this year. And Apogee sounds exactly like what Paul Beyer is forecasting, with a variety of in-RIP functions such as trapping, imposition and color management.

John Harrison, Agfa's image processing system manager, stresses the self-contained nature of the PDF format: "It includes job data and ticket information, device independence, plus it's slim and smart--slim because the file is distilled in size and smart because it's editable on both the page and the data levels--a long-time goal of PostScript workflows."

Specifically, the new Apogee system, which Agfa refers to as a "PDF-based Publishing Production System," has three major components:* the PDF Pilot Production Manager;* the PDF RIP;

* the PrintDrive Output Manager.

Let's take a closer look at Apogee. The PDF Pilot Production Manager combines PDF functions such as preflighting, imposition, OPI, etc., with system-wide implementation of PDF-based job tickets. The PDF format allows viewing, editing and processing from any workstation on either a local network or the Internet.

The PDF RIP rasterizes PDF (as well as PostScript Level 2 and 3 files) in a fast, reliable and predictable way, because of the small file format and the new features of PostScript 3.

PrintDrive Output Manager automatically stores, manages and queues the rasterized jobs for imagesetter, proofer and platesetter output, aiming at an optimal use of all devices on the system. The Output Manager also offers a remote Preview feature, allowing the user to view RIPed pages (including trapping, imposition, spot colors, screen angles and ink coverage) from anywhere on the network.

A key component in Agfa's new PDF strategy is the Taipan (NT-based) RIP. The AX version (now shipping) is the first available of Adobe's new PostScript 3 RIPs (PDF-ready) for imagesetters and platesetters.

For many shops, one of the most interesting features of Apogee will be the ability to mix-and-match PDF pages from multiple sources at the very front-end of the process-the initial Job Ticket screen. Trapping zones can be defined within Acrobat Exchange at this stage, thanks to a custom plug-in feature.

In general, Agfa sees PDF workflows leading to a "create once, output many" capability.

It's time to spend a few words on the overall framework that will make features such as the Apogee Job Ticket possible, as well as making PostScript 3 and PDF work together--i.e., Adobe's PostScript Extreme architecture. We might ask first, what will Extreme do for us? (Short answer: It should offer extremely fast RIPing and printing, i.e., bring the speed of the rasterizing process up to the speeds of today's high-speed production printers.)

In fact, the initial idea behind Extreme (or Supra, as it was then known) was to design a system that could quickly feed rasterized pages to a high-speed printing engine by using several RIPs, each simultaneously working on an individual page at random. That wouldn't work with PostScript files, since they previously could not be made page-independent.

Now, the multiprocessing design inherent in Adobe's PDF technology will allow PDF pages to be RIPed in parallel. Adobe has stated that page rates of over 1,000 pages per minute on a four-RIP system typical of high-end page production have already been achieved on a trial basis. (Single RIP systems also will see dramatic improvements in throughput, according to Adobe.) This capacity should greatly accelerate the jobflow to devices such as imagesetters and platemakers, for example.

Second, individual PDF pages within an Extreme system can be accessed and imaged directly, due to PDF's random-access characteristics. This should mean that last-minute fixes can be managed quickly and simply.

Finally, even inside an Extreme system, the Acrobat applications can be used to view, archive and edit PDF files, also easing the headache of late edits. Acrobat plug-ins will soon enable a host of prepress operations such as trapping, OPI, imposition, etc.

Let's quickly review the potential impact of PDF and the Extreme architecture on various kinds of output. You might expect digital documents like these to work well with:

* Production monochrome and color. This is illustrated by Extreme-based products such as IBM's just-shipping InfoPrint 4000 and the new EFI controllers in Oce's CommandStream 9500 system and in Xerox's latest version of the DocuColor 70;

* On-demand printing. Also a natural for these new workflows, given the speed and personalization options they offer;

* Direct-to-press. Industry observers expect PDF workflows to be an important enabler of this popular approach to solving the short-run vs. long-run tradeoffs for offset.

PDF workflows should also work well with large-format imagesetters, proofer, and platemakers, since these devices share the need to quickly accept a large number of pages (monochrome or separated color) to the marking engine in a specified order. Thus Extreme's on-the-fly page imposition capabilities--such as those ScenicSoft's Preps product will offer Agfa's Apogee system--will be an important enabler in these high-end applications.

Having reached this point, the reader may be tempted to respond, "Nice, but name me one commercial printer who's actually producing quality color pages with this PDF stuff?"

The answer: the U.K.-based Cradley Group Printing, a magazine and catalog printer with an aggressive approach to PDF. Cradley is encouraging all its customers to submit PDF files rather than PostScript, according to Mitch Collins, systems and technical manager for the company.

