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THE WEB IN YOUR WORKFLOW

Jun 1, 2000 12:00 AM


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New tools for print procurement, file transfer, preflighting and more

The process of print publishing is being transformed. Unlike the changes that have occurred during the past 10-15 years, however, these new changes go beyond just affecting the production processes that occur in the prepress area or pressroom. Many new products and services are beginning to address the business of doing business, affecting both customer and vendor relationships.

Why is this Web phenomenon becoming so important to your workflow? As the activity on the Internet increases, it will continue to change the waywe interact with each other on a personal and business level. It has been proven that the Web actually empowers the individual. It facilitates existing processes and transforms others. It does this by making information and services easily accessible. It also brings workgroups, and ultimately entire industries together to share and collaborate.

While all of the solutions we will look at are Web-centric, it is increasingly more difficult to categorize them. A company that may have started as an informational site adds services, or links to new services, and now becomes an application service provider (ASP). We have even seen software firm sites, such as Adobe's, begin to offer services beyond just ordering from their product catalog, thus effectively becoming an ASP.

In this article we will look at some Internet services and tools, as well as the longer-term trends that will allow printers to continue the process of workflow automation and create a more cohesive process.

Print procurement This is probably one of the more familiar service offerings, at least from the standpoint of name recognition, even if many people may not be aware of the subtle differences of each of the players.

In this class of services, the provider facilitates the transaction of print bidding, estimating, negotiating, file submission, and in some cases even the production tracking of the print project. In addition to these services, some of the providers have added additional services like file submission, version tracking and soft proofing. Some have added a sophisticated communication infrastructure to support the system with all of the process partners and integration with your company's ERP or billing systems. The value of this type of service in your workflow, even at its most basic implementation, can be significant. It can ensure more consistent input of order information, allow you to better manage and review your projects and estimating histories, and even reduce some of those e-mails and voicemails. (For more information on specific companies, see "Who's Who," on p. 60.)

To facilitate a production workflow, most of these ASPs create virtual workgroups that can communicate project information. Many of the print procurement systems are evolving into systems that increasingly address even more of the production process. Some of them are doing it by adding new services, while some are integrating their systems with existing output production systems. While this integration will increase over time, once a standard job ticket format is approved, it will be easier to communicate job instruction information across disparate production systems. This will allow cross application communication to become more available to most systems, creating a more comprehensive workflow system.

Moving files When the digital revolution hit the printing industry, it became obvious that there were lots of bits of information to move and manage. Early on, graphic arts users tried to develop communication links with each of their process partners and then use those links to move the data back and forth. The theory of creating those links and then the bandwidth required to move the volumes of data, however, proved to be more than most were able to manage. Differences in phone systems and other issues limited this solution to large companies that could afford multiple systems. While many thought that the Internet could solve this problem, it only solved part of it. Although the Internet fostered the development of a standard communication protocol (TCP/IP) for transferring information, it was unreliable due to the volumes of heavy traffic.

Dax, Vio and Wam!net were created to address the print and publishing market's need for file transfer services. Through the use of extranets (parallel networks outside of the Internet), these firms were able to meet the significant bandwidth requirements of the industry, without the traffic constraints. The three companies also developed special software to facilitate and track file transfers. In addition, they have created virtual communities of their subscribers that include member directories and access to a growing number of value-added services.

Each has since gone beyond its initial charter to create an effective way to move files between clients, and added tools to simplify the workflow surrounding the movement of files, as well as some of the ancillary production task requirements. Centralized file management and storage, for example, eliminates the need for a company or workgroup to manage and store its files locally. Not only does this reduce the responsibility of managing the files, it also minimizes the amount of time an individual needs to spend circulating files, since they can be made available to any authorized user. Some of the file transfer specialists have also added proofing and file markup tools such as Real Time Proof from RT Image that allow for an efficient soft- proofing process online with a Web browser.

Online Preflighting Preflighting is another critical part of the digital production process. The ideal place and time to do preflighting is, of course, at the document originator's site prior to sending the file for output production. It is, however, usually done by the output service provider. This puts the service provider in the unwieldy position of informing the file creator of problems and asking the creator to fix and resubmit the files, or just fixing it for them. Since neither option supports fully automated workflows, several companies are targeting this problem.

Each of these new products checks the files prior to submission to the output service, and can be tightly integrated into many of the file order-transfer-submission processes that exist today. They operate on a subscription basis that charges the service provider an up-front fee, and then an additional transaction fee based on the number of files or pages.

