Prepress manufacturers speak out on today’s practices and tomorrow’s trends
By Patrick J. O’Brien
Labelexpo is the premier exhibition focused on the label printing and converting industry. It’s that time again to witness the latest developments in technology and services related to this dynamic segment of the printing business worldwide. For this edition of Label & Narrow Web, we asked the major digital prepress technology suppliers to comment on several topics germane to this ever evolving aspect of our industry, digital prepress.
Those suppliers choosing to contribute are Esko, Artwork Systems, RIPit Systems, and Kodak. Following are their comments on some key topics. Commentary is provided by Tyler Harrell of Esko, Mike Rottenborn of Artwork Systems, Chris VanDuker of RIPit Systems, and Laura Ryan of Kodak.
We asked the representatives to comment on a variety of topics. They were allowed to select from these topics the areas they felt were most important to the industry and how their company is addressing them. Esko,
|A customer uses Kodak InSite software to review and approve content and color.|
The general categories addressed are the current state of the industry; how digital prepress is being adopted, and whether it is mainstream at this point; the key market drivers; the affect of automation on the prepress process; the impact of CTP in the flexo world, and a look into the future of digital prepress.
“In my opinion, the RIP continues to be an important part of the puzzle in prepress, because it has been one of the main places where new functionality comes about,” says Chris VanDuker, product manager at RIPit Systems, Citrus Heights, CA, USA. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen prepress workflow automation, an increased focus on color management, new screening technologies, and of course new output devices. All of those are areas which involve the RIP to some extent. I expect that we’ll continue to offer innovations for narrow web flexo users when we ship our new product based on the Adobe PDF Print Engine (PPE).
Asked about the focus of his company as it pertains to JDF, XML, and other automated workflows, VanDuker comments, “From the beginning, OpenRIP (and before it the AlanRIP) provided automatic step and repeat, using a die database with automatic distortion — so we’ve been doing automation for quite a long time. More recently, we added SmartDie, which makes the die setting an integral part of the job. Several of our users have said that it has saved them enough time that they were able to eliminate a position on staff.
“We’re planning on increasing support for JDF in upcoming products, but I expect that for most users, they will find that SmartDie is quicker and easier to use, so many of them will continue to use that.”
Users of RIPit have commented for years that the system really focused on the needs of the narrow web flexographer and that the SmartDie die database was a functionality that many prepress providers have been trying to emulate as they enter this end of the market.
VanDuker offers his insight into how RIPit sees the market being driven and what areas he feels will be most interesting to watch for the near and long term.
“Right now, I think, we’re seeing some of the limitations of the PDF-to-PS conversion, which is an integral part of a lot of current generation RIPs. So the upcoming PDF Print Engine products, with their improved support for In-RIP Trapping while maintaining ‘live’ transparency, as well as the color management improvements, should make it a useful upgrade for a lot of our users. There are some other architectural advances in PPE which should also allow for some interesting and useful new features.
“CTP is of course important, and our goal there is to continue supporting new devices as they become available,” he adds. “We’re also seeing some call for online soft proofing, and are intending to pursue that as well.”
VanDuker shapes RIPit’s future perspective with an optimistic view: “I think we’ll continue to see improvements and refinements on both the software and hardware side, and I’m hopeful that it will continue to drive the flexo market.”
Laura Ryan of Kodak, Rochester, NY, USA, offered an overview: “In general, narrow web printing and converting markets around the world are healthy, and here in North America, sales volume is on the upswing. The downside is that margins are being squeezed from two directions — raw material and energy costs are increasing rapidly while customers are demanding lower prices. Narrow web companies’ customers are having to cut costs, because their margins are being eroded by global competition, pressure from mass market retailers, rising costs and a host of other forces. Unfortunately, the forces affecting customers’ profitability are not going to disappear — globalization isn’t going away, and neither is the bargaining power of major retailers. Competition isn’t going away, either, including those competitors who are happy to compete on price.
“The solution to all this is to increase productivity. As an industry, print has some catching up to do in this area. Conventional printing involves manual, time-consuming prepress operations. Some steps have been streamlined with digital technology. Others haven’t. Today, we expect that artwork will be created on computers, and we can’t imagine going back to cumbersome hard-copy mechanicals. But we still proof that artwork using hard copy. And many firms are still using film to make plates. The digital transformation isn’t happening overnight and it is taking time for technologies to develop and be accepted. In the digital world, standards such as PDF and JDF need to be developed and integrated widely so that data can be exchanged freely. There is a clear need for affordable, integrated, automated workflows to close the productivity gap and enable new capabilities. Today, those systems are becoming more and more common in narrow web businesses.
“Computer to plate systems are an example. Digital flexo platemaking provides a quality advantage over analog — improved resolution from smaller dot size, as well as increased consistency. Narrow web flexographers justify the investment because their competition is investing in superior quality platemaking, and because their customers are requesting the improved quality print results made possible by digital flexo technology. Digital flexo brings improved consistency, stability and repeatability to the platemaking process, which delivers benefits on-press and in the final printed label or package.
