Prepress Troubleshooting

July 20, 2005

Effective communication is a principal tool in managing label production workflow.

The prepress department is sandwiched in the middle of the label production workflow. On one end is the designer, commissioned by the end user. On the other is production, the ones who produce the finished product.

Prepress departments and trade shops are responsible for making sure the flow from concept to finished result is smooth. Prepress receives the art from end users, creates separations, makes proofs and plates, and then passes the baton to production.

Because of their position within the label production workflow, prepress professionals face a variety of challenges. While attention to detail is crucial, communication and a proper understanding of the other players in the label production chain is also a vital duty. Effective communication can be the key to a quality label or a lot of wasted time and money.

Dealing with end users
“The area most prone for mistakes is in the initial design stage. Inexperienced desktop designers sometimes have difficulty understanding the unique requirements of, let’s say, flexographic printing,” says Frances Cicogna, packaging market segment manager for Agfa Corporation in Ridgefield Park, NJ. “They use many spot colors, have critical overprints, and overlapping traps resulting in designs that look great on the monitor, but are difficult, if not impossible, to print on press.”

End-use designers are an odd agglomeration of people. Some are wise in the ways of flexo, designing art that fits within the limitations of flexo equipment. They read Label & Narrow Web, they speak to converters before designing art, they stick to the parameters determined by press limitations or budgets.

Others design for offset, no matter what type of equipment the converter might have at hand. If the converter prints flexo, the trapping might be off, the dot gain curve could be off, but at least these designers understand that eventually their design will run on a press.

And still others are naïve about the entire printing process. They are chiefly concerned about beauty, even if beauty means 20 spot colors and highlights that fade to zero. Trapping? Dot gain? What’s that? School never went over those production terms.

Lack of production knowledge can be a problem for designers. This issue may be traced back to the educational process. While there are some colleges known for excellent education in the nuances of printing, at issue is whether or not this type of education is the norm.

Several screen shots from Markzware’s
FlightCheck Professional preflighting software

“In the classes that are offered for graphic designers, they spend three and a half years on graphic designing and six weeks on production. So the production area is what lacks,” says Mark Barnard, vice president of Trinity Graphic USA, a prepress company based in Sarasota, FL.

Another person sees this negative trend beginning to change, but cautions students to check credentials. “While there is a notable growing shift in many art schools, community colleges and universities away from the theoretical toward the practical, an aspiring prepress professional would do well to check the experience of the instructors for the caliber of material taught,” says Cary Gilpin, technical support manager for RIPit Computer Corporation in Citrus Heights, CA. “There is no substitute for experience as there are so many nuances in production that can only be learned in the trenches.”

Fixing the mistakes of naïve or offset-educated designers is a bigger problem for flexo prepress professionals than some may realize. A lot of time is lost as prepress trade shops and prepress departments arm-wrestle files into something useful. “This week, maybe 10 percent of the files are a nuisance. Next week it could be that maybe 60 percent of the files are a nuisance. It’s kind of unpredictable,” says James Kadlec, president of Advanced Prepress Graphics, in Wood Dale, IL.

The potential for mistakes is virtually limitless, but there are a few zingers that come up time after time. According to Doug Rosen, director of educational training for Markzware, in Santa Ana, CA, the most common mistakes made by end users, or those employed by end users, are missing fonts, missing images, images with incorrect resolutions, and spot colors used in CMYK work.

Markzware is one company selling a tool that catches the designer’s mistake before it is carried down the workflow any further. It’s called preflighting software.

“Preflighting software comes in a lot of different flavors. In essence, they all work in a very similar fashion. You set the software based on certain parameters and process requirements,” says David Zwang, a prepress consultant and president of Zwang & Company, located in Danbury, CT. “Once that’s done, the incoming file is run against this preflighting software and it basically spits out the errors.”

Liability and prevention
Through software or attention to detail, prepress professionals can catch the mistakes. But now what? Who pays to fix the mistake? And how can mistakes be prevented in the first place?

“It becomes a customer service issue, and that’s really what it is. The real question is less about who should fix it, but how is it more easily fixed, and who is going to pay for it? And that’s why the converters are frustrated, because inevitably they wind up fixing it and more often than not, they wind up eating the cost of fixing it,” says Zwang.

Converters with prepress departments might sometimes swallow the costs because of the profit they make running the job. This is not necessarily the wise thing to do.