This mostly Heidelberg shop (equipment includes an M600 32-page press and two Baker Perkins G16s) produces A4 output for European companies such as Future Publishing, a publisher of four-color technology magazines in Bath, England. Cradley's production is aided by a Cascade Systems OPI server running that company's Dataflow and Imageflow (both PDF-compliant).

"We take in PostScript, distill to PDF and then turn it back into prime PostScript before sending it to the RIP for trapping," says Collins. Cradley offers its PDF-based customers a choice of Chromalins or Iris proofs and Collins says none of them has ever had a problem with color.

As to why his shop is so far out in front in adopting PDFs for high-end output, Collins thinks that the answer may be economics: "American shops sometimes have too much budget to spend just studying things. We Brits won't waste much time if we think it will help us make money today."

The Adobe Extreme architecture allows for multiple RIPs to work on a job simultaneously. Here's what happens underneath the hood:

*The Coordinator determines whether or not the incoming files are page-independent. PostScript is sent to the Normalizer, while PDF files are stored in the Page Store.

*The Normalizer (an optimized Distiller) accepts any PostScript language file and generates a PDF that maintains all the characteristics of the original PostScript file. This PDF is placed in the Page Store.

*As pages become accessible in the Page Store, the Coordinator directs each Adobe PostScript RIP to select the next page required for processing. The order in which pages are required by the RIPs may be determined by the imaging requirements of the printing system.

*As the pages are processed through the RIPs, the resulting raster images are sent to an Assembler that manages the dataflow to the marking engine.

Later implementations of Extreme will offer high-speed merging of graphically rich customized data for personalized printing applications; interfaces to non-PostScript printing environments, page description languages, and databases; and job control, including control of post-press and finishing options.

Stage One: the graphic designer creates a document and saves it as a small PDF file (not, you notice, in a PostScript or proprietary format file). The designer also specifies certain post-press options in the PDF's job ticket feature before transferring it via a speedy upload to the printer's prepress department.

Stage Two: In the prepress area, a workflow manager automatically reads the job ticket and redirects it for processing based on its output requirements, priority, etc. A preflighting report is generated and the prepress operator opens the file in Adobe Acrobat to make various adjustments to bleed specifications, etc.

Stage Three: Color corrections come next via tags with the proper ICC profiles for both proofing and/or final output. Also: late-stage edits are made to text and image placement, as well as screening adjustments, spot color mapped to process, separations (with the correct UCR and black-generation settings), still within Adobe Acrobat.

Stage Four: The PDF file is imposed for final output, and each signature is previewed before commiting it to film or plates. High-resolution images are replaced in the document, and the prepress operator applies (or specifies in the RIP) the necessary trapping procedures. Finally, post-press operations are specified before going to final output.

The first stop might be Adobe's own Web site, within which the following URLs (all with names preceded by http://www.adobe.com/) will be most helpful for PDF questions:

prodindex/acrobat/overviewThis page contains Acrobat product features, success stories, info on platforms, pricing and an option to register products. It's also a handy place to download a copy of the Acrobat Reader or (at the /pubs.html page) the Portable Document Format Reference Manual, the official specification for the Portable Document Format, version 1.2.

prodindex/acrobat/gethelp Go to this page for tech support (automated, complimentary or extended) options, as well as info on patches and upgrades.

prodindex/acrobat/atwork The handy PDF Directory (projects, Adobe magazine articles, names of PDF specialists, etc.) is here, plus customer testimonials and info for webmasters and developers.

adobepress/classroom This link to Adobe Press will give you info on "Classroom in a Book," a courseware program that offers a friendly way to get started with PDF for $40.

Another excellent source of info on PDF technology is a Web site called "the PDF Zone," run by a well-regarded PDF training and service bureau in Madison, WI called Emerge (they're at www.emrg.com/zone/zone). The group specializes in converting archives from most popular formats into searchable PDF databases.

The Emerge Web site contains links to articles, technical documentation, reference lists, shareware, tools and demos--all of it PDF-related. If you need to dig a little deeper, here's a short list of books that offer advice on using PDFtechnology:

*Internet Publishing with Acrobat, by Gordon Kent (Adobe Press); $40. A PDF version of this book is available at its companion Web site and on the Adobe Acrobat Reader 3.0 CD-ROM.

*Web Publishing with Adobe Acrobat and PDF, by Bruce Page and Dian Holm (John Wiley and Sons); $39.95.

Here's an in-depth look at both the Acrobat products and several third-party tools and plug-ins. It also covers using PDF for CD-ROM publishing and Lotus Notes. A companion CD-ROM contains the entire text in PDF.

*PDF Printing and Publishing, by Mattias Andersson, William Eisley, Amie Howard, Frank Romano, Mark Witkowski (MicroPublishing Press/AGFA): $27.95.

Billed as the "definitive guide to Adobe Acrobat 3.0," this paperback can be ordered directly via the Agfa Web site (www.agfahome.com).