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Soft Touch

Dec 1, 2007 12:00 AM


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While some customers aren't ready to give up hard-copy contract proofs, many are changing with the times. Some printers and agencies don't have a choice: TIME magazine, for example, no longer accepts hard proofs from advertisers, an initiative the company launched about a year ago. Monitor-based soft proofing also is driven by practical considerations — it streamlines communication while enabling a faster approval process.

“Color-accurate soft proofing today is where computer-to-plate (CTP) was 10 years ago,” says Joseph Marin, senior prepress technologist and instructor for PIA/GATF. “A lot of big players — publishers and large printers — had CTP, and that's where I see soft proofing right now. Over the past year, however, it's started to trickle down to your midsize commercial printers. They're adopting the technology because the prices have come down on the software, but more importantly, the hardware. If you're a printer, your client can get into the game pretty inexpensively. For a couple thousand dollars, you can set up a soft proofing station with the correct display, the correct hardware and the correct calibration tools. It's pretty affordable.” (See Marin's comprehensive soft proofing overview, April 2006's “The Final 4,” at americanprinter.com.)

SWOP-certified soft proofing options include CGS' ORIS Soft Proof, DALiM's DiALOGUE, ICS' Remote Director and Kodak's Matchprint Virtual and Creo Synapse InSite. (See www.swop.org for complete configuration details.) Since April 2006, Marin says, not much has changed in terms of the applications themselves. “What has improved is the user interfaces,” he says. “They're a lot cleaner; they've been simplified. If you're the end user and you have a lot of different jobs, it's a lot easier to get to the job you're looking for.”

The main trend Marin has observed in the last year is a push toward more integration. Users want to integrate their systems with digital asset management applications and for uses beyond the printing industry as we know it.

AMERICAN PRINTER talked with printers using soft proofing systems to get their take on the technology.

Ahead of the game

Brown Printing, a $400 million printer headquartered in Waseca, MN, was one of the first printing companies to install ICS Remote Director on the printing press two years ago. “Today's print process is primarily digital, up to the press. Technology allows us efficient ways to remain paperless in the process,” says Lee Edberg, central premedia manager. “The industry has one primary piece of paper to remove to achieve a paperless workflow: the proof.”

In addition to the company's overall vision, customers were asking for a virtual proofing option. “Our decision was to prepare ourselves for the shift in the industry,” says Edberg. “As the technology proves this is going to work, we'll be ready for it, and when other publishers jump on board, we'll be ready by fitting each of our presses with Virtual Proof systems on the press console.”

Early adopter

When Brown began investigating systems, it realized that soft proofing in the pressroom was something of a foreign concept to system manufacturers. “The interfaces and such had been built for the upstream users, for somebody in an office,” says Edberg. “Nobody knew how the monitors would hold up in a pressroom environment; they didn't know if there would be problems from paper dust and other conditions.”

Also, the navigation was not efficient or effective for the press operators, he says. “Pressroom operators are focused on manufacturing electronics, not desktop operations. They're hardware people.”

Brown's press operators require extremely fast navigation, because when the machine produces product at 3,000 ft. per min., operators can't wait three minutes for a page to show up onscreen. Eventually Brown opted for 23-inch Apple Cinema displays in the pressroom. Two monitors stacked on each press give operators the ability to view four pages of the form simultaneously.

Brown created a list of pros and cons with each system and brought their concerns to the vendors. “We asked, ‘How are you going to address these cons?’” says Edberg. “ICS was the quickest to respond, changing the interface, making it user-friendly in a pressroom environment.”

Educating customers

Currently, 25 percent of Brown's customer volume is virtual proofed today on press for color. But even with so many customers on board, Edberg admits getting customers to embrace the technology can be difficult. “If you look at it on the surface, you go virtual and no one is handling proofs. Why shouldn't it save money?”

But, there are certain situations where the cost savings aren't as dramatic, and this has to do with the size of an operation. “The printing industry has a wide range of customers. You've got the very large publishers, and then the much smaller publishers in the market, where they've got five or six people that run the whole show. Each magazine is equally important to us as a printer, but by the same token, the large companies have opportunity for greater savings internally [with virtual proofing].”

Soft proofing is an easier sell to the big players. When larger customers reduce material and handling costs, they can reduce staff, says Edberg. For shops printing only one publication or very few publications with a handful of employees, the savings aren't necessarily there.

The larger companies also generally are spread out across the country. “Virtual proofing is a great solution if you've got people that need to validate things on the East Coast and West Coast. It can save valuable shipping time,” Edberg says.

Edberg sees virtual proofing as a stepping stone to a proofless world. If people become comfortable using a screen, and the screen matches the number, then it's a simple matter to just turn the screen off, he says. “If they're not touching something, pretty soon what they're not touching, they can just quit looking at, too.”