These systems allow the provider to create the specifications that are used to preflight the files. The originator checks the files against the specifications locally, and if the file passes it is sent to the output provider.

Markzware, the developer of FlightCheck, recently introduced a product called MarkzNet, which can be integrated with an output provider's existing Web server. Once incoming files pass through MarkzNet, you can use another Markzware tool, MarkzScout, to actually direct the incoming files through a fairly automated workflow, based on job tickets that are filled out by the originator.

Preflight Online is a product from Creative Pro's Extensis. In addition to checking files, Extensis offers an extensive online help facility to visually direct originators on how to fix any problems they may have with their files.

Both products will check PDF files and those files from a variety of applications. In addition, both companies have suggested that their services will be licensed to individual output service companies as well as ASPs as part of more comprehensive workflow offerings. CreativePro.com (recently acquired by ImageX) offers a PDF preflighting service on its site, and Adobe also recently introduced InProduction Preflight Online, a service that will check PDF files based on its standalone InProduction PDF product.

Online creation/editing Most of the workflow solutions we have discussed so far facilitate the workflows that use existing tools and processes. However, there are a number of new online products and services that will actually transform creating and editing workflows.

One product automates book production. You start the process by filling out some basic forms online. Then you upload pictures for the cover and a basic manuscript created in a word processor. This application actually creates the cover layout and paginates the entire book automatically. It then creates a PDF file, and sends it back to you for review without ever being touched by an operator.

Another service offered by Indocs.com allows you to bring a big part of your publishing process online. It works with documents initially created in standard publishing applications, and automatically converts them to objects that can be managed and edited online. The service then allows you to edit and customize your printed project document online using a standard browser and intuitive Java-based tools from anywhere there is an Internet connection.

While online tools can automate processes, some of them just allow you to use resources that don't exist in your facility. For example, Colorcentric.com is a service that offers color correction, color conversion and image manipulation. It currently offers its service at $15 per image, with a 24-hour or less turnaround.

One-stop shopping and... While we have been discussing the more specific workflow requirements of order entry and the production process itself, there are many other workflow needs that you have in your daily routine. A number of web services have been created to begin addressing some of those other needs. One of the early entrants into this space is CreativePro.com. This company, which initially grew out of the original Extensis software company, positions itself as a graphic arts portal. The site looks like a graphic arts 'zine. It has articles for creative professionals, and it also includes information and reviews on relevant hardware and software.

If you dig down into the site, however, you can also find an "e-services" section, which contains a host of utilities, many based on existing Extensis products. Some of the tools create image effects, do color enhancements and convert colors from RGB to Hex for website creation. There is even an online PDF preflight service. They also have a stock photo and font search facility as well as a link to Intershipper, a service that finds the best shipping prices for your projects from among a large group of shippers. As is the case with most of these ASP sites, this one is constantly growing and evolving.

Another site that has developed into a graphic arts ASP is Adobe.com. While you can find information, products and updates on the Adobe product line here, it has been quietly setting up a full-fledged graphic arts portal. Through a combination of Adobe-developed services as well as many partnerships, the site is now able to offer over a dozen different services, including tools for creating banners, graphics, optimizing images, and even creating PDF files and preflighting them online. Other services allow online creative collaboration, time tracking and billing, web-hosting services, online meetings and print procurement, just to mention a few.

While some of the sites target the interaction between procurement and workflow, an increasing number have narrowed their focus to procurement. Paperexchange.com is a site dedicated to the business of buying and selling paper, although they also offer industry news and information, and links to industry organization resources.

Paperloop.com is a joint venture between Miller Freeman (publisher of Pulp & Paper and Pulp & Paper International) and Pegasus Capital Advisors LP. Paperloop provides a range of transactional and information services for manufacturers, suppliers, printers, converters, the financial community and end-users.

Fobpaper.com describes its model as a purchasing hub or "P-hub." Users have access to a database of products and an add-on service to aid their decision-making. According to President Glenn Trout, the P-Hub "is designed to be an automated procurement resource that enables paper buyers to manage their entire purchasing process, from placing to tracking orders, electronically from one site."

Printnation.com is a dedicated shopping site. It carries most of the equipment and consumables necessary to run a printing plant, and offers support and service contracts, just as many of the conventional brick-and-mortar suppliers would. In addition it offers industry links and a calendar of industry events.

Even some of the historical brick-and-mortar retail suppliers have started to offer online Web product and service procurement. Pitman, for example, recently introduced its online presence at the Vue/Point conference.