“I advise my clients, who are basically prepress and printing companies, that if they are continuously getting files that are wrong, they need to educate their clients and/or charge for corrections,” says Don Hutcheson, color management consultant and president of Hutcheson Consulting in Washington, NJ. “When it comes to fixing the file, if you spend two hours fixing it, it is costing you two hours of someone’s labor, and you ought to build that into your price, or you should bill it backwards.”

To avoid these awkward billing situations, converters must increasingly play the role of teacher. “Education is the key. If you are not willing to work with a customer to educate them, ask yourself, ‘How many times would I like to receive this file in with problems?’ Then ask yourself, ‘How much is this costing me, not just in terms of this job, but what other jobs could I have run and been paid for while dealing with this same job again and again?’ ” says Rosen.

There are several ways converters can educate end-use designers. “Some companies provide training to their customers to educate them on the way to create files for production. Others simply provide documentation that contains step-by-step instruction for preparing files for submission,” says Cicogna.

Gilpin suggests that the converter or trade shop utilize a tip sheet. “Be proactive and send a tip sheet to the artist when the job request is made to prevent lost time,” he says. “This educates him or her before the files are sent over and brings pertinent questions to the forefront before the job is submitted and the clock starts ticking. It also might be helpful to place these sheets on your web page for easy access.”

Another option is to ensure that the designer is working in an environment conducive to printing. “Something that a prepress vendor will do, or a printer, is provide services to tunnel into their client’s environment,” says Hutcheson. “For example, I have clients who will go in and actually provide color management services to tune up someone’s monitor at an agency, so that the agency is seeing color more accurately on the screen.”

Dealing with production
Besides dealing with end use designers, prepress departments must also interact with production. Production receives the proofs and plates made by prepress, and ultimately uses them to create the final product.

Communication between production and prepress is vital. Without it, problematic labels can become commonplace. “If a proactive, professional relationship does not exist, it will always be an Achilles heel to your organization. Production will always be wasting time tracking down and fixing problems at the eleventh hour,” says Gilpin.

Troubleshooting, especially in a hurry, can get sticky. For instance, there are production problems that may only look like prepress problems. One of the biggest red herrings is excessive dot gain.

“That’s a big one that’s usually pointed at the prepress shop first,” says Barnard. “However, lots of things can cause that: wrong anilox selection, ink formulation, impression setting, to name a few.”

In the frustration of the moment, the buck can pass from prepress to production and back again. No matter whose fault it is, the problems will still be there. And time and money will be lost.

One way production can communicate with prepress before problems occur, is by creating a fingerprint of the press that will be running the job. To fingerprint a press, the production department prints with a set of plates that have known values, called targets. Once completed, these targets allow prepress to see where the gains and losses are on press. A dot gain curve is created based on the information ascertained.

“Once we have a fingerprint of that press, then we can establish the dot gain that we’re anticipating they are going to need. We build that into our proof and into our plating,” says Barnard.

Fingerprinting is meant to present an accurate representation of what the press can do. Production should not tweak it to look good.

“One of the most important things that production can do for us is fingerprint under normal conditions. That’s important, because so many times we’ll send a set of fingerprinting plates out and they spend a good deal of time trying to get it to look perfect, which does us no good,” says Barnard. “We establish open communication up front by stressing that the object is not to get this to look good. The object is to print this as you normally would, and let us take care of the adjustments.”

Cicogna offers another way to improve communication. “One company that I know helped improve the situation by having press and prepress collaborate to determine how things were going to be completed. They hold weekly meetings to discuss, among other things, production successes and failures,” she says. “On occasion, the folks in the pressroom would spend a few hours in prepress and vice versa so that each department understood what was required in getting work through the system.”

Communication is paramount between the two stages of the workflow because of what is at risk. When prepress makes a mistake, or passes along a mistake, it means a lot of frustration for production. Prepress professionals should be aware of the hassles they can cause when their work is faulty. Just as it is important for designers to be educated on print processes, prepress professionals must also be aware of what happens in production.

“I send all my prepress operators to a local school, the DiTrolio Flexographic Institute, so they can see how much of a pain it is when they make a mistake,” says Kadlec. “It’s an educational process that’s rarely done in this industry, but I find it to be extremely helpful. Now my employees can understand why production gets so cranky.”

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