Best of British: Hamillroad’s big screen test

Simon Eccles
Monday, August 12, 2019

How does a small Cambridge developer produce halftone screening software intended to outperform the big pre-press players? This is the story of Hamillroad, which sells advanced Digitally Modulated Screening (DMS) technology for flexo and litho printing as an aftermarket add-on for any platesetter RIP.

DMS is playing a part in the flexo quality revolution that’s been developing over the past decade, also combining improvements in plates, anilox roller manufacture, ink and pressure controls, and highly automated presses. 

Why the name?

First, what does the Hamillroad name mean? “It comes from the original founders, Pierre Hammond, Robert Miller, and Shaun Rhoda,” says CEO Andy Cave. The company was born out of pioneering work by Robert Miller, based in Cape Town, South Africa, who developed many productivity and performance enhancement concepts for the benefit of Harlequin RIP users. 

Cave was the original creator and chief designer of the Harlequin RIP and a founder member of Harlequin Limited (which later became today’s Global Graphics Software Limited). He had developed a PostScript interpreter as a final-year project at university and when he left in 1987 he took it to Harlequin, which set up a RIP division to commercialise it. 

Cave stayed with the company until its brief demise in 1999 (it was quickly resurrected as Global Graphics). It continues to use the Harlequin name on its PDF RIP-rendering technology, which is licensed as the core of many of today’s pre-press workflows. 

Cave worked for a 3D graphics company until 2002, until it fell victim to the dot-bomb crash. He had also been consulting for Miller’s company as it integrated its screening with the Harlequin RIP. A European base was seen as better able to reach into the global market than in South Africa and the upshot was a new sister company, Hamillroad Software Ltd, set up in the UK with Cave as CEO. 

How does it operate?

Well into its second decade, Hamillroad remains a small company, employing eight full-time staff and four part-time employee/contractors. The head office is in Cambridge, handling development, support, marketing and finance. There is still a South African office in Cape Town where Pierre Hammond is still based, and a US office in Boston that houses the North America support team.

“The majority of our revenue comes from the Digitally Modulated Screening (DMS) technology,” says Cave. “We also have a portfolio of pre-press software product, FirstPROOF and our Lightning plugins, which make up the remainder of the revenue.”

Screening and proofing software is a pretty rare speciality. What sort of qualities are needed to work for Hamillroad? “Talent is talent. We look for individuals who have the required skills, and the can-do attitude,” Cave says. “If they have experience from within the print industry then it’s a great advantage, however not a necessity. As we are a small team and located across the globe, being able to get on with things, make decisions, and work independently are important. 

“We also focus on bringing the team together on a regular basis to share information, get feedback, and ideas on projects. We hold regular company meetings and have a very positive work culture; empowering people in their roles to do what’s right is important, creating a vision of where we are heading helps us to align activities and time with achieving the company goals.”

Why buy add-on screens?

DMS is not offered as standard by the pre-press workflow suppliers and indeed Hamillroad regards the conventional RIP suppliers, or at least their standard screens, as its competition. So what is the sales argument, given that these suppliers already build in ‘free’ screening, usually with a choice of conventional AM, stochastic FM or a hybrid combination.

“Fundamentally, print has not changed since its inception,” Cave says. “Since the days of Gutenberg and before, printers have been trying to print good quality, but everything everyone does is a compromise and a juggling act, managing the issues and not solving them. Every printer says ‘I print good quality.’ But every printer suffers from moiré. Every printer suffers from dirty rosettes. Every printer suffers from a lack of image detail. Every printer suffers from non-sharp tinted text. Every printer suffers from registration problems. I could go on. 

“This very question shows that there is a problem. The mere fact everyone is seeking or asking if they need better quality is indicative that there is a problem. So why not solve it? With DMS we have.”

He says that traditional constant-pitch and angled AM (amplitude modulated) halftone screens are stable at lower screen rulings (say 133lpi) but this produces visible dots and low detail. High AM rulings in the 300 to 400lpi range are invisible but hard to register and stabilise. “In all cases you have to worry about moiré, dirty visible rosettes and limited tone range reproduction.”