“The technology is easy and it works,” he says. “The business model takes more effort to substantiate.” Brown works with each customer to determine the value proposition that will work best for them.

Even with the diversity in customers and business models, Edberg is keen for others to adopt the technology. “Go for it,” he says. “The process works. Adapt your current process to the small changes required. Hard proofs are going away and can be painful to manage and handle.”

Take the next step

Primary Color always has considered itself on the cutting edge of technology. As the Internet has grown increasingly important as a business and e-commerce tool, it was only logical for this $50 million California sheetfed printer to follow suit. With facilities in Orange County and Los Angeles, Primary Color produces a high volume of color-critical work.

Kodak's InSite and Matchprint Virtual Technology handle contract monitor proofing, and Jay Sato, Primary Color's director of research and development, is thrilled with the technology, calling it “bulletproof.” “They seem to have all the angles covered. For example, it forces our customers to calibrate once a day and will not allow them to make an approval on a contract proof if it hasn't been calibrated. The system is reliable, it's doing its thing and [customers] are seeing what we want them to see.”

Primary Color also uses Kodak Prinergy for its main workflow system, which is connected to InSite.

One of the company's greatest successes with the technology came from a campaign for advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Primary Color set up Saatchi & Saatchi just before the company rolled out a huge campaign. “It couldn't have gone better,” says Sato. “It went very smoothly and would have presented a lot of obstacles if it had not used soft proofing.” In a three month period, 900 pages were proofed using Kodak's system, a feat Sato notes would have been much more difficult in the same time frame if hard proofs were used.

All aboard

Like most printers offering soft proofing, Sato says user education is a challenge. “Kodak InSite prepress portal system and Matchprint Virtual Technology are not difficult to use. They're powerful enough to accommodate different workflows but like anything else, there is a learning curve whenever something new is implemented. The workflow encompasses both the customers and our staff,” he says. “Getting used to the workflow is critical for both sides. A quick and trouble-free ramp-up is a high priority for us, and we know how to get there with Kodak InSite system and Matchprint Virtual Technology.”

Sato likes to handle this on a 1:1 basis, sitting down with teams that handle specific customers and showing them how the system works. “We have a really intimate session together and I can answer all the questions right away,” he says.

Customer installations are handled in a similarly personal manner. When it comes to installing the software and monitors to handle color-critical soft proofing, Primary Color will handle everything for the customer or consult with the customer so they can add the technology themselves. “We just try to accommodate the customer,” Sato says.

Sato urges anyone considering soft proofing to consider the workflow very carefully. “People might have a tendency to just look at the feature list,” he says. “Soft proofing is something that needs to be test driven. If possible, the vendor should offer an evaluation, maybe a 30-day trial, where you can try it out and really put the system through the paces before a decision is made. That's something we did.”

The inkjet equation

As noted in AMERICAN PRINTER's October 2006 feature “Instant proof,” Primary Color has used Epson Stylus Pro devices for remote proofing at multiple locations for several years. “In past years, we've seen inkjet technology improve dramatically, and I believe it will eventually take over the lion's share of contract proofing,” says Sato. “We offer our display and paper-based proofing solutions to our customers to solve their specific set of problems. For some, they have to have a paper proof delivered quickly, therefore display-based proofing would not solve their problem and placing a remote proofer would be the solution, but soft remote proofing is much easier to set up and maintain. We have plans to implement both with some customers where the geographic challenges demand a internet-based solution with soft proofing done at certain stages and remote paper proofing done at others.”

The second mouse

Baltimore, MD-based Vertis Communications has been engaged in virtual proofing since 1998. Despite this long history with the technology, director of integrated manufacturing Scott Tully likes to say, “In technology, it's often the second mouse who gets the cheese. The first mouse gets caught in the trap. We weren't an early adopter of DALiM DiALOGUE, but it always was on my radar.”

Vertis didn't add the technology until version 3.1 was released, and soft proofing continues to be an evolving technology. Even now, Tully says, they still suggest features and capabilities that need to be added. “We've come up with a few ideas of our own, and DALiM Software has been really good about it, as far as listening and subsequently implementing them. Some of the best ideas for new features have come from our soft proofing customers.”

Gaining those customers who embrace the notion of soft proofing has been a challenge, but Tully says the tide has been turning in recent years. Typically two customers per month adopt the technology, a vast improvement from several years ago when Tully would spend months doing demos espousing the virtues of soft proofing, without a single convert. “Everybody thought it was great, but nobody was willing to commit,” he says. “Now, people are finding the value in it.”

