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Mar 1, 1995 12:00 AM

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From copper engravings to computer-to-plate, this printer has mastered electronic prepress

Back in 1957, Harold Vanberg founded his company with a good idea and a few sets of copper engraving plates. Vanberg had bought the plates from his former employer, a Dallas printer that supplied plant tags and catalogs to rose growers in nearby Tyler. Thus was Horticultural Printers born.

Vanberg initially took his plates to local printers for reproduction because the fledgling company had no printing equipment of its own.

Today, 40 percent of the $30 million corporation's work is related to horticultural products, including a host of nursery items in addition to plant tags and catalogs. The 285-employee Texas printer now mails its own 136-page horticultural catalogs to 16,000 customers throughout North America and parts of Europe.

Since Horticultural Printers serves a seasonal industry, the firm has taken on other business, which has evolved into non-stop peak periods in the plant, relates Larry King, vice president of production. Textbooks and workbooks make up 25 percent of the printer's jobs, with specialty plastic and general commercial printing sharing the remaining 35 percent.

During the past 15 years, revenues have grown at an average annual rate of 10 percent, with each segment of the business growing at the same pace.

"Our diversity is our most distinguishing trait," asserts King. "We go after the unusual jobs, particularly printing on unconventional substrates and special plastic materials."

Despite its many accomplishments, the Texas printer has never forgotten its early success with plates. In 1994, for example, it became the second firm in the United States to purchase a Gerber Crescent 32 x 42-inch platesetter, according to King, making Horticultural Printers a leader in direct-to-plate.

"When we bought the plate-setter in March of 1994, Gerber was the only vendor of a computer-to-plate machine that could demonstrate four-color process imaging on metal plates," says King. "The system was installed in August, and within four months it was operating in full production, 24 hours a day."

At present, 80 percent of the printer's work is four-color process and 50 percent is output directly to plates. Thirty percent of the plates used are aluminum and output on the Gerber unit, while 70 percent are polyester.

For more than three years, the company has been imaging full-color, short-run jobs using polyester plate material on its two Agfa SelectSet 7000 22 x 26-inch drum imagesetters.

"We realize the biggest advantage is being able to take our digital images directly to the Gerber's 40-inch format. This allows us to run full-size sheets for our five 40-inch presses," explains King. "Along with the savings in stripping and film processing costs, direct-to-plate gives us a cleaner, sharper image than using film as an intermediate stage before making plates.

Horticultural Printers also meets demand through electronic imposition. Automating the stripping process is saving up to 75 percent of the time formerly required for conventional stripping, claims the production vp. It also reduces the chance of error, eliminates film handling and cuts material waste.

Since 98 percent of Horticultural's work arrives on disk or is initiated on-site as Quark XPress files, the printer uses an imposition XTension to QuarkXPress for Macintosh. The INposition product from DK&A (San Diego) was chosen because it works with XPress documents directly, without the overhead of intermediate PostScript files.

Long-term clients are fluent in Quark file construction, but new customers run the full gamut of desktop publishing expertise, notes King. As a result, the electronic prepress department, consisting of 30 veterans of the conventional prepress area, preflights all incoming jobs before they go into production.

When the department finds files that will not image correctly, staff members critique the files and give customers the option of correcting problems themselves or pay the printer to make corrections.

Accompanying color and black-and-white artwork is scanned on a Screen 737 high-end drum scanner through an Agfa Access SCSI interface to a 1.3 Gb MicroNet Raven disk array. High- and low-resolution scans reside on a Sun SPARCstation network server with 128 Mb RAM and 60 Gb of hard disk space.

Customers can choose to receive either high-resolution scans for editing or low-resolution scans for sizing, cropping and placement. All scans are sent with 3M Rainbow proofs or Agfaproofs for approval.

Page assembly and template construction at Horticultural Printers take place almost exclusively in QuarkXPress running on PowerMac and Quadra computers. When layouts are completed, files are trapped in Adobe Trapwise running on PowerMacs.

The operators then organize pages or other individual printed elements into press sheets using INposition. One operator usually runs the program on two Macs at once.

"We can strip small items, such as labels and coupons, up to 128-up per flat," claims Lonnie Long, electronic prepress supervisor. "However, we use INposition primarily to impose books, magazines, catalogs and brochures eight- and 16-up."

According to Long, INposition is the "most logical and expedient way to impose XPress files because documents created in Quark can be pulled directly into the program. We don't have to rebuild our large color files in PostScript format and then import them into a separate imposition program. We always are working with the current original documents until files are output," explains the prepress exec.

Files from other page layout programs (most commonly Adobe Pagemaker) also can be imposed in INposition, which accepts other Macintosh, Windows and Unix applications in Adobe PostScript DSC 3.0 and EPS formats. These formats can be combined into an imposed publication.

Once the operators set up the plate, publication styles and imposition order, they can bring pages into the publication from multiple Quark documents and other applications. INposition imposes a publication of any size, according to Long, and compensates for creep automatically.

The software program even accommodates different plate and signature styles in the same publication; plate and publication parameters, including custom press marks, can be stored for future use.

Jimmy Harper, digital prepress operator, claims INposition is an easy program to use because of its straightforward setup procedure. "The ability to create custom press marks in a PostScript drawing program and import them as EPS files is a feature we like. Then, too, the preview function lets us see the actual pages, coupons or other items we're imposing."

The interactive WYSIWYG preview lets operators view and work with thumbnails of Quark and EPS actual page contents in both reader's order and as imposed plates. In addition, a zoom feature allows register marks and other elements to be placed accurately.

Horticultural Printers proofs imposed press sheets on a LaserMaster DisplayMaker 36-inch roll-fed color ink-jet printer. These proofs are created prior to final output to plates or film. This is just one of the many quality control checks that make up an elaborate statistical process control system to track and correct errors, points out Long.

"We incorporate new technology daily," explains King. "Looking back, it's amazing how far we've come in electronic prepress during five years. It's been a difficult challenge but we've addressed it successfully."