Prepress technology review: a look at workflow flexibility

Prepress workflow

The current global economic situation makes an article on workflow flexibility both timely and relevant. We have all heard, feared and lived through some tough times lately, and there seems to be no shortage of bleak stories affecting everyone in some capacity or another.

In a recent presentation entitled “Profiling the Economy and Print 2009-2010,” Dr. Ronnie Davis, vice-president and chief economist for the Printing Industries of America, reported that the annual rate of change for ink-on-paper in the U.S. was down by 6% in 2008, while total printing shipments declined 4.5%. While Dr. Davis predicts a small increase in the latter half of 2009 and through 2010, the growth is likely to be slower than we have seen previously, and Dr. Davis suggests that recovery for the printing industry will be somewhat slower than the overall economic recovery. With predictions like this, the necessity to become more efficient, leaner and profitable is paramount.

Economic challenges test the limits of many companies. With declining sales, shrinking profits and increased operating costs, the importance of strategic capital investments can be easily brushed aside. For this reason, I was pleasantly surprised when I read in the NAPL State of the Industry Report (Seventh Edition) that a reasonable number of U.S. printers reported double-digit sales growth last year. Even more interesting, when asked to list their priorities for the next three years, over 90% of the 600 printers surveyed listed a more efficient workflow and/or improvements in productivity as their top concern (NAPL, Paramus NJ, www.napl.org). When we stop to consider what a workflow can represent these days, the priority to improve workflow efficiencies makes sense because it can impact so many areas of a company. A flexible, multifaceted workflow can help companies combat the negative trends we are currently facing and make a significant difference in overall profitability.

The term “workflow,” as it relates to the printing industry, has a much different meaning today than it did even a decade ago. The types of jobs that are being produced, the product that is being sold and the way we manufacture print has evolved. I use the term evolved because the change really hasn’t been revolutionary. This change continues to happen as a steady progression of the successes that have come before. In this context, a good workflow can be vital to the overall success of a business by increasing productivity, reducing waste, shortening turnaround times and lessening non-chargeable hours. Automation and integration are key catalysts for workflow efficiencies, but that is only a piece of the puzzle. Cost accounting, job tracking, change management, variability, flexibility and fluidity within a workflow allow printers to adapt to the needs of clients in the most profitable way, while at the same time, tracking true costs for evaluation purposes.

There are many different workflow solutions on the market today that range in price and functionality. Different vendors may stress different features to suit one particular market or another, but in general, good workflows share three important qualities.

First, a workflow should be able to manage, track and exchange job data throughout the job lifecycle. This data is crucial for things like accurate cost analysis, automating production processes and making sure the job is done right the first time by providing checks and balances.

Second, a workflow must provide tools that reduce the amount of time it takes to produce a job. This can be through automation of repetitive tasks, or by reducing the time it takes to complete a task.

Third, a workflow should allow for maximum flexibility with regards to changing job specifications and output requirements mid-production. The need for late-binding workflows is becoming more and more crucial as printers diversify their product, blending traditional offset printing with digital printing, variable data printing and even cross media publication.

For this article, I look at prepress workflows offered by Agfa, Fuji, Heidelberg and Kodak and discuss some unique features of each one that offers flexibility within a prepress environment. Each of these workflows is dynamic and powerful, and it would take more than a single article to discuss any of them in great detail. For this reason, I am highlighting some of the key points and “hidden gems” of each and narrowing my focus to prepress functionality. I think it is also important to mention that these are not the only workflows on the market, and anyone looking for a change to their workflow should look at all options available. I also want to note that it is not my intention to rate or compare these products.

The purpose of this article is to talk about four really dynamic workflow systems and discuss some of the ways they can help you increase your workflow flexibility, and through that, increase profitability.

Agfa Apogee Suite

Apogee WorkflowAgfa Apogee Suite is a complete set of production tools that can be custom configured to add diversity and flexibility to large and small workflow requirements alike. With full JDF integration, this system offers all the benefits of automation and integration one would expect from a workflow. From creative and design through to MIS and cost tracking, from job submission to proofing, JDF works under the hood to keep the system running efficiently. In general, I am impressed with Agfa’s commitment to support multiple workflows from large-scale web-printing down to smaller digital devices. Agfa is also one of the select workflow providers that has made a point to include creative and design under the umbrella of workflow, whereas traditionally, these processes have been considered to be outside of the realm of traditional prepress workflow.