Even so, he notes that soft proofing has not yet eclipsed the need or desire for a hard proof. For the majority of Vertis' customers, hard-copy proofs remain the preferred final “sign-off” before print.

Vertis uses DALiM DiALOGUE for internal approvals of its work. The system is integrated with the company's TWiST workflows. Jobs are stopped in the middle for approvals, saving on proofing waste. For online customer approvals, TWiST sends the file to the DiALOGUE server, where it initiates the approval process by sending an e-mail to the customer. Once the customer approves it, DiALOGUE releases the page, where it can be returned to a workflow or released to proofing, or become part of an imposition. “When you need to visually inspect multiple versions of an eight-page circular, on-line soft proofing is the most timely and efficient approval process. We achieve this daily within our integrated, color-managed DiALOGUE environment,” Tully says.

Times change

Tully sees the varying desire to embrace virtual proofing as both a technological and generational issue. “Like many in this business, I began my career in the analog world. I find that it is the younger, all-digital generation who are most likely to forego the traditional hard proof and adopt a monitor-based, soft proofing approval process. Those of us who have experienced the evolution of soft proofing technology are more skeptical, demanding an exact match between the traditional ‘contract’ proof and the monitor display.”


Carrie Cleaveland is assistant editor for AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at carrie@americanprinter.com.

Viewing booth dedicated to virtual proofing

JUST Normlicht (Langhorne, PA) has introduced the latest innovation in lighting and viewing technology, the Virtual Proof Station. Virtual Proof Station uses computer controls and monitor calibration devices to create a completely controlled viewing environment for on-press virtual proofing.

The new Virtual Proof Station is self-contained and includes all of the necessities for creating an ISO 3664:2000 compliant soft proofing area anywhere in the printing facility. The USB interface provides for precise luminance control. The station features multiple monitor mounting options, allowing users to hang two 30-inch monitors in either landscape or portrait orientation. Additionally, the Virtual Proof Station has a luminance level control for consistent light levels throughout the workday as well as a glare- and reflection-free viewing environment.

Because it is self-contained, JUST Normlicht's new Virtual Proof Station is easily moved from press to press as needed, while always yielding precise viewing conditions. See www.justnormlicht.com.

Proofing analysis worksheet
Proof creation costs Hard Virtual
Equipment Cost (EC)* $11,000 $6,600
Consumable Cost (annual) (CC) $2,600 $0
Annual Maintenance/Service Cost (MC) $1,650 $20,000
Useful Life (years) (UL) 3 3
Total annual equipment cost ((EC/UL)+CC+MC) $7,917 $22,200
Direct Labor Cost (annual) (DL) $3,300 $1,238
Indirect Labor Cost (annual) (IL) $0 $0
Total annual labor cost (DL+IL) $3,300 $1,238
Annual shipping costs for proofs $0 $0
Total annual cost of proof creation $11,217 $23,438
Proof purchase costs
Number of contract proofs purchased (annual) 0 0
Price per proof $0 $0
Number of content proofs purchased (annual) 0 0
Price per proof $0 $0
Total cost of proof purchase $0 $0
Revenue from proof sales
Number of contract proofs sold (annual) 0 0
Price per proof $0 $0
Number of content proofs sold (annual) 0 0
Price per proof $0 $0
Total annual proofing revenue $0 $0
Savings
Time savings (days per cycle) 0 1
Value of one day extra in production cycle 0 $2,000
Total annual time savings value $0 $24,000
Priceless value
>>Consistent color accuracy
>>Last minute changes
>>Additional revenue — ability to insert more advertising
Net value of proofing -$11,217 $562
Net value to convert to virtual proofing $11,779

Real soft proofing numbers from a Brown Printing client. Dated September 2006 (2006 example data); *Includes printer, software, calibration hardware/software, monitors, workstations, lighting environments, etc.

Proof of concept

Monitor-based proofing methods encompass everything from PDF files sent via e-mail or FTP sites to systems that allow users to review content and layout, to more complex color-managed systems that seek to emulate hard-copy proofs.

While SWOP-certified online proofing systems for color-critical applications have garnered the lion's share of attention, there's also been a quiet revolution in content proofing. These new tools offer an affordable and efficient way for printers and their customers to collaborate. And, while monitor-based content proofs don't offer the absolute color accuracy of SWOP-certifed contract proofs, they do provide an excellent opportunity to streamline the approval process. Proof-it-Online, Xitron's Express Approval and FFEI's RealVue 3D are just of a few of a growing number of concept proof options.