“If plates are written with digital data, you need a way to proof that data, which means that digital proofing systems must also be integrated. The most significant advancement in this area is soft proofing on monitors. With today’s technology, remote proofing has moved from vision to reality. Web-based tools like Kodak InSite software paired with the Kodak MatchPrint Virtual proofing solution, allows narrow web printers to connect their customers into the production workflow to collaborate on projects, and review and approve content and color. Many people and departments can review the same file simultaneously, and high-end monitors and software are now available for critical color evaluation. Soft proofing reduces turnaround times, improves content/ placement communications, reduces the costs associated with outputting and shipping hard copy proofs, and improves time to market for new package creation.”
Mike Rottenborn of Artwork Systems, Bristol, PA, USA, directs his commentary to those areas of the prepress workflow where the company sees consistent positive trends.
The advancements in PDF capabilities have been evolving for the past few years at a pace we have not seen over time. Asked about the acceptance of PDF in the packaging arena, Rottenborn says, “The latest versions of the PDF format (e.g., PDF 1.6) are very capable of supporting the needs of labels and packaging, and Artwork Systems workflow products including ArtPro, Nexus and Odystar Packaging are fully compatible with all versions of PDF.”
As PDF evolution advances, many trade shops and consumer product companies have expressed a keen interest in utilizing this format. Two critical elements in their deliberations are the security and integrity of the file as it is moved from user to user, collaborator to collaborator, through the formal approval process and then ultimately to the printed result.
What does Artwork Systems envision in this regard? Rottenborn offers the following: “It’s easy to create a PDF file. It’s much harder to create a good PDF file that can be used for high quality printing.
“Proper settings must be applied when the file is created, and file modifications must be carefully controlled. Artwork Systems’ PA:CT (Packaging: Certified Technology) improves upon standard PDF technology to improve the quality and traceability of a PDF file. PA:CT embeds the profile, which was used to create the PDF within the file, as well as a preflight report indicating any problems found with the file. It also embeds a revision history showing who edited the file, when it was edited, and why it was changed, for traceability purposes. Certified PDF is used by many major consumer product companies worldwide to improve the security of their PDF workflows.”
Speaking of consumer product companies, many experience a disconnect between their design agency’s design intent and the resulting print output. Basically, many prepress providers find that files need to be totally re-engineered after the design stage in order to be suitable for print production. One of the issues that comes into play is that of transparency. Here’s what Rottenborn has to say on that subject:
“The latest versions of DTP software, including Adobe Illustrator CS2, allow designers to use transparency freely. However, many legacy workflows require that transparent elements be flattened before output, which severely limits the ability to trap, modify or re-use the design in the future. Artwork Systems’ workflow products, including ArtPro, Nexus and Odystar Packaging, are fully compatible with transparency, and allow transparency to be preserved throughout all stages of prepress to protect the integrity of the design.”
Esko Graphics, the co-innovator of mask ablation, computer to plate technology with DuPont, looks back on the past 11 successful years: “Ever since Esko introduced the Cyrel Digital Imager (CDI) in 1995, flexo printers have enjoyed consistency of printing, which is the cornerstone of the digital process. [Today more than 80 percent of all digital flexo plates are imaged on a CDI.] Until the process was standardized, there was no way to assure automation. Now, narrow web printers can enjoy better highlights and shadows, and consistent dots. And, with the use of special screens, even greater detail and more precise color can be reproduced.”
Those are the thoughts of Esko Graphics’ Tyler Harrell, commenting on the state of the narrow web flexo industry as it relates to the use of automation. He comments also on what is driving the industry in this direction, and on what Esko has done to provide tools for the user to facilitate more productivity out of the workflow.
“Most front-end systems are fast enough that automation does not provide much greater speed,” he says. “Even if someone is manually launching prepress software, it’s pretty fast. So, what’s the biggest advantage? An automated system can prevent production errors.
“Unfortunately, those working on prepress for narrow web are being pushed as hard as anyone right now. Unlike larger converters, smaller companies are typically challenged with less sophisticated equipment; they simply do not have the resources to continually invest in state of the art software and equipment. Yet, because the brand owner is pushing the quality of smaller jobs just as much as larger ones, the graphics are just as complicated. Many smaller shops are desperately in need of tools.
“Esko took the best of its packaging and prepress technologies and put them right inside the world’s most popular packaging design tools. With DeskPack, smaller shops have simple, affordable and controllable access to dedicated packaging design tools on a Macintosh or PC. For example, stand-alone plug-ins for Adobe Illustrator can preflight files or create dynamic bar codes. Client-server plug-ins can apply consistent high-quality trapping; export to PDF with correctly rendered transparencies, overprints, traps, vignettes; or control step and repeat operations.
“There are other tools that can make a label converter’s job easier,” Harrell says. “With thermo-shrinkable sleeves, you have to make sure the design will reproduce correctly. A new, optional ShrinkSleeve module for Esko PackEdge can render the result in 3D with instant feedback, transforming a “trial and horror” process to a more pure productive, error reducing and cost saving activity.
