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Jan 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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Long ago, at the beginning of the digital revolution, raster image processor (RIP) was an exotic term that baffled commercial printers who were struggling to adapt to electronic print production. As we close in on the 21st century, RIPs are an everyday part of the commercial printing atmosphere. Everyone has one--or several--and everyone understands the basic function of this critical prepress software to delineate the position and colors of ink dots for output.

But as the printing industry evolves, along with advances in digital technology, the basic RIP continues to change. One of the most significant changes in print production that has challenged RIP developers is the advent of wide-format printing. The relatively new market niche brings with it front-end demands that are not as important for standard-format output. Among these are scaling and tiling abilities and unique color demands.

Whether you are just entering the wide-format market or are simply expanding your existing wide-format offering, gaining an understanding of wide-format's unusual RIPing demands will help your search for the 'ideal' RIP wide-format system.

Before we begin, a warning: 'RIP' has become an outdated term (although that won't stop us from using it here). In the search for an appropriate wide-format RIP, you may hear terms such as 'servers,' 'controllers,' 'drivers,' 'printing management systems,' or even a vendor-specific name that describes a particular front-end configuration.

Why? 'RIP' is something of an oversimplification because today's RIPing software often does much more than simply rasterize files for output.

What's more, the software is increasingly a small, albeit important, part of a larger management system. In fact, some vendors stop just short of denying that they are in the RIP business at all, preferring instead to focus on a total solution for wide-format output.

'We're not selling the RIP or even the printer; we're selling applications,' says Anthony Hicks, manager of wide-format solutions and launch management for Xerox Colorgraphx. 'We explain to print providers that if they want to do outdoor banners for trade shows, this is the configuration they will need. On the other hand, if you want to do indoor work, you may not need UV capabilities. After determining applications, we then discuss the components of the system.'

After you figure out what it is you want to print, you need to understand the components. You could count the number of actual RIP software manufacturers on your fingers. Companies such as Harlequin create the basic software and sell it to OEMs who add various features and may couch the technology in different hardware configurations. For instance, Harlequin's wide-format OEMs include Barco, Compose Systems, Gerber Scientific Products, Graphics Integration, SilverLogic, T/R Systems, Visual Edgeand Vutek, all of which sell a modified ScriptWorks RIP under different brand names.

Print providers can buy their print driver systems directly from these sources or from an output device manufacturer that includes the server as part of a total production package. Both options have advantages.

According to Sean O'Leary, developer of educational programs for the International Reprographic Assn. (IrgA), many people will spend the extra money to get an integrated system in which all of the components have been tested for compatibility. This arrangement works really well for newcomers to the market or those who are not technically minded.

One example of such a product package is Xerox, which gives independent software developers a starter kit that is designed to help them develop compatible RIPs. Xerox wide-format devices run with RIPs from Splash Technology, Colorbus and ScanVec.

However, the price for a short learning curve and reliability often is paid in consumable costs as an integrated system can lock the print provider into using the vendor's ink and consumables. Whether you buy RIP software that is embedded in a hardware package or one sold along is yet another choice you'll have to make. A hardware-based RIP will have been tested for ease-of-use and compatibility with its companion hardware, but a software RIP is often easier to upgrade--frequently with a simply Internet download.

Regardless of which choice you make, O'Leary recommends starting with a vendor whose RIP is modular and who has the market presence to survive the current consolidation craze. 'Select a vendor that offers a starter kit that can be upgraded,' he suggests. 'Most people find they need more and more as time goes by, but there's no point in buying the whole package until you know what you will require down the line.

'Also, when the next generation of inkjet printers comes out in six months,' cautions O'Leary, 'you want a vendor that has the wherewithal to upgrade to a new driver.' Consolidation is heavy on the minds of those who watch the RIP market. 'A key issue to consider is that there used to be more than 30 companies that sold large-format RIPS. However, in 1998 a lot of companies merged and smaller companies went away,' observes Ken Lipscomb, vice president of NT product management for Colorspan. 'People should buy from a firm that has the market presence to be there in the future. We expect a tremendous number of firms to fall by the wayside in the next 18 months.'

Certainly the most important part of shopping for a wide-format RIP is comparing each offering's features and deciding on a package that will serve your needs best. O'Leary offers a word of caution before starting on this adventure. 'Be very careful,' he says. 'The wide-format market is still a Wild West atmosphere and there tends to be a lot of hyperbole. Few RIPs perform exactly as they are said to.'

At a minimum, a good large-format server should offer the ability to automatically scale a small-format file into a large poster, a sign or even a bus wrap. Your new RIP should utilize a screening approach that is suited to large-format output, such as stochastic or error diffusion screening or a combination of both. The RIP should be able to automatically tile a large piece across several widths of media so they match up appropriately or use a step-and-repeat function to arrange many smaller printers to best take advantage of the width of the media.

Media is a unique consideration of large-format printers. It is far more expensive, so waste is a key issue. Shop owners can get burned in two ways: length and width. A good server should help avoid both problems.

For example, the MicroPress from T/R systems 'allows you to quickly determine how much length is left on the roll and automatically will stop a job if the roll isn't long enough,' relates Jim Cavedo, marketing communications manager.

Color is one of the most important considerations when deciding on any new device for a print environment, but wide-format carries with it particular issues. A good wide-format driver should offer precise, easy-to-use color controls. If you are producing high-end ad work, using a large-format device for proofing, or proofing your large-format files on a smaller networked printer, you will need state-of-the-art color control. Built-in ICC profiling capabilities or custom profiling may be in order.

