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REMOTE PROOFING: ALMOST INSTANT COMMUNICATION

Apr 1, 1999 12:00 AM


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After extensive promotion and publicity from a determined handful of vendors, is there a print shop among us that hasn't thought about the advantages of remote proofing? The benefits are obvious--avoiding expensive courier trips to deliver proofs to customers; being able to deliver a proof, get a customer okay and go back to work within minutes. So why isn't this process more widespread? What's keeping printers and designers alike on the sidelines in this battle to reduce costs and shorten turnaround times?

Perhaps it's the complex issues surrounding this new workflow option. For most printers, the thought of acquiring a new telecommunications option and purchasing the hardware and software to utilize it is unsettling. To additionally place a proofing device within the customer's office and be responsible for training clients how to use it (as well as putting in the data line) may appear to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Within this article, we can help to relieve that anxiety by taking in an overview of the critical concerns regarding remote proofing: digital connectivity, cost, confidence, calibration and available products. In addition, we will reveal the approach of print shops that have successfully implemented this workflow enhancement.

One of the key ingredients needed for making remote proofing practical is digital connectivity. Using digital phone lines, PostScript, PDF and TIFF-IT, files can be directly transmitted, without the digital-to-analog conversion required by a conventional modem. Fortunately, for those considering remote proofing, today's improved hardware, software and telephony make the process quick and easy. Best of all, prices for digital data lines have finally begun to fall, as less expensive options such as ADL become commercially available.

Whichever file transfer method you choose, you'll most likely need a connection provided by a telephone company. If that line is a typical telephone connection (used mainly for voice communications), it is referred to by the acryonym POTS (plain old telephone service). The POTS line is an uninsulated pair of copper wires inside a plastic or rubber sleeve that connect to the local switching center somewhere in your neighborhood.

The switch that controls this line is only capable of handling analog information in the form of sound waves. This is why you need a modem (MOdulator/DEModulator); it converts the digital signals of your computer into analog modulations (sound waves) that can be handled by the POTS switching equipment. This translation from digital to analog and back again slows down the process of transferring digital information. It also makes the process prone to errors that occur because of "dirty" (noisy) phone connections.

It's faster to use a phone line that is capable of handling digital information, otherwise known as a data line. Common types of data lines in use today include 56K lines (either switched or leased), ISDN (BRI or PRI), Frame Relay, T1 and Digital Subscriber Lines (ADSL and HDSL). Many data lines are incremental arrangements of 56K lines; which refers to data lines with a minimum guaranteed throughput of 56 kilobits per second. These lines typically provide an actual throughput of 64 kilobits per second. That's the transfer speed you'll get with a switched or leased 56K line.

56K data line service is available as swithed or leased. With leased service, you pay one flat rate per month regardless of usage. Even if the line goes unused for an entire year, that same monthly bill will keep coming in. With a switched service, you only pay for the time the line actually is in use. Of course, the rate (cost per minute) is higher. For a significant amount of use, the leased line becomes less expensive.

The most popular option for switched service is the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) line. ISDN lines come in two flavors: BRI (Basic Rate Interface) and PRI (Primary Rate Interface). A BRI connection consists of two digital "bearer" lines, each with a maximum throughput of 64 kbps and one analog connection (the dial-up line). A ll these signals flow through a single pair of copper wires. This configuration also is known as "two Bs and a D." The approximate file transfer rate for bonded ISDN BRI is 1 MB per minute.

The less common PRI utilizes 23 discrete digital channels and offers a throughput that is equivalent to T1 (approximately 1.5 megabits per second). The approximate file transfer rate for bonded ISDN PRI is 10 MB per minutes.

Flower City Printing (Rochester, NY) offers remote proofing to a select group of customers through a custom-built ISDN BRI solution transmitting compressed files. "It's our own proprietary method, and the ISDN line seems to work out pretty well," asserts Wayne Scheible, president of the New York firm. "We tell interested clients that they have to have an ISDN line for remote proofing. In different parts of the country, it's a different financial investment. The price per month can be very different."

Despite the variability in costs and availability, Flower City Printing sees a growing future for generating proofs at the customer site equipped with ISDN lines. "We have three companies currently using it and there are another half dozen who are considering it," relates Scheible.

ISDN lines offer a simple, cost-effective solution for printers who need to move moderate amounts of data infrequently. Hardware and sofware are typically installed in only a single computer workstation, which becomes the "file transfer workstation."