There is no doubt that Web-based workflow tools will continue to evolve. While many of the companies that exist today will likely merge, change or even disappear over the long term, the basic advantage of these types of companies-to facilitate and enhance business and production workflows-is sound. The Web will continue to play a large role in your daily personal and business workflows, and most likely allow you to become more efficient in an increasingly competitive global market.

Unveiled at Seybold Boston in February, Sprockets is a project management system for those typically involved in the creative and other initial stages of project development. One of Sprockets' big differentiating factors is that it is not wholly printing industry-centric.

"We're really focused on the entire project of which printing is simply one part," says former Digital Art Exchange exec Patrick White, CEO and founder of Sprockets. "The greatest point of pain people feel in the production process is where they are communicating information, coordinating between companies, and collaborating to review and approve various content. But you must remember that the client has other challenges; you don't want them to just focus on one medium."

And that is the thrust of Sprockets' argument. "As opposed to having 10 different solution providers, one for photographers, one for printers and so forth, one application service provider is managing all the projects that people are working on," White explains.

Sprockets offers services such as file sharing, shared workspaces and the ability to tag files and work in an asset management workflow; collaboration features such as softproofing, audio conference calls where everyone can simultaneously view a whiteboard online; distribution features for estimates and request for proposals, press kits and document broadcasts; and project management features, such as calendaring and time sheets.

The company is targeting its services for marketing communications and creative communities that will initiate creative print and multimedia projects .

Pricing is per project. Different capabilities bear different charges, so that the individual responsible for tracking project charges will know at the end of the month exactly what Sprockets services were bought and used. If used for file managing and sharing, for example, Sprockets may cost as little as $10 per month, prorated at $.033 per day. File delivery costs $0.10 per MB.

Httprint.com's goal is "to automate and consolidate everything related to print production...offering buyers and sellers immediate efficiencies and cost savings through automated and streamlined processes for quoting, buying, proofing, managing and producing print applications."

Mark Malpiede, director of marketing, cites the firm's prior experience managing printers' production departments as a key point of differentation. As one industry pundit notes, "it has a track record and an experienced staff." The company evolved from Landmark Productions (San Francisco), a brick-and-mortar print-procurement project management company founded in 1996. In 1999, the management team hatched the idea for httprint.com, which launched this past spring at Seybold Boston.

Qualified printers can register for a free listing ("a mini-website," according to Malpiede) on the httprint.com site's supplier network. "It's another marketing tool for printers," submits Malpiede. "It can give them broader access [to buyers]."

Print buyers can browse the online listings, but unlike some scenarios, are limited to submitting RFQs to three or fewer printers. The company is targeting corporate print buyers ranging from $50 million to $400 million. The service is free to buyers-participating printers pay a fee totaling two percent on all printing transactions completed through the httprint.com marketplace.

Other httprint.com online services offered include a freelance showcase, industry news and events, a Learning Center for help and information, workflow management tools, online file transfer, used equipment, paper and ink marketplace, online training, job postings, stock photography and industry books.

Httprint.com is making its European debut at Drupa, where Malpiede promises "enormous" news.

The best workflow solutions don't necessarily protect you from the unique problems that you may encounter each day. While most output service providers have tried to get a "guru" on staff to address this need, it's impossible for one individual to answer all of the questions that may arise in production workflows. Industry-specific discussion groups can help.

Some of the most popular sites have recently been grouped under the banner of printplanet.com. These sites evolved from Dave Mainwaring's CTP forum. This group has grown to 3,000 members from around the world. In the past two years, Mainwaring, with the able assistance of Dax, has added ten new groups, including ones dedicated to the pressroom, Quark, quick printing, newspapers and telecom. While the discussions sometimes turn into vendor comparison sessions, Mainwaring, who also acts as a moderator, is quick to steer the discussion back on track.

PlanetPDF.com is a PDF-centric site that also has PDF-related products for sale, links to other PDF sites, and news and information about PDF events. Similar to PrintPlanet, the site recently announced it will be exanding its focus, keeping it within the publishing realm, to cover XML, eBooks, and wireless Internet discussions and issues. PDFZone is another site featuring PDF-centric discussion groups and other resources.

Don't forget to check out industry association websites such as www.GATF.org, and the PIA at www.printing.org. IPA also has collected lots of technical information on its website, www.ipa.org. There's also the IPA Tech Forum, which allows members to discuss prepress technology and workflows in a moderated environment.