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Web-based Workflow Tools

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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Adapting the Internet's capabilities to the print-manufacturing process hasn't been smooth sailing. To date, the application service provider (ASP) model has met with little success. As one pundit observed, it seems to be a solution looking for real demand. Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. (Hanover Park, IL) and Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) apparently agree — both vendors have discontinued their ASP efforts: myfujifilm.com and Prinect Internet Portal, respectively.

Today's trends include adding Web connectivity to strategic points within printers' existing workflows. Examples include online quoting and specification entry, file transfer, preflighting and soft proofing.

Web integration from start to finish

Creo's (Vancouver, BC) Networked Graphic Production (NGP) initiative promises to automate the entire workflow, from file creation to delivery of the printed piece. Its Synapse InSite Internet portal reportedly allows print buyers to upload files to their printers' secure websites, where the files are automatically processed by the Prinergy or Brisque workflow-management system. Synapse Link enables production-data and job-status information to be exchanged between prepress and workflow systems and management information systems (MISs) via the JDF protocol.

Unlike an Internet ASP, Synapse InSite is a Web portal hosted by individual printers. Because InSite is integrated into Brisque and Prinergy workflows, users don't have to copy files over the Web to post for review or render them to another format for viewing or approval.

“The files get selected as Web-enabled by the printer and are instantly available online,” says Christine Kraus, workflow product manager for Creo. “The print buyer is approving and viewing the actual high-resolution ‘digital production master’ that has been rendered, color managed and, if desired, trapped. This ensures file integrity between the file approved in InSite and the file that has been plated.”

Kraus notes that since InSite lets printers and their customers make last-minute changes, it shrinks cycle times while enabling all concerned to be more flexible. “And, because it all happens over the Web, InSite is increasing printers' geographical reach.”

To ensure that all facets of printers' workflows will work together, Creo's NGP includes other vendor partners, such as Adobe, KBA, Komori, Printcafe, Prism and Xerox. (MAN Roland is also expected to join — see “Next-generation networking,” July 2003.)

Shira's (Newton, MA) Xpressi workflow product is an automated, networked-based raster and PDF solution said to enable “prepress from anywhere.” Users can leverage existing [proprietary] workflows or combine CEPs and PDF workflows, either as a standalone system or to complement an existing workflow.

Xpressi uses a standard browser interface to enable a printer/prepress operation's authorized in-house users to manage accounts, assign workgroups, submit jobs, set parameters, assign workflows, soft proof, approve work and establish destination/distribution parameters. Graphic-arts service providers' clients can use Xpressi to submit, preflight, soft proof, collaborate and approve jobs/work. When customers are submitting jobs into the system from outside the printer or prepress company, Xpressi lets system administrators manage accounts, assign workgroups, set parameters, assign or create workflows (through templates), and establish destination/distribution parameters.

MIS links

During the 2000 dot-com frenzy, several vendors introduced options that let printers' customers select prepriced items from an online catalog. But most printers ultimately decided to wait for their MIS/estimating packages to develop Internet capabilities.

According to Don Goldman, principal of Consultware (Pembroke, MA), a consultancy specializing in MIS issues, Pace, Parsec, Prism, Profit Control Systems and other MIS vendors now offer Printable (Solana Beach, CA) Web-browser estimating modules that use the PrintTalk (Reston, VA) specification to interface to their estimating systems.

Ron Berg, vice president of Profit Control Systems (Carlstadt, NJ), says that compelling business issues are driving many of his customers to put their estimating online. “The Internet has expanded the bidding process to include more suppliers from around the country, so these printers need to provide a quick response back to the user,” says the exec. “Every customer that has come to us in the past year has made online estimating a top priority.”

“We are beginning to see increased interest — much more than the year before,” concurs Carol Andersen, president, Prism (Plymouth, MA). “Online ordering and quoting are finally coming into their own. We have quite a few clients now using the Printable solution [for online ordering] and more asking for it.”

For online estimating, Prism's Enterprise system has “RFQ,” a Web-enabled module that can accept an online request for quotation from a printer's customer, drop the information into the estimating module and notify the estimator that an online request is waiting.