“As converters know, label printing requires correct copy with extensive liabilities if done incorrectly. DesignWizard, a tool within Esko Scope, lets package developers tie the content of each design element to a location in a secure database. Thus, a graphic designer has a quick, easy and nearly flawless way to access this information and automatically position it within the graphic design placeholder. Information can include product variations such as flavors and language variations, legal notifications and safety warnings, and bar codes. The workflow advantages are quite evident. The persons responsible for the information are the only ones who create the information, with secure access to the databases.”
JDF and XML
Not a month goes by that we are not seeing another article touting the advantages of workflows supported by XML or JDF. Esko’s Tyler Harrell offers the following perspective: “One of the ‘futures’ everyone is talking about is JDF. JDF allows RIPs, imagesetters, presses, finishing and other equipment to ‘speak’ a common language. JDF job tickets describe a complete workflow or an individual process step. At some points in the workflow, it is desirable to pass a small snippet of information. It’s delivered via a Job Messaging Format (JMF), an XML industry standard that allows devices to send XML packages with information such as job status, percent completed, and so forth.
“Esko has a lot of experience in JDF. In fact, we hold the chair for the CIP4 Workgroup for Packaging and Labels — the global organization responsible for the development of JDF. Our Scope workflow is fully JDF enabled. Williamson Printing Company, an Esko customer, received an honorable mention in the first Cippi Award competition.
“JDF finds its easiest application tying in everyone in production to the MIS/order entry system. It provides job efficiencies by assuring job data (such as bar codes, variable info) is entered only once — and provides the ability to create variants of a label completely through order entry. Anyone can take advantage of JDF.
“We’re not aware of anyone in packaging who has been able to connect from order entry to finishing yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”
At Kodak, Laura Ryan explains how the company is handling the integration of XML and JDF. “Data formats will have a big impact on the narrow web workflow over the next several years. There’s a lot of excitement today about integration through PDF and JDF, and XML will also grow in importance. Creating production step-and-repeat layouts is currently one of the primary uses of JDF in a narrow web workflow. For example, a step-and-repeat layout created in Kodak Pandora software can be submitted to multiple workflow products that support the JDF specification. This provides greater flexibility in the exchange of files between trade shops and printers/converters, or between multiple plant locations.
“One of the main challenges is that specifications do not necessarily result in integration. The specification for communicating job information and instructions is JDF, however, JDF is not a plug-and-play specification at this time and any application can indicate that it is JDF compliant, JDF enabled, or using JDF. True networked applications, however, rely on the cooperation of vendors to work together to specify, test and support their integrations, or they will likely fail upon implementation. Fortunately, vendors are working together to provide integrated solutions for the graphic production supply chain. Kodak is a member of the Networked Graphic Production (NGP) initiative — an industry-wide commitment by developers, manufacturers and vendors to deliver the value of JDF. It is about resolving the confusion surrounding data formats and communication from system to system. JDF isn’t enough: Two companies can be JDF-compatible, but their systems may not be able to communicate. NGP Partners are working to define the specification, so that when vendors say they are NGP-compatible, it actually means that their products speak to each other.”
Previous articles in L&NW’s Art Direction series have discussed the need for better and more effective ways to link the entire prepress supply chain from designers through the consumer product companies to the prepress provider.
Rottenborn of Artwork Systems says PDF will be the cornerstone to driving the standardization and integrity of file transfers amongst these players. Certification will become a way of life. Profiles specific to the various printers involved with the packaging process for the consumer product companies will be embedded in the file and automated preflighting will allow for a more streamlined workflow and result in faster turnaround, thereby reducing the all important time to shelf.
RIPit’s VanDuker also includes the use of PDF as a forthcoming standard in their future development. It will be included in the company’s new product launch based on the Adobe PDF Print Engine.
Esko offers a global perspective. According to Harrell, “a lot of the work is moving upstream to designers and consumer package goods companies. It means that collaboration and knowledge about jobs must be easy to share up and down the supply chain. WebCenter is also a communication platform that brings together all supply chain partners — from brand owner to retailer — to discuss jobs, perform approvals, and view 3D models of products with their packaging. Using a standard web browser, WebCenter resolves a number of customer pain points, such as tracking and maintaining different versions of files; supporting approval workflows on virtually any file from structural and graphic design files to Office documents like Word, Excel, or even palletization files; and the ability to ‘speak’ multiple languages to communicate around the globe,” he says.
Kodak’s Ryan offers a challenge to the narrow web label printer. “To face the challenges of the future, narrow web businesses will have to compete aggressively, and to differentiate themselves in a sustainable way. Dealing with continuous and oftentimes disruptive change is an ongoing challenge for everyone in the graphic arts industry. Like the highest-tech high-tech companies, successful printers and converters deal in innovation. Their customers and their customers’ customers — consumers — expect and demand endless innovation. They will always want more shelf-impact and new ways to differentiate their brands and products. Digital technology can help. Narrow web converters are using digital technology to provide a more intimate connection to their customers, to reduce cycle times, reduce costs in their operation, and improve the quality of their printed product. But the key is to be aware that technology alone will not ensure success — companies will have to take it a step further by using it to promote and differentiate their businesses — and to transform the way they do business with their customers.”