ISDN has been a popular option for file transfer and remote proofing among smaller companies because of its switch and dial-up nature. That means that you are billed only for the time that the line is actually being used. It also gives you the freedom to dial up a connection to any other ISDN user in the same way that you dial a conventional phone. However, for larger files and heavy usage, the faster transfer rates of T1 become more economical.

Choosing a T1 line results in fast throughput, combining 24 circuits at 64K each for a total speed up to 1.544 megabits per second. It also means that your connection will be leased and point-to-point (meaning that the T1 circuit is permanently routed between two customers). There is no ability to "dial up" other sites.

The approximate file transfer rate for a T1 line is 10 MB per minute. Many printers who are attracted to the high-speed transfers of a T1 line are concerned about the point-to-point limitation of this technology. Fortunately, printers and their clients can avoid this point-to-point problem by joining a private network such as Vio or Wam!Net. All subscribers to a private network connect their T1 line to a centrally located file server, allowing files to be transferred between any two members of the network.

Patrick Aho, prepress superintendent with Banta's Publications Group in Long Prairie, MN, uses Wam!Net as the method of transmitting digital files to a select group of customers. Aho finds the relationship with Wam!Net to be a positive one. "Wam!Net's sales force is available to answer questions and supply information. We don't have to work on selling the customer the benefits of file transfer or performing the installation of the equipment."

The digital connection to the client also has been reliable, according to Aho. "Wam!Net has been satisfactory in its reliability, and we've had no recent problems with downtime, although we have used the service so much that we did outgrow the size of the hard drive in the NAD (Network Access Device).

Of course, the larger digital pipeline of T1 leads to an increase in the monthly overhead of the entire remote proofing scenario. Many customers can justify a hefty data line investment because it can be used not only for receiving proof data from the printer, it also can be used to send the original documents needed for output.

Interest in remote proofing among Banta's customers continues to grow, although the expense of using T1 lines has been somewhat of a hindrance. "For some of the smaller publishers, saving time in transmission isn't important enough for them to invest in Wam!Net," says Banta's Aho.

Even the choice of a remote proofing device plays into the cost equation. "The difference between remote proofing with the Kodak DCP9000 (dye sublimation proofer) versus the Approval is that an operator has to be placed on-site with the Approval. This sort of facilities management arrangement is much more expensive," notes Scheibel of Flower City Printing.

So if the stumbling block to the mass adoption of remote proofing is not digital connectivity or the cost of data line and proofing equipment (for a comparison of digital proofing devices, see "Proof to Print," american printer, May 1998, pg. 58), then what is it? Perhaps the issue is confidence in the digital proofing process itself. Some printers still harbor fear and antipathy toward any proof that is made without film.

Digital imaging can be fraught with pitfalls and PostScript errors, font substitutions and color mismatches. Undoubtedly, many graphic arts companies are reticent to give up this much control over the proofing process--especially since the blame for all errors is likely to be pinned on the prepress department, even when the customer is at fault.

Banta strives for the utmost in consistency between the proof and the plate, so the remote proofing process is intrinsically tied to its Creo workflow, according to Aho. Banta takes PostScript files through ScenicSoft Preps to impose as printers' spreads, then rasterizes this imposed data on the Creo RIP.

The post-RIP raster files are then sent from Banta to the customer, where they land into a hot folder that feeds an Imation Rainbow dye sub proofer. Another customer uses a laser printer in the same scenario, proofing raster data that has been verified by Banta. This post-RIP proofing means that the Banta staff never has to worry about corrupt or substituted fonts making their way into the customers' proofs.

This safeguard highlights the biggest drawback of remote proofing--the printer doesn't really know what the clients' proofs look like. While Banta avoids the variability associated with PostScript interpretation by submitting raster data to the clients' proofer, other printers simply avoid making a remote proof the only proof.

"There's a lot of money involved in our packaging projects, so we don't want to risk everything on a remote proof," says Flower City's Scheible. "We don't use a remote proof for a final proof, but we can verify the content by running a soft proof to customers on screen. You can tell over the phone if things have run amok and the customer isn't seeing the same thing we're seeing."

Of course, one potential problem is sneaky and hard to pinpoint--improper calibration. If the reds are too red or the grays turn brown, who is to blame? Every new ribbon, bottle of dye or package of substrate is a potential source of color shift. Some printers are loath to agree that such events should generate an automatic site visit from a prepress employee who can adjust the proofer's calibration back to a standard. Many printers take responsibility for calibrating and maintaining the customers' remote proofing devices.