Within the heart of the system lies Apogee Prepress, formerly known as Apogee X. This workhorse is not only easy to use, but has a lot of powerful features that make common prepress functions a breeze. One of the things that is really impressive about this workflow is how easily changes can be made during the live production of a job. Not only can multiple parts of a complex job be handled by a single job ticket, but changes to any part of the job are assessed and intelligently managed by the system. When changes are made, the system identifies which signatures are affected by the changes and only processes the affected signatures. And, if having multiple parts of a job like covers, body content and inserts in a single job ticket is not convenient in itself, Apogee Prepress offers the ability to change the target printing conditions for any part of a job at the last minute. This means the same job can be sent to a traditional offset press or a digital output device without having to recreate the job.

When you get Apogee Prepress working with some of the other solutions offered in the suite, productivity and efficiency are improved even further. For example, Apogee WebApproval is a feature rich job management tool that manages approval cycles and offers colour-managed, soft-proofing capabilities for the printer and their clients. Apogee Media, a production workflow for the publication market, allows for simultaneous collaboration between copywriters, layout artists, advertising and editors. It provides the ability of remote access, thereby significantly reducing production time in creative process and resulting in the creation of workflow independent, print-ready PDF files.

As with all workflows, there are always those little hidden gems that aren’t really the show stealers, but can have an impact over time. One really unique gem of this workflow that I think is fantastic is InkSave. InkSave is a dynamic tool that analyzes a job and reduces overall ink level in such a way that colour is not compromised.

According to Lesley Hepditch, digital solutions specialist for Agfa, Canada, InkSave not only reduces the amount of ink used on press, but “significant improvements can be seen in terms of managing grey balance and drying time, and in the case of web presses, significant paper savings in getting up to colour and less noticeable mis-registration to reduce costs and improve quality of the end product.”

Fuji XMF

Fuji XMFOf all the workflows I talk about in this article, Fuji XMF is likely to be the least well known. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the brand name XMF is very new. The XMF workflow has evolved from the better known Celebrant workflow. Celebrant has been rebuilt from the ground up and with this rebirth came a rebranding. The second reason the name XMF may not be that widely known is because the product is just now starting its North American launch having been released in Europe over two and a half years ago.
Despite the apparent newness of the software, Fuji XMF is a solid workflow built from trusted longstanding products. For this reason, XMF is a powerful, proven performer that offers a suite of feature-rich products that would enhance any workflow.

The Fuji XMF workflow can be purchased in two different configurations: processor and complete. Complete is the most feature-rich and is most comparable to the other workflows discussed in this article, so I will focus on it here.

Perhaps, one of the key things to stress about this workflow is that it was built with the final destination in mind. For this reason, XMF offers tremendous flexibility with regards to changing destination devices in mid-production. This is a very useful feature for a printer that has many different presses and digital devices. The system is also highly scalable, which means you don’t have to break the bank right out of the gate. You can start small and scale up as your demand increases. The system is fully JDF compliant, making it very easy to integrate the system with products like Metrix for job planning and Hiflex for MIS.

There are a couple of really unique features in XMF that are worth noting. First, the workflow has a completely integrated imposition tool based on the product, Dutop that has been around for well over a decade. Built into the system is the entire JDF library of folding layouts, making it easy to set up fast and functional impositions. The built-in functionality of imposition and the JDF libraries means it is not necessary to rely on third-party imposition software like Preps to create layouts. Of course, if you are using Preps, or a program like Metrix to create impositions, you can import any templates created by these programs for use inside XMF.

One of the other things worth noting about the Fuji workflow is the price. The workflow is robust enough to be compared against any other on the market, but the price point may surprise you. It comes standard with a lot of features that would traditionally be considered extras to be purchased, including unlimited users for the imposition tools and some other key licensing features.

Heidelberg Prinect

Heidelberg PrinectThere is one thing I can say about Heidelberg Prinect that is not true for any other workflow: it is made by Heidelberg. For any printer that has an investment in Heidelberg presses, this can translate into unique connectivity between workflow and press that can’t be achieved otherwise. For example, InPress press control can reduce makeready times by over 40% and reduce makeready sheets to under 200 on a 4/4 perfecting press run. Overall, non-productive time can also be drastically reduced.

