PIA/GATF Tech Alert 2005 Conference

ImageNearly two hundred print technology aficionados gathered at the Pittsburgh Airport Hyatt Regency Hotel February 6-8 for the thirteenth annual PIA/GATF Tech Alert Conference. The Graphic Arts Technical Foundation puts hundreds of hours of staff resources into testing the latest print applications and sharing the results with attendees at this forum each year. Suppliers and manufacturers participate in advance by processing digital files through their leading edge offerings so that the Foundation can compare their results with those of competitors.

This year’s tests included 1) the impact of various PDF workflows on color management efforts, 2) the adverse impact of coatings on trying to match digital proof to press, 3) how to prevent blanket piling when stochastic printing, and 4) how to minimize the quality degradation on digitally printed products subjected to the high speed Postal Service sorting equipment. Additionally the latest information on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and its future role in the printing industry was presented.

The CEO of Electronics for Imaging (EFI), Guy Gecht, expects the future speeds of digital print engines to move logarithmically from the current top out of 200 pages a minute to 2,000 ppm. For printers to take full advantage of the most productive digital technologies they should 1) integrate content and business management systems, 2) build their IT infrastructure on the industry standards of Job Document Format (JDF), 3) web-enable their business and 4) link their output systems to their MIS systems.

Gecht projected that many printers will work with software vendors who offer the application service provider (APS) model. This means that all software is resident on the vendors’ large-scale systems with printers and their clients accessing the software and databases via the Internet 24/7. In this fashion the graphic solutions provider avoids much hardware and software investment while on site IT expertise is also less intensive.

The pressure to collapse total cycle time or turn the product out quicker has resulted in many printers coating their printed sheets so that these sheets can move more quickly into their various finishing operations rather than waiting in staging queues for the ink to dry. The various coating methods prevent the ink from scuffing as they rub against different mechanisms in folding, collating, cutting, etc. Unfortunately these coatings create a major color shift in the background, which can prevent the press sheet from matching the digital proof.

Dr. Mark Bohan, GATF’s new Director of Integrated Technology, presented the Foundation’s tests which will help printers know what to expect and to adjust appropriately to this densitometer reading variance due to this coating dry back phenomenon. For example, aqueous coating in line with conventional inks on gloss paper will experience higher densitometer data reads especially on black and reflex blue while all data reads on matte coatings will be significantly less on all colors. There is only a small difference in read data between in and off line-coated material, which would tend to reinforce the desire to coat in line as a productivity enhancement. With ultraviolet cured coatings the densitometer readings for all colors tend to increase with black and reflex blue experiencing the most significant shift. Regardless of which coating is used varying substrates will definitely experience different density read results.

Printers are universally eliminating moir’ effects when printing certain textile images by incorporating stochastic screening software with their computer to plate technology. The use of virtually any of the various stochastic screening software used to generate the earlier film intermediary met with mixed print quality results. GATF tests presented to earlier Tech Alert Conferences also confirmed that stochastic screening results in less ink being consumed. On the negative side many printers have experienced an increased level of blanket piling which in turn creates delays and spoilage while the blankets need to be cleaned.

While color management has been slow to gain mainstream acceptance in the printing industry, there are clear advocates for the benefits of this discipline. One of the stumbling blocks has been the slow, yet evolving nature of the industry standards for a print-enabled PDF, namely PDF/X-3. GATF coordinated a series of tests among color-managed PDF workflows. The immaturity of this new X-3 workflow was reflected in the fact that only nine of the twenty-four vendors offering workflow solutions actually participated in the study. The reason is that most are simply not yet able to handle this element in their workflows. GATF’s Senior Prepress Technologist Joe Marin presented these test results.

The purpose of these tests was hopefully to verify that in a color management environment the same PDF/X-3 file should provide consistent output at different locations. Ad agencies clearly want consistent results at different printing plants. Unfortunately at this stage of development the tests concluded “the same color management system using the same profile renders color differently on different systems.” Hopefully further enhancements will allow the Foundation to present tests perhaps next year that verifies that this objective can be achieved.

John Parker, Director of Engineering for Graphic Solutions International (GSI) headquartered in Burr Ridge, Illinois gave the current status of radio frequency identification (RFID) and how it might impact certain print niche product applications. GSI (graphicsolutionsinc.com) started out printing labels a couple of decades ago and has evolved with their proprietary security printing technologies. They printed their first conductive product in 1995.

RFID is “a wireless transceiver (sends and receives) system used to track or locate goods or people. It is a wireless bar code” according to Parker. A radio and antenna transmits a signal to a label and then the label sends back its unique 96 bit identifier to the radio. The radios, called “readers” are about the size of a cigar box, power their antennas, which can be placed at doors, within warehouse bays, offices, or secure areas. Readers operate from standard building power though they may have battery backup systems.

RFID can track inventory, control secure access, build reliable databases, record storage temperatures and track the drug distribution chain to name five high value uses.

The RFID tags may be “active” and therefore include a battery or be “passive” with no battery. Passive tags have a printed or etched antenna and a “chip” cost as little as 15 cents a unit, have a read distance of about 12 feet and a read accuracy of about 83%. The active tags cost as much as $5, can be read from 100 feet away and have a 100% read accuracy.

While the physics and electronics for RFID have been known since WWII, the “premium” applications for the past quarter century have been hospitals and toll systems, for example. Big box retailers and better microchip technologies have increased the demand as well as the potential supply of these tags resulting in cascading prices and many additional lesser valued applications.

The most lucrative future print production applications anticipated is variable data digital printing used in one to one marketing initiatives. While this is expected to be produced and dispersed via multi media, there is little doubt that the postal service will be a favored distribution channel. One potential nagging issue is that digitally printed products almost universally experience more transit damage than does conventionally printed direct mail. 

One of the longstanding traditions and in fact highlights of this Tech Alert Conference is the presentation of the annual Technology Forecast. Attendees receive the first copies with PIA/GATF membership receiving theirs in a subsequent mailing. This 104-page publication contains 49 articles discussing projections and trends pertinent to every firm in the graphic communications industry throughout the world.