“Printers can define a number of templates, setting the specs or fields that they want their customers to complete,” says Andersen. “These can be easily matched to fields and templates in the Enterprise estimating module for quick turnaround.”

Vision Graphics (Loveland, CO) is using Printcafe's PrinterSite Internal, an Internet-based specification tool, to standardize and streamline its RFQ process. “It saves time and effort because the salespeople are now keying in the information once, rather than writing the specs down on a piece of paper and having someone else enter them,” explains Mark Steputis, CEO and owner of the $12 million, 71-employee commercial printer. “We don't have transposition or related errors.”

Vision Graphics' salespeople are required to use PrinterSite — the estimating department won't accept specs submitted on paper. PrinterSite users also must provide certain job details before the system will accept the RFQ. Although the estimating department still occasionally has to go back to a salesperson to clarify specs, Steputis says this is the exception rather than the rule. “Basically the data moves faster, we turn our quotes around a little quicker and it takes less people power to get it done.”

Salespeople use laptops to log in and enter quote requests from their home, the office or the field. “This information ties in with the Hagen OA database — salespeople can see all of the generated quotes, convert those to orders and check the status of orders,” explains Steputis.

File preparation/submission

The exec says most salespeople quickly mastered the new system, and adds that implementing PrinterSite has generally resulted in fewer versions of the same quote. “In the old days, we had to do nine versions of every quote,” notes Steputis. “The salespeople would ask for quotes on job three-over-three, two-over-two, one-over-one, coated and uncoated stocks, but now that they have to type all of that in, the number of versions seems to be going down.”

A new crop of products combines file-transfer capabilities with software that can help designers avoid creating files that won't print. PagePath Technologies (Aurora, IL) has transitioned its point-to-point Launch! file-transfer service into MyOrderDesk.com, which includes the PDF2U print driver for creation of PDF files that comply with the print service provider's specifications.

PagePath describes MyOrderDesk as an online order entry, file transfer, FTP server and job status system that automatically keeps both printers and customers notified. Within a few minutes of signing up for MyOrderDesk, the printer is assigned either a website or an extension of an existing site. This site serves as a hub for all of the printer's interactions with its customers. The PDF2U private-labeled print driver enables the printer's clients to click “print” from virtually any application to automatically create, compress and send a file to the printer's website.

File-transfer methods include SimpleSend, which uses the customer's browser to attach files or Launch!, which uses FTP. An ezMerge feature lets printers' customers enter variable data on the printers' Web order form and then click a button to see a proof. When the proof has been approved, the printer can download a high-resolution production file.

Sold as a software development kit that must be implemented by an integrator, Adobe's (San Jose, CA) PDF Transit installations include a new PostScript print driver that includes Adobe's PDFlib technology — useful when dealing with cost-conscious clients, since it allows Transit users to create high-quality PDF files without purchasing Adobe's Acrobat.

Created specifically for printers that want to offer a collaborative workspace to their clients, private network provider WAM!NET (Minneapolis) offers WAM!NET WorkSpace and WAM!BASE, hosted in WAM!NET's remote, redundant data centers and featuring both online and nearline asset-storage capabilities. User transactions are logged, so it's possible to determine if and when a team member has downloaded a particular document. Accessible through a secure Internet connection or via WAM!NET's private network, these collaboration tools are used with a Web browser.

According to executive vice president Alan Darling, Vio (Roseland, NJ) has evolved from its ASP roots. Its managed networked services helps printers procure and manage their network infrastructures. “Vio finds the best value for lines in your area,” explains Darling. “For a management fee, we monitor your lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Vio's Digital Workflow suite packages JDF metadata with the sender's files — all of the information arrives at the appropriate person's desktop, eliminating follow-up phone calls/faxes. The Digital Workflow suite can also integrate preflighting and remote-proofing options.

Traditionally used to verify the completeness and integrity of files after they have arrived at the printing plant, preflighting products have recently been adapted to the task of testing files as part of the file-transfer process. Like Adobe's Transit, Markzware's (Santa Ana, CA) MarkzNet is typically configured and installed by a third-party integrator; in some cases, this same integrator can host the Web servers that make the service work. Once installed, MarkzNet provides a simple drag-and-drop interface for clients to preflight and upload files using only a Web browser.