While this is all significant, the benefits of Prinect as a workflow are not in any way limited to its connectivity with other Heidelberg products. At the core of the workflow lies true JDF integration and a powerful workflow that makes handling prepress files efficient and consistent. Prinect can take full advantage of MIS information to reduce redundancy in the prepress stage. For example, skeleton imposition plans can be read into the job from MIS and estimating and used to automatically complete press-suitable imposition plans. Keeping with the concept of late-binding workflows, Prinect’s Digital Print Manager makes printing to a number of digital presses possible without having to rework the job.

There are a few unique gems that need to be highlighted for Prinect. The first is image.

The other hidden gems that I think are great in Prinect are the booklet proof function and the varnish tool. Neither by themselves are show stoppers, but they both add fantastic time savings and efficiency to the system. Booklet proof will take any imposition job, de-impose it, and re-impose it into reading order to be output and collated on a double-sided colour output device like a colour laser printer. This allows you to output a very cost-effective booked dummy of a job for the customer. The varnish tool is a plug-in for Acrobat that creates object-based spot varnish plates for any job quickly and dynamically that are ignored for proofing.

Kodak Unified Workflow

Kodak Unified WorkflowIf you visit a printing plant anywhere in North America, there would be a good chance that you would see a Kodak Prinergy workflow driving prepress. Kodak Prinergy is one of the most widely used workflows in North America, largely due to the success of its former CREO affiliation in this region.

Since Kodak has taken over the system, it has evolved into an even more powerful and dynamic workflow tool. Like all the other systems we have talked about, JDF is a standard component, allowing for automation and integration. When you combine the power of Prinergy with Kodak’s Portal Products and their newly defined Colorflow system of colour integration, the result is very impressive.

Kodak has expanded the realm of workflow to include the design and creative stage with their Insite Creative and Asset Library products. These tools offer designers tools that help manage a job right from inception, with full integration into the more traditional prepress workflow. Within the prepress environment, Insite Prepress Portal offers a robust, automated collaboration and approval tool for clients to approve live jobs before they go on press. Both Insite Creative and Insite Prepress Portal can be configured to work with Matchprint Virtual, Kodak’s colour certified soft proofing tool.

One of the really powerful tools within Prinergy itself is the concept known as Rules-Based Automation. With Rules-Based Automation, any manual task can be automated and strings of automation can be combined for extremely customizable and automated task processes. When you combine this with the ability for clients to submit jobs through portal products, the result is impressive.

In a recent presentation, Jim Aust, print industry business analyst for Kodak, explained how using various components of the Kodak Unified workflow can increase productivity to over 65% of a typical printer’s operations. In one particular case, a Kodak client has capitalized on these productivity improvements to the point that the average job takes 15 minutes from the time the file is submitted by the client to the time it is ready to be put on press.

With regards to the hidden gems in this workflow, one really useful feature is the Kodak Virtual Proofing System (VPS). With VPS, you can soft proof a job at the exact linescreen, screen angles, screen set and resolution of the final output. The software creates a 1-bit tiff for each colour of the job using the same settings that would be used for plates and then combines those tiffs into a composite file. The result is quite impressive.

Conclusion

There are many different workflows out on the market today that bring automation, integration and productivity to new levels. In this article, I highlighted four workflows that meet these challenges in unique and effective ways. Which workflow is best for you depends on your own wants, needs and equipment. A realistic evaluation of your current workflow model will help you determine the best way to move forward. A workflow can be a considerable capital investment, and that investment should bring a return. Talk to your vendors and get them to show you real numbers that would justify the expenditure. You might be surprised.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the following people for their help and contributions towards this article:

Agfa
Lesley Hepditch, digital solutions specialist, Agfa Inc. Canada

Fuji
Jay Lalonde, product manager, Fujifilm Canada Inc.
Dan Hess, professional services consultant, Fujifilm Canada Inc.
Martin Smithson, applications specialist, Fujifilm Canada Inc.

Heidelberg
Joseph Banich, product manager Prinect and CTP, Heidelberg Canada
Peter Aston, manager of business development, Heidelberg Canada

Kodak
Jim Aust, print industry business analyst, Kodak Graphic Communications Group
Dominic Veroni, technical solutions specialist, Kodak Graphic Communications Group

NAPL
Joseph V. Vincenzino, senior economist, NAPL Printing Economic Research Center

PIA
Ronnie H. Davis, vice president & chief economist, Printing Industries of America

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