Plus, wide-format media is expensive and re-running copies because of color problems is an unnecessary expense.

'Large-format users must have consistently accurate color,' states Steven Bursely, product marketing manager for Splash Technology. 'Since large-format printers typically print significantly slower than small-format color printers and color copier/printers, users need an accurate, easy-to-use solution that gives them the desired result the first time.'

Furthermore, wide-format output often comes in several different pieces. The color must remain consistent from panel to panel across large pieces such as bus wraps. These may be output on different networked printers, so it is crucial that the RIP be able to provide accurate color profiles for each and compensate for each output device's idiosyncrasies. And if one panel is ruined, you need to be confident that you can reproduce an exact match the next day, week or month.

It is, of course, advisable to buy the fastest, most powerful RIP package that you can afford in order to process and archive ungainly large-format files quickly and correctly.

You'll want the fastest hardware you can work with,' advises Keith Hice, director of technical development for Mandel Co., in Milwaukee, WI. 'You'll want the fastest network connections and plenty of hard drive space for files to process. Within three months, there's going to be a new RIP available that's slightly faster and slightly cheaper--and speed always equals money --so configure your RIP for speed from the outset.'

Mandel Co. utilizes a Barco FastRIP/B for its GigaSetter and MegaSetter large-format film recorders. The ability to drive more than one output device is another important feature to consider. You may need to run several wide-format devices simultaneously or just add on a simple small-format printer for proofing your larger work.

'One ScriptWorks RIP can serve more than one output device on its host machine,' states Harlequin product specialist Brent Tennefoss, 'which is important, especially in smaller shops where it is cost-efficient to drive both a proofer and imagesetter with investment in only one RIP.'

'We looked at all the RIPs and judged which ones could run small-format and color copiers as well as large-format,' relates Robert Leigh, digital imaging specialist for the corporate headquarters of franchiser SignsNow. 'You have to look at expansion. At some point there's going to be a marriage of the small-format and large-format industries, and customers will want to get their van wrap, their business cards and proofs all from one place.'

SignsNow performed intensive research into RIP packages and now offers its franchises a Windows NT-based Colorbus RIP for use with Xerox 8054 and Xpress printers. (For more information on running more than one device, see adjoining sidebar.)

If you are buying a RIP as part of a larger package, be aware there may be more than one choice available to you. Some vendors will first offer the RIP that is preferred in the region or in a particular market. They have thoroughly researched the markets and available RIPS and will automatically offer what they believe is the best fit for a potential customer.

But many vendors have other RIP offerings in reserve. If you believe the RIP that is offered to you may not be the best solution to your needs, don't hesitate to ask if there are others available. This holds true even after the purchase.

'If the client is not happy, we are willing to give them a totally different solution,' says Hicks. 'They deserve no less than that.'

To be sure that you end up a happy customer, Bursely offers these tips for choosing a RIP to serve your large-format operation.

* Find a vendor that understands color and with a support organization that is ready to offer support and back up the product. * Find a solution that is accurate. Reprinting a job wastes valuable time and money, not to mention increasing your frustrations. * Find a solution that is easy to use. If the product is too difficult to use, you may end up losing business because you can't meet the deadlines of your customers.

'Look for easy integration, proven reliability of the RIP and support for important quality controls such as color management,' Tennefoss suggests. 'A new wide-format printer should be an enhancement, not another headache.'

The ability to drive more than one device from one RIP is an attractive selling feature of many servers. Theoretically, the right print server could enable production on two or more networked output devices to run two jobs at once or to double up production of a longer, single run. Also being able to drive a small-format printer for proofing and a large-format device for production saves money and time, while ensuring that the proof and end-product are identical in color and quality.

But is the ability to run multiple devices a reality or the Holy Grail of wide-format printing? The answer depends on the product, so buyer beware. 'It's absolutely doable. I've seen up to six networked successfully,' O'Leary states. 'To be sure, question every statement the vendor makes and make the manufacturer prove it. Ask who you can call in your area to verify performance.'

One case in which the promise seems to match reality is T/R Systems MicroPress Cluster Printing System, which supports HP DesignJet 2000 and 3000 wide-format printers. It is based on the Harlequin ScriptWorks RIP. 'If you have enough business, you can cluster print with the T/R system,' reports Bob Kalter, co-owner of The WordPro (Ithaca, NY). 'You can run them all with one file, all printing different files or any combination you want. If you're printing a lot of wide-format, this will really save time and money.'

However, some users have found that not all solutions are so straightfoward. 'Many RIPs are sold as being able to drive a number of devices,' says Keith Hice of Mandel Co. (Milwaukee, WI). 'But when you ask specifically if the RIP will run more than one device simultaneously, at least half won't be able to.' When someone says that a RIP can serve more than one output device, they may be making one of several statements. Below are a few possible interpretations.

One RIP, one machine. The server has the driver software and CPU horsepower to serve only one device.

One RIP, one machine at a time. In some cases, the drivers are included to support multiple devices, but you may need to physically unplug one device before using another due to CPU limitations.

One RIP, multiple devices for more money. In other instances, the controller has the necessary power but the software is incomplete. The print shop may have to shell out additional money to get the driver software for an additional output device.

One RIP, multiple devices. The controller truly has the software and horsepower to serve more than one output device at a time, either running the same file, different files or both.