A look at the technology that has impacted the production process prior to printing.
By Mike Ruff
What most people were seeing, but not really paying attention to, was how fast software innovation was changing. The speed and processing power of the software was not supported by the graphic computers at first. Now, low-cost computing systems handle most of the very sophisticated software in prepress. In fact, many professional graphic producers process files on their laptops.
By the mid-2000s, prepress was evolving even faster as traditional print companies were attempting to survive the disruptive digital revolution. Again, prepress software and equipment companies embraced prepress innovation, integrating it into their products. Most of the time, it was so well camouflaged that printers didn’t know why it worked so well – they just knew it did. Great prepress was now possible by marginally skilled technicians.
The Printing Equipment Trap
In the analog equipment era, a company in the graphics industry could buy a piece of equipment and it was useful and competitive for 20 years. With the advent of digital, many companies were getting caught in the trap of buying very expensive digital equipment that would be close to obsolete in five years or less. Not understanding this sunk a lot of companies. Digital equipment that was “state of the art” could quickly become a cash-sucking boat anchor with a huge maintenance contract. Our industry had never experienced that before and some did not survive.
Today’s Innovation Opportunities
Today, prepress departments are smaller but much more technical. This is driven by a workforce of incredibly talented millennials who do not remember when laptops didn’t exist and are superhuman in their understanding and use of technology. They learn quickly because digital is just part of their lives. Sophisticated software does not intimidate them and they are now producing up to 10 times more files than their Gen X counterparts did. I love to watch them work and I look forward to seeing what innovation they will add to our fast-changing industry.
What Will the Prepress Department of the Future Look Like?
Automation has already advanced to very high level in prepress thanks to companies like Fuji, Esko, EnFocus, EFI, Canon, Chromix, Xerox, Sony, 3M, Agfa, Tucanna, and many others, but new systems are now coming to market that enable prepress technology to move to a level not seen before.
Is this disruptive? I do not believe prepress technology actually qualifies as a disruptive force because it represents pure innovation that makes products more affordable and accessible to a wider range of print customers. It is advancing our industry, not destroying it. I see three areas that I believe will separate the “innovative” prepress shops from the “wannabes.”
1. Cutting-edge color management. Productivity with no production-stopping color control issues.
2. Truly automated, one or two person workflows even for large print shops. The prepress technician of the future will not be doing anything but supervising software, updating and innovating a system that does the work for them.
3. Prepress taking control of estimating, purchasing, and costing. Handling files will be too simple for the prepress technician of the future. The estimating, purchasing, and costing workflows will be integrated into prepress workflows in the future. In fact, it’s happening now.
Prepress innovation is allowing us to be profitable in a technical, screaming-fast world that would destroy us without the tools and software now available to us. Thank you to all the prepress innovators that have provided these products. But I close with a warning: We need to abandon our personnel hiring thinking of the past. A wrong hiring approach will delay or completely stop the evolution toward a totally automated prepress print shop. The number one mistake is to think we need to hire traditional prepress personnel with massive print experience. We must think differently. The people we need in these highly technical positions are younger, like the top IT grads from Cal Poly, RIT, Clemson, and MIT. We need fearless software and computer geeks with IT experience. These are the employees that will drive our companies forward by reducing cost, increasing quality, doubling speeds, and differentiating us from the competition. Happy hunting!
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