Press intelligence

By Barney Cox, Thursday 12 February 2009

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Getting your front end right can make all the difference to your profitability, particularly if you are operating both digital and offset, but the range of options on offer can make it a difficult decision

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Today’s digital machines are sleek and smart bits of kit. However, getting the most out of your digital press set-up takes brains, not brawn. The brain in a digital operation – workflow – is vital. Making the smartest choice means keeping your wits about you. So what’s the best direction for your digital hardware and software? It all depends on the nature of your business and the applications you will be targeting with digital. What’s right for you could be very different from the company down the road.

Xerox marketing manager for workflow solutions Andy Pieroux believes company strategy and business practices can be more of a deciding factor than technology. “For some people, it’s important not to have infighting between suppliers,” he says.

It’s a serious issue. Before investing, it can be worth asking potential suppliers and their customers some searching questions about their relationships with other firms. Some printers have learned this at a cost. “The stumbling blocks aren’t with the technology. They’re with the suppliers talking to each other,” claims one printer. He found that while his MIS supplier was happy to talk to his pre-press vendor, it refused to deal with the firm that supplied his web-to-print system.

Simpler supply lines
One way around this is to take the single-source route and buy all your workflow components from one supplier. However, despite the simplicity of only dealing with one firm, going down this route is not practical for many firms. Alan Bates, pre-media manager of Buckingham-based BCQ, says: “If you were a new company, you could go for a single supplier. But it’s not like that – it’s a process of evolution. Otherwise, you would have to chuck away a vast amount of stuff and start again.”

BCQ, which formed through the merger of Buckingham Colour and Colour Quest, is typical of an increasing number of firms that have had to integrate different technologies because of a merger or acquisition. The two firms were both early to adopt digital technology alongside litho. But one side was an HP Indigo customer and the other a Xerox iGen3 operator.

BCQ has little overlap between work run digitally and offset, so Bates chose to run the digital operation separately from the litho side, which uses a Screen Trueflow workflow. “We try to keep digital separate, so it doesn’t get messy,” he says.

However, he wanted a common workflow for the two digital press technologies, standardising on the Creo digital front end. Within the firm’s artwork studio there is a dedicated digital studio to handle file preparation, including personalisation. Preparing work for the digital presses is carried out in Creo rather than in the studio.

Guy Elliott, Heidelberg product manager for Prinect workflow and CTP, believes that when moving into digital, there’s an advantage for printers to use their CTP workflow to drive the digital press. “If I was a printer, I’d want to have my more powerful CTP workflow doing the digital work, rather than the other way around,” he says. He concedes that in the early days, there wasn’t that much true connectivity between the systems. They more or less “lobbed a PDF file over the wall to the digital front end”. But he says integration is growing all the time.

Digital vendors agree on the merits of this approach. “If you can marry your offset workflow and digital workflow, it can save you lots of time. You don’t have to check files manually or impose them,” says HP Indigo workflow consultant Simon Kingham. “The key thing is whether the output is static or variable.”

East Sussex-based Beacon Press runs a digital department containing two HP Indigo 5500s alongside its offset machines. Group technical manager Aaron Archer opted to use its Kodak Prinergy CTP workflow to also feed the digital presses. “We use Kodak Prinergy to drive both digital and offset because it guarantees quality and data integrity,” says Archer. “The majority of work is static, and my preference is to impose upstream in Prinergy.” Another argument for this approach is that pre-press staff are already trained and familiar with Prinergy and imposition package Preps. Variable data is handled outside of Prinergy using XMPie. “Variable data is much more complex. I’m happy in that case to stay in a composition language where I see no advantage in going via Prinergy,” he says.

Cost savings
The one-size-fits-all path can be particularly relevant to all-digital houses, such as Cypher Digital Imaging in Cumbria. Its plant list includes Xerox DocuColor 5000 and 700 cut-sheet colour machines plus HP Z6100 and HP DesignJet 9000 eco-solvent printers and a large-format Epson 9880. A single workflow supplier strategy led it to Xerox’s Freeflow Process Manager last September. “We wanted to calibrate colour across all our machines,” says managing director Paul Calland. “Before, there was a lot of hands-on work to get it right. The machines wouldn’t match each other, and we couldn’t afford to fiddle with the colour for the value of each job.”

Cypher ended up with an automated workflow as a by-product of fixing its colour management issues. Process Manager now handles colour correction, preflighting and imposition for all of the firm’s output. “We were happy doing pre-press manually, but it’s saved us a person. I had been looking to recruit, but the workflow will work out much cheaper over several years, and trying to find skilled people where we are is tricky,” adds Calland.

Prior to Process Manager, Calland had looked for a workflow automation tool without success. “It’s a Catch-22 situation. We’re a small company and we get lots of jobs that need lots of checks. We need a complete system, but can’t afford a big one,” he says. “We shopped around for a long time and I kept hitting a brick wall. Nothing was the right price for a company of our size: 18 staff and a £1m turnover. Workflows that you hear about are £50,000-£60,000, and that’s too much. We wanted a set-up suitable for smaller jobs and a large number of customers. A lot of the guys selling workflow didn’t understand what we do.”

Process Manager did cost the firm more than it expected, working out at £40,000. Despite the hefty investment, Calland remains sceptical about the value of complete integration, and has yet to link the firm’s website with production. It uses a web-to-print package called Printers Website from a firm called Print Science. “Manually re-keying information into the workflow that has been entered on the web-to-print system is OK, especially if it saves a fortune for a workflow connector,” he says.

Digital consultant Chris Jordan agrees that the cost of digital workflow tools, and in particular the connectors to link digital presses to existing pre-press workflows, are too expensive for many firms. “I hope in the future that it will be cheaper,” he says. “£10,000 to £15,000 to upgrade a CTP workflow to drive a digital press is too expensive. At the moment, it’s more cost-effective to have separate systems.”

However, Jordan believes that there is value in total integration and that web-to-print will be the spur. “My hope is that web-to-print will act as a catalyst and make people realise the value of pre-press automation. That opens peoples’ eyes to what is possible for not a lot of cash.”


WORKFLOW UNRAVELLED
Centralised workflow controller
Digital print lends itself to lots of low-value short-run jobs, which means it is ideal for automated pre-press workflow. However, the tools for digital have lagged behind those of offset CTP. A new generation of workflow controllers that act as a central hub, performing preflighting and colour management and controlling a raft of digital output devices is emerging to redress this. Examples include EFI’s Fiery Central, HP’s SmartStream Director and Xerox Freeflow Process Manager.

Connector
For firms with an existing pre-press workflow for CTP, it may not make sense to re-invent the wheel and duplicate its functions with a centralised workflow controller. Here, CTP and digital press vendors have developed connectors that allow the CTP workflow to control the digital press. The degree of sophistication can vary widely. There are the very basic, where an optimised PDF is passed to the digital press’s digital front end, through to fully fledged JDF-enabled systems that can control the digital press’s paper trays and any connected post-press kit, while also providing status feedback on the digital press to the MIS via JMF.

Digital front end
This is the generic term for the RIPs that drive digital presses. They have additional functionality, including job set-up, colour management and preflighting functions. They tend to be dedicated to a single press rather than able to output to multiple devices. Leading examples include EFI’s Fiery and the Creo PODS range of servers available for a wide range of printers. Digital print vendors may also have their own front ends, such as the Kodak NexStation, HP Production Pro and Xerox Freeflow Workflow.

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