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Productivity: The ABCs of Automation

Aug 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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Everybody believes in automation. Everybody wants to automate operations, but nobody quite knows what that means.

First of all, why do we need workflow automation in prepress operations? To reduce turnaround times, control costs, increase productivity, develop flexibility and build in quality. Who could disagree with that?

But what is the role that automation really plays in increasing productivity? While we all are concerned about the speed at which each individual task is performed (and much time and effort is spent developing faster RIPs or trapping functions), automation addresses the time between tasks. Even if your RIP is blindingly fast, productivity is negatively affected when "sitting time" is not controlled.

Automation, therefore, addresses the sequencing of tasks and the time between tasks. It can eliminate the gaps between tasks, even when operator intervention is required. Automation does this by speeding and clarifying the communication among operators, workstations and tasks in an effort to greatly minimize the time wasted between tasks.

As a result, workflow automation has the capability of increasing the productivity of prepress and reducing the cost of highly repetitive printing jobs such as weekly magazines or catalogs. In addition, automation can reduce the rate of errors made in the high-stress environments of weekly production deadlines. It allows printers to get much closer to the goal of "doing it right the first time."

By eliminating the variability caused by human subjectivity and error, the quality of the print output produced is made more consistent. Workflow automation will not compensate for a badly aligned imagesetter or platesetter, but such quality failures, when produced in a highly automated environment, will be easily detectable.

As printers and trade shops are in business to make money, when discussing workflow automation, the question always needs to be asked: What's in it for me? Since most operations consist of a range of equipment, there is a need for a central user interface, which "open" automation can provide.

In a client/server environment, for example, well-conceived automation protocols will coordinate various clients--including UNIX-based systems, PCs and Macs. Then, too, tasks can be automated across the entire system, regardless of the software or operating platform.

Extending this "open" automation concept, it is not difficult to envision a configuration that allows access to all databases within a client/server system. Automation enables each of these databases to be queried from a central user interface, facilitating communication and streamlining storage and retrieval functions. Under this scheme, operators can ask each client: Do you have this image? Do you have this job?

In practice, automation does not necessarily mean that all functions are performed by machine. An interactive "teaching" process can be used in some systems. For example, Barco's FastLane features a design that allows any function to be performed interactively on both the workstations and automatically on the server.

The algorithms implemented on the server are identical to those implemented on the workstations. For example, trapping executed on the server will yield exactly the same results as trapping executed on the workstation (provided, of course, the same parameters are used).

Moreover, the parameters driving any server-based activity can be derived from an interactive session preceding the background job. For example, if a series of pictures exhibit a red cast, the parameters applied in an interactive color correction session on one image are saved automatically. They can be used, without re-entering, to color-correct the whole series of pictures in the background on the server.

In the future, expect to see more workflow automation software being developed. Barco, for example, is developing an interactive and user-friendly interface for workflow programming, as well as advanced job tracking and monitoring, queuing and resource management.

The benefits of workflow automation are great, and it stands to reason that printers should watch developments in this area with great care.