A proofing system's objective is to produce, as accurately as possible, an image that will represent what the actual output of the printing machine will be. The key word in the previous statement is represent. A proof is what it is. It's a representation of what is believed will be printed and affixed to the product that will eventually wind up in a consumer's hands. As is most often the case, customers are going to forgo the substantial added expense attached to the creation of a press proof. Therefore, all they have to go on is the proof. And if customers are looking at something produced with different inks, on different substrates, without adhesive, then some may argue that they're throwing caution to the wind and putting a lot of faith in the converter's ability to deliver the goods.
What happened to analog plate proofing?
Digital printing, over the last several years, has improved exponentially. One of results of entering the Digital Age, is the apparent exiling of analog proofing systems from the industry.
Mike Heaford of JM Heaford, a UK based manufacturer of narrow web proofing and mounting systems, talks of the dwindling analog proofing market. "Demand is now quite limited as its really a niche portion of the printing market." He cites the economics involved as perhaps a reason why digital is so much more prevalent in prepress proofing. "The price is putting people off. You just hope you get a big enough order to offset the costs of the substrates being used. Entry level costs for the systems are too large. Label converters are usually on a limited budget, and they often run the idea by their accountant to work out the numbers before making such a purchase. The reality is that the prepress proof is likely such a small portion of the converter's budget." Heaford approximates that his company's sales have become 95 percent mounting systems and just 5 percent proofing systems.
With all that said, the question must be asked: Who's buying the 5 percent? According to Heaford, those who are having problems with the platemaking process. He says companies that are most fearful of generating downtime on press are more willing to spend money on prepress production.
Ray Bodwell, marketing manager for DuPont Packaging Graphics, Wilmington, DE, USA, says, "For years, DuPont was one of the leaders in 'off press' proofing. However, in recent years, the industry has moved to the use of low-cost drop-on-demand (DOD) inkjet proofers to satisfy the bulk of its proofing needs. These new systems have the advantage of being relatively good and very low priced, as opposed to the offerings from the traditional suppliers (DuPont, Kodak, 3M, etc.,) which were very good quality and relatively high priced. Consequently, DuPont has begun the process of exiting the off-press proofing consumables market."
So companies are paying less for proofs. But are they sacrificing quality for a proofing machine that costs less? Not necessarily, according to Bodwell: "I think that the low cost DOD proofers from companies like HP, Epson and others are capable of remarkably high quality at a very low cost to produce. Still, there may be challenges in ensuring color accuracy through to press. High end proprietary solutions used to provide that fingerprint and calibration capability as part of the offering. The DOD proofers are still capable of similar accuracy, but now it's generally up to the users themselves to do the 'system integration' that they used to get as part of the package."
Obviously, a customer must have something to look at to sign off on. Some companies insist on a press-OK in person. For the rest, however, today's Digital Age allows there to be a "virtual handshake," so to speak. A converter can simply email a PDF file to the customer for them to view and sign off on. But for those customers who require a high-end, tangible proof, there are options.
The vast majority of narrow web label converters are offering their customers digital proofs. A narrow web converter has the opportunity to break down just what's available and decide which types of proofing machines would serve their customers best, at the same time staying within the company's budget.
Anderson & Vreeland
Offering flexographers a "systems approach" to prepress, with a broad range of equipment, materials and software options from a variety of manufacturers is Anderson & Vreeland, Bryan, OH, USA. A&V acknowledges the narrow web converters' trend of adopting new proofing technologies to their workflow. With this in mind, they have developed a particular approach toward servicing its narrow web clients.
Darin Lyon, VP of sales for A&V, explains: "As far as proofing goes, hardly anyone is engaging in analog these days. The majority of narrow web converters are using inkjet proofing systems." With the existence of such a wide selection of technologies recently developed, Lyon says that A&V has created what they call a Training and Technologies team. The team's purpose is to provide immediate support for the systems that A&V provides its customers. Also, the team offers what A&V calls "bridging" services that ensure that all of the components in their customers' workflow are working together efficiently.
Dominic Ibarra, manager of the company's training and technologies team, talks about this "bridging" service A&V offers: "This is an important aspect, because in the narrow web market, adoption of new technologies can be disjointed. Customers are not always going to purchase a complete solution because of the huge capital investment. It is not uncommon to see customers adopt new technology in a piecemeal fashion."