For large customers, printers may prefer to purchase the proofing device and the consumables to guarantee consistency. Some printers who furnish dye sublimation proofers to their clients actually buy large quantities of ribbon, hoping for consistent color reproduction within a batch.

Len Jasmin of Typecraft provides an Epson 5000 inkjet printer for customer use, calibrating the unit before placing it in a client site. "We've supplied Epsons to a couple of customers who do a lot of work with us; we set the curve on their machines the same as the curve on ours," says Jasmin. "After that, we don't fool around with their calibration unless we start seeing a difference--if they start sending us proofs that don't match what we're working with, we send somebody over to make adjustments."

"A digital proof is only as good as your ability to maintain calibration," points out Banta's Aho. When his customers receive their Imation 2730 Rainbow proofer, initial calibration has already been performed. The next step for Banta is to train the customers on maintenance and calibration, as well as how to use the ColorLock color management software. "Customers are able to create a proof on-site that matches the press sheet within our comfort level for publication work. It's a realistic color match for dye sub proofing."

How remote proofing devices should be maintained and calibrated depends on how the remote proofs are used. If the goal is contract color approval, extensive calibration and color management is needed. If the goal is to approve design changes and last-minute corrections or to okay "pleasing" color, customers should be able to handle calibration themselves.

"The client has to receive some training, so we send our people out and work with a designated person at the customer site, showing that individual how to calibrate. After that, we can talk the person through the process from off-site. Once in a while we still have to visit the client to make sure everything is okay," relates Scheible. "Even the customer's monitor should be calibrated. If we're discussing a proof and the designer is talking about something very subtle, we may have to pull a proof on our Kodak Approval. Remote proofing does not work 100 percent of the time."

Beyond data lines, cost, confidence and calibration, one issue remains to be examined. Perhaps remote proofing is less than ubiquitous because printers and customers alike are confused about the tools and techniques available. A plethora of remote proofing products exists in the prepress industry. Many of these come from vendors who already offer some form of file transfer product. This category includes telecom vendors such as DAX, Wam!Net and Vio, as well as software solutions such as Mass Transit from Group Logic, FullPress from Xinet, BlackMagic Remote from Serendipity, Launch! from PagePath, LightBridge from DynaLab and Grand Central Proof from Hermstedt.

Of course, some ambitious printers have assembled their own hardware and software solutions. Phoenix Color (Hagerstown, MD) markets a service called ColorNet, and Laser Tech Color (Irving, TX) offers its customers a service called ViXnet (Virtual Imaging Xtranet).

Regardless of the vendor you choose for remote proofing, the situation is not so complicated--most remote proofs are generated using one of two methods: remote access or file transfer. Remote access exists when the customer's network allows the printer to "dial in" as a remote user, with the ability to print directly to remote proofers. Some customers even allow the printer's staff remote access to their file servers.

More technically, remote access means that the client has extended its LAN to merge with the printer's network. This communication link creates a Wide Area Network (WAN), in which two LANs are connected via half-routers running file transfer/ modem protocols over high-speed data lines.

File transfer is another method of linking the client to the printer, but in a restricted way. PostScript, PDF or TIFF-IT files are created at the originating computer, then transferred to a "hot folder" on the client's RIP, at which time processing begins automatically. Hot folders are standard on proofing devices with software or workstation RIPs. Although point-to-point transfer methods (in which the customer connects directly to the printer via the data line) have been historically popular for file transfer, increasingly widespread access to the Internet is quickly moving more and more file transfer to FTP sites on the Web.

Despite all the variations in methods, despite the hazards inherent in the process, a select group of printers and service bureaus are successfully employing remote proofing. Printers and service bureaus that have not yet jumped into remote proofing will learn from the existing users in today's graphic arts marketplace and see how they overcome the problems already mentioned. "Our customers need fast turnaround and are located far away," says Scheible of Flower City Printing. "Federal Express adds at least another day to the production process. Remote proofing allows us to jump over the geographical boundaries and shorten the production cycle by up to two days. Most of our packaging jobs are date-sensitive and so we have to react very quickly. Remote proofing allows us to send files from Rochester to California almost instantly and have the proof on the customer's desk first thing in the morning. Clients can approve the job in time for us to work on it the same day."

As we speed our workflow with improvements such as computer-to-plate and on-demand printing, we still have the need for client approval of color proofs. Remote proofing allows for customer participation quickly and cost-effectively. Leap the implementation hurdles and offer your best customers a remote proofing option--before your competitors do.