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Nov 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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Imagine a budget for starting an in-house digital prepress operation with only one condition attached to it: spend what you need in order to produce 700 plates per week. For some, that proposition would be both exciting and intimidating. For the prepress manager at Lithographics, Inc., a 150-employee commercial printer in Nashville, it was smooth sailing all the way.

Because the bulk of Lithographic's work comes from advertising agencies, corporate accounts and magazine publishers, the company serves the upper end of the commercial printing market in the Southeast, as well as some national accounts. Dissatisfied with the quality and control when using outside resources for film production, the printer decided to bring digital prepress in-house with its stable of Heidelberg Speedmasters and a line-up of bindery equipment.

With virtually no electronic prepress equipment or experience, Lithographics turned to Joe Schuld, an electronics expert who had helped other printers in similar situations. "The only surprise in this whole effort was the cost," claims Schuld, now a full-time employee and manager of the systems department. "The executive team was ready to invest about twice the amount actually spent. However, by going with a 'plug-and-play' system, we were able to contain initial costs and, just as important, take the sting out of future expenditures."

Six weeks after the prepress equipment arrived at Lithographics, Schuld and his colleagues were scanning, trapping, stripping and generally operating a digital department. The systems manager is quick to credit the talents of his co-workers for such quick results. "Our conventional strippers understand all the nuances of film prep; we just gave them a different set of tools."

Just what kind of "tools" did Schuld put in place to produce 700 plates per week? To digitize reflective and transparent originals, Lithographics uses a high-speed ChromaGraph S3900 drum scanner from Heidelberg Prepress (formerly Linotype-Hell). Additionally, as part of the company's plans for an all-digital prepress environment, it also installed an Imagitex 1875-S copydot scanner, which allows Lithographics to convert existing separations to digital data. "We're disciplining ourselves to stay off the light tables," explains Schuld, "so when the time comes, we can literally drop a platesetter into the mix and not miss a single beat. The copydot scanner fills the gap that exists as the world moves from film to computer-to-plate (CTP), a transition that we anticipate continuing over the next couple of years."

All retouching, page assembly and imposition is done on Power Macs equipped with an assortment of desktop applications, including PhotoShop, Quark XPress, Pagemaker and PressWise.

Digital prepress work is output on an Avantra 44 imagesetter with in-line processing. Before committing to eight-up impositions, however, Schuld and his team image files on one or more digital proofing devices, including an HP DesignJet 755 plotter, a laser printer or a Screen TrueRite halftone proofer.

Schuld explains how the Rampage RIP acts as the glue holding these diverse components together. "This RIP system allows us to trap and RIP files once at high resolution and image them on any of the proofers at a lower dpi. With a RIP once, plot many workflow, we don't have to worry about font substitutions, reflowing/ text or other unwanted surprises."

"Output quality is better, too," maintains Schuld. "Many accounts now accept digital proofs for signoff because there are no jaggies in the linework or text. Even the traps are rendered cleanly. By the time we go to film, we know exactly what the results will be."

Using a RAMproof board, the system uses raster data to output on any proofing device. It is not necessary to re-RIP data for proofing; data RIPed for film is automatically used at a lower resolution for proofs.

The design of the Rampage system permits Lithographics to impose pages after they are RIPed. And since the system can be designed using multiple RIPs interfacing with one server, productivity is increased across and within jobs. Individual pages are handled within each RIP of the system, then sent back to the server for imposition. Lithographics' system uses three RIPs so on any given job, RIP times are cut by roughly two-thirds.

"Our correction cycles are faster too," reports Schuld. "If a customer has a change on page seven, for example, we re-RIP one page in the signature, not all eight of them." The prepress department isn't the only group that benefits from the new equipment. Press operators report more accurate registration, helping reduce makeready time and materials. "These days, almost all of our press checks are done in less than 30 minutes," claims the systems manager.

The company easily met its 700-plate-per-week goal, retained valuable and committed personnel and improved quality. Equally important, the cost of the equipment turned out to be less than anticipated.

"We've been able to quantify the success of this implementation on many different levels. But on a day-to-day basis," says Schuld, "what we like best is knowing that we're in control. You can't attach a number to that but you sure can feel it in your bones."