When the time comes for a one of A&V's customers to adopt a new piece of proofing technology, the company offers several options. Ibarra says "The systems can be as complicated as the customer desires. At their core, most of the most widely used proofing systems are pretty stable and require very little fiddling. We can assist the customer in the initial configuration and setup, and from there they are not going to be required to do a lot of outside maintenance. There are a lot of misconceptions out there regarding proofing systems, particularly when you add ICC profiles to the discussion. ICC profiles are just configuration settings at their core."
Kodak offers color proofing solutions that customers use throughout the workflow. "The whole idea is to build customer confidence," says Geoff Kolb, Kodak's global product manager for halftone proofing and inkjet media. He says by utilizing Kodak's Matchprint Virtual Software, Matchprint Inkjet Media and the Kodak Approval System, customers can feel confident from the initial concept all the way through to production.
The Matchprint Virtual Software is a form of monitor proofing. Kolb points out that what he feels makes this product distinctive is its ability to take the substrate into account when creating the proof. "With today's LCDs it's possible to create a label design that has wonderful eye appeal but is unprintable. Matchprint Virtual proofs combine the reliability and trustability of Matchprint with monitor proofing. This technology allows you to look at the screen and trust what you see in terms of color and content. We say in printing that the substrate is another color, and Matchprint Virtual takes the substrate into account."
Kolb explains how this is possible: "The user makes a measurement of the substrate using a color rendition chart, building an accurate spectrophotometric model from measurements of the hard copy reference proof. One of the Matchprint Virtual's strengths is the using of the background that exactly corresponds to the substrate. What you see on the screen is the visual stimulation to the eye as what you will eventually hold in your hand."
Seeing the proof on screen is one thing, but customers really want to experience seeing and holding a three dimensional proof. This is where the Matchprint Inkjet Media and the Approval system come in to play. The Matchprint Inkjet Media connects the stage of the workflow from where the concepts were created and realized, using the Matchprint Virtual where a monitor proof was produced and agreed upon, leading the way for the production of a hard copy proof. The Matchprint Inkjet Media portfolio offers several options in and of itself. Depending on the customer's requirements, they can choose from premium color proofing with pigment inks, premium color proofing with dye inks, general color proofing with pigment inks, or content/imposition proofing with dye and pigment inks. Once a specific type of media is selected, a hard copy inkjet proof can be produced using perhaps an Epson or HP printer, thus providing a bridge to the final stage of the workflow, the Approval. While some customers may feel that what they now hold in their hands in sufficient, others may want to take it a step further. The Matchprint Virtual Software in conjunction with the Matchprint Inkjet Media produces a proof, but it is a proof printed on a substrate different from the one that will be used on press. This is where the Approval takes it to that next level.
"The Approval continues to evolve. Its real strength is in packaging applications where its critical to see the finished product in 3D, seeing actual dots, color separation, and substrates." Kolb says customers often confuse the Approval's hard copy proof with the actual finished product. "Customers can view actual dots with the actual spot colors screened with the actual shapes and sizes you will see on press."
Kolb says Kodak's systems are broadly applicable anywhere color is important and are not difficult to learn how to use. "Kodak designs them to be as customer friendly as possible and easily learnable," he says.
Latran Technologies, Woburn, MA, USA, is a company whose focus is on developing, manufacturing and marketing halftone digital proofing solutions. Latran offers two different models of its Prediction Proofing Systems that are specifically designed for the flexo label market, the Prediction 1420 and the Prediction 2230. There are automatic and manual versions of both models.
Latran technician Andy DiDonato says that flexo and label printers in general tend to favor the manual versions of Latran's machines. "Our flexo and label customers prefer the manual version due to its versatility. Flexo people want three things in a proofing system: Adjustable density, the ability to print on a wide variety of substrates, and spot colors that are as exact as the designer requires them to be."
Jim McElhenny, Latran's vice president of sales and marketing, points out features that he feels separates Latran's halftone proofing systems from others on the market. "We use ink sheets, not donor rolls. Ink sheets can be reused as long as there is imageable area left on the ink sheet. Rolls cannot be reused. If you have to output a small label image, you could waste 70 to 80 percent of the material. The ability to reuse the sheets cut down on costs."
McElhenny also points to the Prediction's versatility with substrate usage. He says, "The Prediction can image either directly to substrates or to an intermediate material for subsequent transfer to substrates. This capability broadens the range of material to which you can proof. For example, some materials must be imaged directly because they cannot withstand the heat and pressure from the finishing operation."