Let's have some fun

Apollo Press (Newport News, VA) is a 25,000-sq.-ft., full-service commercial printer specializing in healthcare forms, booklets, envelopes and four-color process printing. Primarily a wholesale manufacturing company, Apollo partnered with a national distributor for an RFP for one of the top 10 hospitals in the nation, and with this partnership came the company's foray into the world of virtual proofing. One of the requests in the RFP was that Apollo have soft proofing capabilities. “I was wondering, ‘Where are we going to get that?’” says vice president of sales and marketing Barbara Deaver.

After some research, Apollo Press discovered the online proofing solution, Proof-it-Online. “We looked at a lot of companies,” says Deaver, “but as far as ease-of-use and flexibility, it just made them the clear choice. There's no software to add to your server or to the customer's server. It's real-time. As soon as you connect to the Web site, you're on and you're proofing. It actually makes proofing fun!”

Proof-it-Online also helped address a few of the initial problems Apollo Press ran into. For example, Apollo Press wanted the notification letter to be personalized, and Proof-it-Online figured out a way to do it. It also was able to create a way to view proofs in different groupings at Apollo's request, providing a “dashboard view” for the customer.

Hard to lose the hard copy

Apollo Press will use Proof-it-Online for four-color process work through the entire approval process, but when it comes down to a final proof, the customer always signs off on hard copy. Many of the company's customers have booklets or folded projects and want to see a dummy sample before signing off on the job. But Deaver points out that Proof-it-Online still is an important part of the process, and saves in having to coordinate and handle multiple proofs. “It streamlines our process as well as theirs and offers us a cost savings over printing out proofs and overnighting them. It expedites the time for turning proofs around,” she says.

The benefit is so great, she says, that Apollo doesn't charge customers for soft proofing. “We look at it as a win-win.”

There still are customers who require hard proofs throughout the approval process, usually because they're not acclimated to computers or just are set in their ways. “We've had a lot [of customers] that are very hesitant at first because they're not really computer savvy,” says Shelley Arthur, proof coordinator for Apollo Press. “Once they get into it and see how easy it is — and I'll sit on the phone with them and walk them through it, because I can get in as they get in — then they're fine. They'll use [Proof-it-Online] from then on. For the majority, once they've done it the first time, there's no problem after that.”

New partnership

At Graph Expo, Proof-it-online announced a partnership with xpedx. Xpedx customers can purchase and maintain their online proofing account, along with all of their other xpedx services and supplies. Xpedx's National Technology Center (NTC) will be working with print customers to facilitate successful deployement and, if desired, integrate the online proofing into the backend workflow system.

Affordable & integrated online proofing

Xitron (Ann Arbor, MI) recently introduced ExpressApproval, a subscription-based online proofing solution for commercial printers. A standalone version also is available.

“We're trying to make online proofing more affordable,” explains Jim Thrush, Xitron's president. “We've found the majority of our customers are looking for concept proofs rather than matching corporate logo colors onscreen. Our color is good, but we're not showing [critical color].”

Users sign up for a minimum commitment of three months; a monthly fee as low as $300 covers 1,000 pages.

Express Approval also can be tightly integrated with Xitron's Xenith Extreme or Siera worflows, which offers both production efficiency and peace of mind, according to R. Patrick French, vice president of sales.

“We're showing a proof of what is going to be rendered,” says French. “We're using the same RIP — you're looking at the RIPed, rendered and separated file. It's made with the same rendering engine that will be used to make the plate.”

Printers' customers can view ExpressApproval proofs from PCs or Macs. A comparison mode makes it easy to review prior iterations. “You can highlight changes between two different versions or see all revisions,” says French. “If you've gone through six revisions, you can roll back and compare the current version to the first revision.”

Tracking changes

Printers can highlight the changes they've made so customers easily can spot the difference. Express Approval generates an itemized report of all changes, enabling printers to track alterations for billing purposes.

Within seconds of a customer approving a job, ExpressApproval, working with Sierra or Extreme, tells the prepress department to output the job. “It's a really seamless integration,” says French. “There's no other subscription-based offering like this. [Competitive solutions] would require investments ranging from $30,000 to $80,000 to achieve this level of integration.”

See www.xitron.com.

New workflow

ExpressApproval also can be integrated with Xitron's recently introduced Xenith Sierra workflow. Based on Adobe's PDF Print Engine technology. Sierra will accept and process PDF files in their native mode, providing an end-to-end PDF workflow. Sierra's job viewer, powered by RealVue's 3D engine, can display a 3D image of a job, including a varnish or coating being applied to a page or area of the page. The 3D images can be exported and sent to the client for approval. Pre- and post-RIP images can be viewed, allowing for side-by-side comparisons. Standard features include remote JDF PDF submission, ink re-mapping, PDF creation and preflighting, NORM proofing, automated in-RIP trapping, integrated imposition and support for more than 250 output devices.