More modern screens developed to address this aren’t perfect either, Cave says. “FM (frequency modulated) screening produces very high image detail, but flat tints can be noisy, and it does not have a good reputation in terms of stability. XM (cross modulated) screening improved the tone range, Concentric reduced ink consumption, which in turn improved stability on press, but this is not easy to plate.” 

Hamillroad’s answer is Digitally Modulated Screening, which it says gives quality and usability benefits without the drawbacks. 

How does it work?

DMS modulates every pixel to ensure that no highlight dot is too small to record to the plate, or to transfer ink on the press. It uses three key inventions, for which Hamillroad has multiple patents internationally. First and foremost is a technique of using reduced-size dots to build larger structures. These can either be standalone sub-dots or connected sub-dots. The structures can be anything – geometric shapes or even a round AM-like dot: “for example like our company logo!” says Cave. 

Second was a system of using rectangular dots, by using pairs, triplets and then chains of dots as the basic structure. “The combination of these two inventions solved many of the issues faced with FM screening,” says Cave. 

The third key invention was the Stochastic Rosette, which interleaves the dots between the separations to prevent noise and moiré.

According to Hamillroad the result is a quality of print that was previously unobtainable. It maximises the ink-on-paper area and minimises the amount of ink-on-ink to expand the available colour gamut while eliminating colour shifts due to mis-registration. 

Despite Cave’s historical close association with the Harlequin RIP, the screening library works with anything, so it’s equally relevant to the Adobe APPE technology that’s the other major player in pre-press and digital print front-ends. 

The two main Hamillroad DMS products are Auraia for litho screening; and Bellissima for flexo. These are supplied as part of a DMS Rasterbox, a software bundle which incorporates a Harlequin RIP, Lightning plugins and FirstProof, a prepress soft proofing tool.

Auraia is primarily used for litho platesetters and can support Agfa, Kodak, Screen and others. Bellissima customers so far are working with the Esko Automation Engine, Kodak Prinergy and Hybrid Cloudflow workflows, outputting to digital and film platemaking systems. “Whether you are offset, or flexo – you get the DMS technology specific to you,” says Cave. 

What are the markets?

“We have a variety of customers, ranging from small ‘mom and pop’ shops all the way up to the largest heatset web offset printers in the world,” says Cave. “Due to NDAs we are unable to name some of these, as they don’t want their competitors or clients knowing what their ‘secret sauce’ is.”

What is known is that Bellissima was used in flexo jobs that won five gold and four silver medals at the 2017 EFIA Awards in Birmingham. Earlier Bellissima jobs won gold at the 2015 Flexographic Print Excellence Awards in South Africa, gold and Best on Show at FlexoTech 2016, and two golds and a silver at EFIA 2016. 

The company website carries a couple of case studies of the litho Auraia DMS, Silber Druck in Germany and Weprint in Luxemburg. “Both have very compelling stories about how Auraia has benefited the business,” says Cave. Horton Media, an Australian newspaper printer, has also won print awards, which it attributes to Auraia.

Hamillroad supplies its products through a global technical partner and reseller network. Bellissima is distributed exclusively through Apex International worldwide. 

Last year Hamillroad announced a partner programme to establish mutually beneficial relationships with providers of complementary products. “An example of this is Bellissima DMS,” says Cave. “In the program we have partnered with Apex International, MacDermid Graphics Solutions, DuPont, and more recently Bobst,” says Cave. “It ensures that partners can successfully collaborate and promote their technology alongside our own.”

What’s next in Hamillroad’s plans? “Screening for digital is in the pipeline,” Cave says, though it’s too early to reveal much more. Patterning, unevenness and banding are issues in several digital processes, so Hamillroad’s take on these will be interesting to see. 

Star products

Both Auraia and Bellissima are the big sellers within the portfolio, says Cave, “because they make such a difference to the trade shops and printers using them.”


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