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Diving into Digital Workflows

Key features to consider when assessing workflow-management software and its role in digital imaging.

Graphics printers have been very aggressive in investing in digital imaging technology; however, many have forgotten that once capacity has been increased on the back end, print providers need to be able to handle their work efficiently from design to print to cut.

Time to market is mission critical. Therefore, optimizing the process between customer files coming in and printing or cutting is essential. Reducing waste and minimizing errors are key factors in remaining competitive. The idea of automated workflows for graphics producers has gained steam over the past couple of years. We see it in two fronts: First, RIP manufacturers are identifying that, to maintain competitive, they have had to add new features. Color management quickly comes to mind.

While shops have experimented with commercial print workflows, they have never been very specific to the unique challenges of producing signs and displays. So, while many existing workflows have been customized to do an ample job, a new class of solutions suddenly appears: off-the-shelf workflows specifically for the production of signage and graphics. Built with modular features, they allow a print provider to choose the features that are most important to them.

What do workflows do that make them attractive? How can they help resolve some of the challenges and offer opportunities to a graphics producer?

Getting the design ready for print
Many customer-submitted files are not capable of going through a RIP. In most shops, there is usually only one expert—the person everyone turns to when they can’t process customers’ files. This person can usually look at a file and almost immediately determine where problem areas might be, and fix them. Unfortunately for the print provider, this is labor-intensive and costly. The alternative, returning the file to the customer, is time consuming and not a very good example of customer service (and value-add).

One of the traditional challenges for a graphics shop is that the files they receive are far from being traditional. While some sophisticated design shops are capable of delivering a good PDF file, or a design created by a more popular design package, such as Adobe Creative Suite, the sad truth is that many files are delivered from a diverse set of applications. Have you, for example, ever received a design from PowerPoint? You probably have.

Challenge: Discover problems in a file before it’s too late—and on press Most artwork, as you know, is delivered as PDF files. If not, and you have the original application, you can always create the PDF file quickly in house. A PDF file provides the print shop with at least some standardization, and it is typically the file from which the RIP processes artwork.

Unfortunately, when receiving a customer file, you have no idea how the file was built. You can ask your customers for a print-ready file, but they don’t always know what it means to deliver a perfect, print-ready file. Your experience will tell you all things that can go wrong—things that you should check before going to print. In this way you can minimize the risk of forgetting to check and catching errors. If you don’t, it’s much more painful pulling an expensive substrate from a digital press.

What can happen? Perhaps some images are delivered in lower than appropriate resolution or in the incorrect color space (RGB). Some graphics could be delivered as Pantone colors; rarely available as a separate ink on a digital printer. A font could be missing, the entire graphic could be larger than the substrate size, or cutting paths could be missing. Or, on top of that, files might need to be adjusted to your own facility’s printing requirements.

A good preflight tool will offer a list of digital checks, customized to your shop’s RIPs and printers (Figure 1). It is the starting point for a true workflow. Problems are reported automatically before going to print, so operators know what has to be changed (if anything). There’s no need to drag the file into design software and lose time trying to figure out why the file might not print properly.

Preflighting can be fully automated with a good workflow. A print shop typically builds its preflight profiles, and they are executed via an automated workflow. If operator intervention is required, the workflow will usually send a notification and the job will be put on hold, allowing the operator to check and correct the file. When the file is fixed, the workflow will resume.

Challenge: Make quick, required edits to a file, without retuning to the native application Even if a preflighting error is discovered, or a last-minute change is required, the challenge is to edit it.

While most RIPs, even with extended capabilities, do not offer extensive editing, a good workflow can. For example, bounding boxes can be expanded to make sure an entire element is imaged.

A good workflow allows text to be edited within copy blocks. Most of the time, it can be accomplished even if the font isn’t resident on the operator’s computer—that is, fonts that are only embedded in the PDF file. Text can also be converted to outlines.

Even image editing within a PDF file can be done using a workflow-management solution. Images can be relinked, or low-resolution images can be replaced by other, high-resolution images. Managed workflows can convert RGB images to CMYK or flatten an image automatically. The color ICC profile can also be converted. This, of course, eliminates the need to return a project file to the customer should the preflight check find that an image does not meet specs.

Examples of other editing processes that can be automated in a managed workflow include generating white underprint, ensuring that printing is accurate and not affected by the color of the substrate; converting black to rich black; generating or optimizing cutting paths; and adding bleeds; and more. Doing these automatically can save a lot of time and help to assure that the print job will be done before the deadline.

All of this is important, because it keeps the file within the workflow, without the need to return to the original application.

Layout
Many digitally printed signs and displays need to be finished—at the least, cut. This is where workflow tools provide additional benefit to a print shop. If a display file arrives at a shop without cutting paths—or without adequate paths—it can result in a lot of work and downtime. Typically, the artwork has to be imported into Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop so that cutting paths or bleeds can be created.

Challenge: Making sure the cut matches the print While creating a cutting path takes a lot of work in Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop, automated workflow management can make the job a lot easier. Workflow software can be programmed look at the artwork and create the cutting path—or it can smooth out the path and make it more accurate, even on pixel data rather than vector information.