The same technology powers Markzware's new Job2Print service, which offers free browser-based file collection and FTP file-transfer capabilities; for an additional $99 per year, senders can also add a preflight file examination to the submission process.

Introduced in 1999, Extensis' (Portland, OR) PrintReady is a Web browser plug-in that communicates with Extensis' Preflight Online servers to coordinate the inspection, collection and transmission of desktop-publishing files. The free plug-in can be automatically installed during the designer's first visit to a Preflight Online web page, allowing the Web browser to securely send configuration preferences and preflight inspection data to the server for analysis. Product versions include a standalone application, the Service Provider Edition for custom configuration of analysis and upload settings, and the Enterprise Edition for XML integration into the printer's workflow system.

Savvy clients with proven file-preparation skills are good candidates for secure “mailboxes” for uploading or downloading files. After users have downloaded and installed a small browser plug-in, Group Logic's (Arlington, VA) MassTransit enables files to be securely transferred with a drag-and-drop interface. Other companies in this market include Vertex Network Solutions (New York City), which recently acquired the Beehive file-transfer utility.

Soft proofing

Products that can be used for monitor-based “soft” proofing range from home-built FTP sites to sophisticated database-driven digital-asset management (DAM) systems. Owen Wooding, vice president of technology for Vermillion, Inc. (the Derry, NH, company formed from the merger of Eastern Rainbow and Souhegan Color), uses Xinet's (Berkeley, CA) WebNative to receive customer-uploaded assets as well as deliver online proofs of images, PDFs and QuarkXPress documents.

“In the past, customers would call and request a few images from our archives; we'd have to retrieve them, burn a CD and ship it out FedEx,” Wooding recalls. “With WebNative, we can offer our clients a Web-based way to interact with our 7,500-GB data archive while eliminating the cost of shipping and customer-service interaction.”

Another popular tool for server-based soft proofing is RealTimeProof, available directly from RealTime Image (San Bruno, CA) or through the vendor's partnerships with Kodak Polychrome Graphics (Norwalk, CT), WAM!NET, Printable. com and others. Recently enhanced with improved color-management support, localization and support for Apple's OS X operating system, RealTimeProof's pixels-on-demand technology allows standard Web browsers to deliver accurate color as well as extensive tools for annotation and reporting.

DuPont Imaging Technologies' (Wilmington, DE) CromaNet iCertification product links multiple remote-proofing sites via FTP or secure http protocols. Remote sites share color-reproduction specifications for their Digital Cromalin proofing devices as well as information on setup and maintenance functions; the iCertifier Web client compares data gathered with an X-Rite DTP 41 spectrophotometer to determine if the remote proof matches others made in different locations.

Integrating a soft-proofing solution with a Web browser front end provides real-world benefits for Chicago's Continental Web. “Our customers like using DALiM FiCELLE to automate the imposition approval process,” reports Ed Zepernick, Continental's director of technology. “If they submit the files properly, our Dalim Software system converts the files and puts it on the Web as both single pages and as a fully imposed proof, complete with press marks.”

Dalim Software (New Orleans) has expanded upon the typical capabilities of soft-proofing servers by offering real-time chat for customer support, PostScript and TIFF-IT viewing and XML integration within its DALiM DiALOGUE product. After zooming in and out, adding annotations, checking production parameters and using the integrated densitometer, clients can validate the file to initiate RIPing or other processes. Connecting FiCELLE with DALiM DiALOGUE has also facilitated international opportunities for Continental, thanks to Dalim Software's multilingual capabilities. “We were able to land a big job out of Japan, since the FiCELLE browser could display their job data in their own language,” relates Zepernick.

Conclusion

Far from being threatened by Internet connectivity, many printers are finding that Web-based automation can reduce costs while enhancing productivity. Whether you're looking at a new workflow system with all the bells and whistles or simply want to put a specific function online with a third-party tool, doing business online has never been easier, cheaper or more secure.