EskoArtwork SignUp Auto

Barney Cox
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Canny printers in the signage and display markets could make savings by optimising their front ends, discovers Barney Cox

There's no doubt that in the display graphics and signage markets, digital print has been widely adopted. All manner of wide-format and superwide-format inkjet presses are commonplace and increasingly supplanting screen printing machinery.

However, while the advantages of digital print are widely used and well provided for, ironically the sector lags behind commercial print when it comes to the use of digital workflow to optimise file preparation in pre-press. But that's starting to change as firms look for the next step to improve their efficiency, with the realisation that more short-run work means more file preparation.

That is one of the areas where EskoArtwork identified an opportunity to develop workflow tools that can save hours of work in Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator, enabling those wide-format presses to be kept productive without additional studio manpower.

The firm launched its workflow package SignUp last year, and followed it with a more automated version, SignUp Auto, earlier this year. Both can save hours of operator time but while SignUp still needs an operator to run the software, the Auto version can be configured to use metadata - either from your MIS or a web-to-print storefront - to automatically route and process jobs.

Esko believes it's not necessarily an either-or situation, and that some companies will need both. "The difference is like that between a handsaw and a chainsaw," says EskoArtwork software product group director of platforms Geert De Proost. "You may need both - there are some jobs you wouldn't be able to do with a chainsaw."

SignUp, which the firm also refers to as the interactive version can perform a wider range of editing tasks, which require an operator to approve than the Auto incarnation.

This includes the one-up editor, which enables the operator to carry out various tasks quickly that would otherwise need a time-consuming step in Photoshop or Illustrator. Examples include adding a white underprint, useful for coloured and clear substrates, and automatically creating a 5mm bleed around the cutting line of both vector and pixel images to ensure no white edges.

The operator can also use this editor to ferret around in a file to find cut lines, which may have been created as an extra separation or clipping paths, or to find the underlying vectors in a file to create a cutting guide.

Another feature is the ability to manage double-sided jobs, turning what could be a fiddly bit of trial and error into a simple routine. Front and back images can be interactively married up and previewed, to make sure the graphic will match the cutter guide on both sides. It's possible to work-and-turn or work-and-tumble. Changes made to one side of the sheet are automatically applied to the other.

The firm has exhibited SignUp Auto at three shows so far - ISA in the US, Sign & Digital UK in Birmingham and Fespa Digital 2009 in Amsterdam.

"Everyone who sees it says ‘we need it, we want it'," claims De Proost. "All of a sudden we have lots of people interested in it."

So far there are seven sites worldwide using SignUp Auto, including Linney Print in the UK.

Growing importance
While De Proost admits it's early days for anyone using metadata from an MIS, and particularly a web-to-print storefront to automate their wide-format file flow he sees it as becoming more important in the future as printers come to deal with more, but shorter-run, jobs. Of the seven sites using SignUp Auto, only one is driving it from its MIS.

"We've created it as a painkiller to take costs out and make the process more predictable," he says.

The idea is that the user makes a library of their substrate types and sizes and that the use of metadata, including the substrate that the job is to be printed on, is used by SignUp Auto to route the jobs appropriately.

Underlying the SignUp Auto is the Switch workflow automation technology from EskoArtwork's subsidiary Enfocus.
At the moment jobs are submitted into SignUp Auto using what are called Submit Points. Basically you can drop a folder of images into the workflow, just selecting the number of copies needed and the substrate to be used. The software then automatically produces an optimised layout and adds cut marks.

The nearest direct alternative to SignUp and SignUp Auto is Zünd's Prepare-it package. While wide-format workflow products from Caldera, EFI, Four Pees and Onyx incorporate elements of nesting and cutter control, it is only Prepare-it which provides a comprehensive range of tools for editing cut lines, and adding register marks. Esko emphasises its unique features, which include the use of metadata in SignUp Auto, which enables it to integrate with and automate third-party applications too, such as actions in Photoshop, and the ability to nest irregular-shaped objects.