Creating a bleed is a helpful tool as well (Figure 2). If the cut contour is exactly on the edge or border of the graphics, and if the print and cut are not exactly in registration, then small, unseemly white spaces can be seen at the edge of the artwork. To prevent this, a workflow can provide an automatic bleed. Depending upon the power of the tool, it can even clone image pixels if there is no image data available.

Challenge: Making plans for the hardware One of the manually tedious chores is adding supporting marks for hardware or additional finishing—seams or grommet marks, for example. A workflow is able to automatically place them on a graphic, eliminating the need for an operator to do it. It saves time and reduces the possibility for errors. A workflow can also work with oversized jobs and billboards, offering interactive adjustments for specialty purposes. They usually allow the operator to add gaps or overlaps of variable sizes. Irregular tiles can be defined for special applications such as exhibition booth corners, wall coverings, or store displays.

Challenge: Saving as much material as possible As any sign and display company knows, materials do not come cheap, and it’s important to use them to the maximum. Good workflows offer intelligent nesting, to create an optimized sheet quickly in layout (Figure 3), with perfect registration between print and cut files.

Individually prepared designs can be combined onto the substrate. Workflows can optimize each sheet, based on the quantity specified for each design. Optimization can be achieved in different ways. If the displays use irregular shapes, sheets can be optimized by nesting the designs based on their cut contours (Figure 4). This is not available on all workflows, as most software will nest designs based on the bounding box of the design, which results in material waste. When working with rectangular shapes, a workflow can optimize the sheet by making certain it will have the least cuts when finishing.

The process can be further optimized by looking for a sheet that can be re-used. Sometimes, deadlines make it impossible to wait to fill a full piece of material. A workflow-management solution can keep track, in its memory, of available scrap material for later use. This reduces waste dramatically even when meeting very tight deadlines.

Challenge: Get the double-sided jobs synchronized Double-sided jobs can have the same—or different—designs on the back of the substrate. Placement of the backside designs can be generated automatically when the front and back are available—typically in a multi-page PDF file. Most importantly, it can ensure that back and front designs are in sync.

Opportunity: Putting structure into the project Print providers can quickly discover a business challenge if they are only capable of producing two-dimensional signs: They are working in a commoditized business, where many of the quotes are estimated on a square-foot basis, and time and cost are the only factors important to the customer.

Some shops have decided that one way to add value to a project is by introducing a third dimension to their work. By offering customized display racks, three-dimensional displays—anything—they can differentiate themselves by adding creativity to the process. Most important for the health of the business, they can bill on a per-unit basis. This can be several times the price on a square-foot basis. Software is available that can help shops design three-dimensional projects. In fact, standardized libraries can make the process easier.

Challenge: Assure that printing and cutting is coordinated correctly A comprehensive workflow will create two files once a job is prepared: a PDF file for printing and a file that is delivered to a digital finishing table for cutting, containing all relevant cutting information.

While not specifically a part of an automated workflow, some finishing tables come with software and vision systems that work hand-in-hand with the files a workflow creates. Without this capability, slight distortions between printed graphics and contour cut may cause unacceptable results. The software and vision system registers the actual dimensions and positions, with a camera, on the printed result. (And, it will refer to a bar code on the sheet to refer to the correct cutting file.) Then, finishing is adapted to the shape of the graphics. Perfect registration with a finishing table’s vision makes sure that die-less cutting contours match.


Automation
The installer of the workflow system, or the prepress expert, can build automated scenarios for different types of work. Basically, these setups connect all of the different workflow tasks into a flow that follows the job from design to print to cut. If the work needs an operator’s attention or client approval before it is sent to the printer, contingencies can be programmed to allow the system to do that.

Opportunity: Tying it all together Once built, automated, dynamic workflows can be attached to hot folders. This means far less operator intervention and fewer potential errors. Even though jobs are automated, operators easily can monitor the workflow and interact when necessary through a comprehensive status job list. Jobs are processed automatically, freeing operators from repetitive tasks.

Many of these systems can also be integrated with management information systems or order-entry systems, enabling automatic job creation and the submission of job parameters to the workflow via XML data. This not only avoids double entry (and operator errors via typos), but it will also initiate the workflow via XML automatically and make the right decisions in the process.

Finally, there are production-approval and project-lifecycle tools available within workflows to make file sharing, collaboration, and approvals much easier. These tools are typically designed for client relationships in which a number of people must review and sign off on a project. As we know, most of the time this is not the case with sign and display projects. Most often there are one or two people to please, and client management is not a complex issue. However, these tools can offer project updates, proofs for review, and easy uploads of artwork.

Don’t forget the workflow!
The investment in any software that automates the processes that take place between design and finishing is usually made to eliminate errors, save time, reduce waste, and optimize performance. Automating your prepress workflow is a good way to produce more efficiently. By eliminating all of the pre-production problem areas, at the very least your facility will be operating efficiently so that production staff can take advantage of the capacity of your digital imaging equipment. At best, it offers you opportunities to consider value-added services. As you look to wide-format inkjet printing in the future, don't forget the workflow.

Bill Hartman
Bill Hartman is vice president of business development, digital finishing, for Esko.

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