Latran also incorporates a spot color software to go along with the Prediction. The software is called Dalmatian, and according to McElhenny, "It enables end users to do a much better job in terms of accurate spot color proofing. Dalmatian offers the widest available spot color gamut for digital proofing by combining CMYK with available spot color ink sheets such as red, green, blue, orange, purple, gold, silver, and white. Dalmatian also offers the same spot color screening you will print and plate with."
Jim Summers, president of GMG Americas, Hingham, MA, USA, talks about the proofing options that his company offers. He says that in general, there are four alternatives available when it comes to proofing: a press proof, monitor proof, a digital halftone proof produced with a system such as Kodak's Approval, and an inkjet proof. GMG offers the flexoProof04 software for use with an inkjet printer that Summers says provides customers with what is most important when it comes to proofing, the system's ability to be "fast, accurate, repeatable, and cost effective."
Summers notes that the flexoProof system is considerably less expensive than the higher end digital halftone systems that are on the market, and on this price/performance basis, along with the system's accuracy and consistency, is a reason for GMG's success. He says, "You can spend 10 times as much on a system and have it not be as accurate and as repeatable as ours. Accuracy is important, but what's more important is that whatever color you have is repeatable."
The flexoProof system offers a feature the company refers to as substrate reproduction. This feature allows for substrate structures to be specified in the system and reproduced in the proof. Also, the base color of the substrate can be reproduced as well, which is significant, along with the ability to show halftone dots, in obtaining proofing accuracy and taking the guesswork out of the prepress process. In addition, the system includes the GMG SpotColor application, a solution for managing special colors. Summers sums up what he feels has become the state of proofing today, "Proofing has gotten under control. It's no longer the question, it's now the reference point."
While converters might choose to purchase a system specifically designed for prepress proofing alone, there are other options. For example, Primera Technology, Plymouth, MN, USA, a developer and manufacturer of printing equipment as well as specialty label printers, offers the LX400 and the LX810 inkjet label printers as viable prepress proofing solutions.
Alison Traxler, public relations specialist for Primera, says the LX400, in particular, is popular among label converters as a proofing system. "We have several label house customers that use the LX400 for proofing. It prints full-color images and photos on labels. Print resolution is photo quality at 4800 dpi and printed labels are waterproof and scratchproof." Traxler also says that the LX400 comes equipped with printer drivers for both Windows and Macintosh along with label design software called NiceLabel SE, Primera Edition. This feature, plus the machine's ability to produce labels of a variety of shapes and sizes, Traxler says, makes the machine attractive to label manufacturers as a proofing system. "The LX400 can print a label size as small as 0.75" (19mm) square up to a maximum of 4" (101.6mm) wide and 24" (609.6mm) long. It can also print any shape, round square or custom. The sky's the limit." Additionally, the machine's compact size allows for it join the workflow without taking up much space.
Mark Shobel, Primera's VP of sales and marketing, points out the LX series label printers' ability to serve more than one purpose. "Many of our customers use their LX-Series Color Label Printers for two distinct purposes: (1) as a short-run digital label press, and (2) for proofing longer jobs that will run on flexo or other narrow web presses. Other more traditional proofing printers do not have the capability of also being used as a production device." It's the system's dual purpose which Shobel says makes it stand out from the competition. "The big advantage of our label printers is that they can also be used to generate additional profits as a short run production machine."
With proofing technology changing and evolving, converting professionals are often inquiring about the power of proofing solutions to predict color with a variety of methods and the new technologies that become available. To this end, Clemson University in South Carolina, USA, for the second consecutive year, hosts its Digital Proofing for Flexography Seminars. Last year, the Clemson Department of Graphic Communications formed a committee of industry leaders to produce the initial event. The seminars, co-sponsored by the Foundation of the Flexographic Technical Association, include presentations by recognized proofing experts and vendors as well as hands-on activities for attendees.
he Digital Proofing for Flexography seminars at Clemson University include expert-led discussions as well as hands-on activties.
The seminars will take place this year in two back-to-back sessions, May 13-14 and May 15-16. Each session is limited to 30 attendees, as a way of ensuring the "hands-on" experience for participants.
The bottom line
In life, most things are never certain. Such is the case throughout the converting workflow where there could exist considerable unease in the mind of the end user as his label goes to press. An accurate prepress proof has the ability to alleviate that uneasiness as a converting customer can feel confident that they know what the finished product will look like, or at the very least, what a really good representation of it looks like.
One thing has become clear regarding proofing systems: Consistency is important. For systems to be effective, guess work must be eliminated from the printing process. Perhaps Ibarra sums it up best: "The most important skill a company can have is process control. The ability to be consistent day to day is the key to an effective proofing system."