Transporting files takes off with latest workflows

Sophie Matthews-Paul
Monday, May 5, 2014

That’s the trouble with doing well. Excel at making some decent margins from a certain area of print, and it inevitably won’t be long before others are jumping on the bandwagon – and in the case of wide-format print, offering to wrap it too.

So while in the not so distant past wide-format printers enjoyed the enviable position of facing less competition than their commercial print counterparts, this is starting to change. Certainly price wars are still much less fierce here, but wide-format printers still need to now look more urgently at margin-preserving efficiencies.

Key will be scrutinising their workflow. Expectations should now extend far beyond file handling, pre-press and throughput. Today, the key considerations are whether a workflow offers an efficient front-end, the ability to coordinate multiple devices, incorporates colour management algorithms and PDF capabilities, and a connection with post-press.

“The need for process optimisation from pre-press to finishing has historically been raised by traditional print service providers who have to deal with increasing pressure on costs and turnaround times. For a long time wide-format printers had been primarily focused on the latest and more advanced print equipment, rather than on streamlining their entire production process,” confirms John Davies, business strategy manager, workflow at Fujifilm Europe.

“But as more wide-format digital solutions come to market and as competition increases, the pressure to streamline print production operations with a workflow will increase for sure.” 

The fact that these machines coming to market are now much faster than previously is another important factor in making workflow a much more crucial consideration for the wide-format printer. Whereas in the past machines were slower and their leisurely pace had a tendency to dictate the rate at which complementary activities, such as administration and accounting, were performed, now software must catch up.

Fortunately for printers – although inevitably intensifying competition from others whipping their workflows into shape – various forms of technology have now evolved to put streamlined wide-format workflow much more within their grasp.

Go back a decade and it was commonplace for many wide-format print devices to be run from their own RIPs provided by different manufacturers. This made any kind of integration difficult. And complications often arose when it came to colour management and profiling across print engines, not helped when varied file types and handling were also involved.

Now though, as print engines have got speedier, there’s more cohesion between basics such as batching and queueing, nesting and step-and-repeat. File processing and job refinements have also acquired elements of automation to speed things through, and pre-flighting in this sector has come of age. 

Key considerations

So what should wide-format specialists taking advantage of the above now be demanding from a new and improved workflow? In terms of what increased automation should be achieving, driving multiple devices in a simplified way, reducing manual intervention, and so saving time and costs are of course the obvious ones.

Wide-format houses should now also be looking to reduce waste and improve on quality and accuracy, in colour management for example. “Our customers want to work more efficiently and this involves all aspects of production, starting with properly colour managed jobs that are pre-flighted and generate the highest quality results,” says Paul Cripps, vice-president sales, EFI Europe Middle East & Africa. “Users also need to be able to drive multiple devices with reliance on accuracy and simplicity, and develop the right feedback to optimise time savings, reduce waste and save on costs.”

To do this, workflow should now be completely end-to-end, says Martijn van den Broek wide-format sales manager at Screen Europe. “From a total workflow point of view, most important is to have connection to print finishing devices, such as those from Zünd and Kongsberg. Practical benefits deliver economic advantages by standardising quality and providing better colour matching,” he says.

A good workflow should also be automating administrative tasks and providing strong accountability and tracking, he adds. “When working with external designers, Adobe PDF Print Engine (APPE) is becoming more and more important, saving administration time and reducing the chances of mistakes,” he says.

“Today’s wide-format print businesses also recognise that they need to consider the right integration to give them on-the-fly communications with their MIS/ERP software so that workflow instructions function smoothly. The emphasis for all companies should be to maximise their workflow potential so that it provides the best efficiencies, starting with data input from different sources through fast job processing to different print engines, and on to accurate to tracking, reporting and accounting,” agrees Cripps.

Michael Reiher, product manager at Enfocus, adds: “When considering a workflow, print providers should consider all major segments including internal file production, ordering, file submission, job tracking and delivery, and archiving. This is known as a workflow analysis – each of these segments presents an opportunity for automation or workflow enhancement with different solutions in the market.”

Pre-press automation should also feature heavily, says Erik Strik, director of R&D at GMG-Aurelon. “Pre-press efforts need to be reduced to a minimum or even to zero, and press utilisation must be increased to decrease idle time, along with ink savings and error reduction, especially in job preparation and colour,” he says. 

Ideal systems

But what specifically might the software that delivers all of the above look like?

Firstly, printers need to be aware that a good workflow won’t generally be dependent on one product that can do everything. More commonly it’ll involve the knitting together of a variety of modules. Growth in the use of PDF, which has of course made great strides in unifying basic file handling and rendering, has simplified the ability to drive a variety of devices from a single front-end.

With this in mind, it’s important for printers to think carefully about what they already have. “This analysis should help the service provider evaluate and prioritise each part to build a road to how they want to automate each segment, and ensure they are making decisions that will lead to all systems working together,” says Reiher at Enfocus.

Printers also need to realise that every business will need a slightly different solution, depending on their specific set-up and how this is likely to develop in future.

“With a software workflow linking a number of applications present across the business, both reliability and future-proofing are paramount,” confirms Sébastien Hanssens, vice-president of marketing and communication at Caldera. “The package must fit with the company’s culture; each has a different DNA and all have business pressures, so the suite must be versatile enough to deal with that. And it should also be able to accommodate future demands in terms of scale and function.”

In analysing what they can and should reasonably expect their workflow to do, and what packages to go for, printers should also realise, however, that there are still some limits. While machine speeds, RIPs, file processing and pre-flighting have all evolved to make an efficient and highly automated workflow both possible and worthwhile, machine connectivity can still present slight complications.  

GMG-Aurelon’s Strik believes that, although the industry has promised that JDF will deliver the possibility to build configurations from best-of-breed products, this has not yet been fulfilled. “The reality shows that, in most cases a semi-open end-to-end system is supplied by the RIP vendor to ensure that all capabilities are covered,” he says. “Achieving a tight integration between two systems from different vendors requires the involvement of a system integrator that is capable of gluing the systems together, provided that both have an open JDF or XML interface.”

But Onyx’s territory manager for western and northern Europe and Israel, Matt Littler, says good progress is being made in this area. “As specialists in wide-format we deliver an open XML based solution which integrates well with the customer’s choice of JDF, ERP, CRM and web-to-print for printing, cutting, finishing and accounting and, of course, APPE is the backbone of our products,” he says.

It seems, then, that the opportunities for making wide-format workflows even more automated and efficient in future will only continue to grow. No longer do wide-format machines operate at the kind of speeds that render faster workflows largely redundant. And no longer do RIP variations between different sorts of printers and different file types present such obstacles to implementing workflow home improvements.

The real take-home point isn’t just that highly automated and integrated workflows are now possible. Rather that they’re highly advisable. Ever-increasing competition in the sector, combined with the fact that a wide-format printer is now likely to be running a wider array of different kit, means an intelligent workflow is now more of a must-have system.

Although no two print businesses are the same, the principles of operating efficiently on an end-to-end basis are common to all. And improving pre-press activities, making a workflow truly end-to-end and improving accountability and tracking administration capabilities are steps all wide-format printers would be well advised to take. 

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