Not re-inventing the workflow wheel is part of Esko's strategy according to De Proost, who envisages SignUp working in conjunction with these other workflow tools.

"The beauty of Switch is that it integrates with third-party applications," he says. "There is no strategy for us to replace other RIPs."

The core technology that is used for optimising the layout of multiple complicated shaped designs comes from the firm's packaging heritage. While not identical, the algorithms used in SignUp are very similar to those used for packaging tool Plato, to conjure up the most efficient way of packing in as many jobs onto a sheet as possible.

This efficiency is enabled by the use of digital cutting tables, such as EskoArtwork's Kongsberg range to handle complicated shapes.

"No one else focuses on nesting and tiling to the extent that we do," says De Proost. "We focus on automatic nesting and tiling because our Kongsberg tables are never far away."

Both packages can add the appropriate marks and barcodes to aid registration and identifying the right job using EskoArtwork subsidiary I-Cut's software.

Added flexibility
In both versions it is possible, once you've set up the sheet size and substrate type, to automate filling those sheets with ganged-up jobs. While the raison d'être of the software is optimising the layout to save on substrate, it is possible to put checks in the workflow, so if a sheet isn't full, but jobs are coming due, they can be released to print.

One feature that has been added as a result of user feedback is Save Offcut. This calculates the best way to place an image and to cut a board to ensure the most useful sized offcut remains for re-use. The details are stored in the software's database, to make it easy to recall and fill the offcut when you next need to use that substrate.

The manual, or interactive, version, SignUp, costs €7,000 (£5,968), while SignUp Auto is €12,500. Both are also available to rent on a contract basis at 5% of the total price per month. A trial version is expected to be available for download very soon from the EskoArtwork website, allowing prospective customers to try out the software before making a purchase.

The firm has also devised an ROI calculator that prospective customers can use their own figures to calculate the savings and how long the software will take to pay for itself. De Proost says that users can expect a 15%-30% saving in both time and materials, adding that the savings become more significant the more expensive the substrates you use, particularly if it's something like Dibond.

While in wide-format it may be the specifications of the printers that still grab the headlines, SignUp shows that for the canny printer, looking beyond hardware to software can provide a set of tools that, by saving operator time and consumables costs, can provide an all important boost to their bottom line.

Interactive nesting and layout optimisation tool with control over cutting, front-to-back registration bleed generation and     white underprint
SignUp Auto
Automatic nesting and layout optimisation tool with set up for cutting
Platform PC
SignUp €7,000 (£5,968)
SignUp Auto €12,500 (£10,656)
Both packages are also available to rent at a monthly cost of 5% of purchase price
Contact EskoArtwork 01527 585805

VisualRIP+ is the French wide-format print workflow specialist's solution. Aimed at firms with large-format printers and cutters, the range also includes GrandRIP+ for superwide-format machines. Tools and options include nesting, tiling and the addition of marks for eyelets, stitching or folds. It's compatible with a wide range of printers, while the VisualCut and GrandCut modules are compatible with a range of roll-to-roll and flatbed cutters.
Price €3,995 (£3,415)
Contact Caldera +33 388 210 000

The PrintFactory RIP offer simultaneous rendering, printing and cutting for higher efficiency. It uses standard and customized templates for repetitive jobs or can optimise media by nesting jobs automatically on the media. PrintFactory can add cutting marks for quick and accurate finishing. Available in Mac and PC versions, it is compatible with a huge list of printers and cutters.
Price from £2,000
Contact +32 9 330 60 12

Prepare-it has been around for several years and offers a similar set of functions to SignUp including nesting, register marks, and barcodes for job identification. It will work with Zünd and third-party cutters that are compatible with I-Cut software. Cut curves can be extracted from PostScript, EPS and PDF file and it can create cut data from clipping paths, line art, text and borders within a file. Automated production is enabled via hot folders rather than SignUp Auto's use of metadata. Zünd has recently added AutoNest, but at the moment it doesn't support graphics.
Price £4,000
Contact Zünd Plotting Systems (UK) 01727 833003


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