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Diving into Digital Workflows

(April 2013) posted on Tue May 07, 2013

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

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By Bill Hartman

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.

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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