03 April 2020 Prepress

Automation begins at the desktop to get the best out of workflow

Printers need to train their customers to produce the clean job files that are the first stage on a never ending journey towards end to end automation in print, beginning here in prepress.

An automated workflow begins with the customer. The customer has to be guided to deliver print ready files, most usually a PDF with fonts, high resolution images and bleed all in place. Any intervention to correct these files will have unpredictable consequences on the flow of jobs because the act of opening a file, examining it and then putting it right, will take time, sometime a few seconds or minutes, sometimes longer. If this is the workflow, a buffer is needed to allow the time to check and correct files, perhaps an extra day to the turnaround time.

The alternative is where the customer is guided and encouraged to deliver a right first time file, ideally with some other details included – print run, paper type, delivery address and so on. In this case the file will move smoothly from the portal through flight check into the prepress production area. It will take seconds.

More often than not the workflow is some kind of halfway house: the file arriving in good order as an email attachment that must be opened and dropped into a preflighting application and specifications entered into the MIS for costing and scheduling. While not as wasteful as a traditional route into prepress, mistakes can still be made, the email lost and production schedules must allow for this. Fortunately the days of motorcycle couriers, the Honda interface, have gone.

According to the BPIF, only around 50% of printers are not using web to print, so by implication cannot be as efficient as those that are. Web to print does not imply that a printer must offer a public website for any civilian Tom, Dick or Sally to try to load a job. It can be a walled off service, like that offered for many years by magazine printers that have Kodak, Fujifilm and Agfa portals.

These softwares have the advantage of linking jobs from file submission though to plate output in the same controlled environment. There will be links to MIS using JDF protocols to track costs and manage scheduling, perhaps into managing stocks of plates.

Not every printer can justify this, nor has the sort of customer profile where those in production understand how to create a print ready PDF because this is their job. Other more casual customers or designers that are producing a wide variety of works in format and material, may need a different tool.

Web to print is the answer. A comprehensive array is available, offering different levels of functionality and cost. But the underlying principle is the same. A casual customer can select a standard template and be guided to produce a business card or letterhead. Where this is part of a contractual relationship between printer and customer, there may be set templates online, limiting the choice of colours, styles and typefaces to ensure they fall within corporate guidelines. Thus web to print can be used to avoid the problem around loss of design integrity that happens over time when marketers and designers are able to make their own ‘improvements’.

Simple jobs can be edited through the web to print portal in some cases, rising in complexity as the tools become more expensive and sophisticated. The end user needs to be familiar with InDesign, for example, to work in this way. And it is best left to close customer-printer relationship where there is a high degree of mutual trust.

But despite this sort of capability being available for some years, fewer printers have invested in web to print than have bought a digital press. “Most SME businesses have not yet implemented any form of web to print, digital workflow or online purchasing” says Tim Cox, director of VPress.

There are a number of reasons for this. Perhaps there was a bad experience when using the technology some years ago. It may be that the application was operated in isolation so added no value other than as a web to bucket process. “The printer will say that ‘we have never needed it in the past, so what do we need it now?’ These are the reactive companies that will respond to customer demand rather than anticipate those requirements.”

Because many web to print tools are a relatively low cost investment, there has been little risk and little incentive to make this work effectively when to do so could make a real difference. There is little buy in from sales people who can see the technology as a threat to their way of working, so it is not mentioned in sales calls.

In short, says Cox, many do not know how to sell the service, how it can benefit the print business and the customer through reduction of touch point, elimination of errors and increase in transparency because a customer can track progress of a job. Most web to print providers will now provide some kind of training. It is in Vpress’s interests to do this as it is paid per job that passes through the system. That job is automatically checked and bounced back if there is a problem that needs fixing, or allowed to pass to the production workflow, either through a hot folder or via an API.

The automation brings down the cost of handling these jobs and increases the number of jobs that a company can cope with. The likes of Precision Printing or Bluetree would not be the businesses they are without automation like this.

For Bluetree, the job is handled by a bespoke workflow built around an Enfocus Switch implementation. Switch is by a long stretch the de facto tool for designing any kind automated workflow. Colour Engine worked with Bluetree and Enfocus on building the implementation, one of the most complex that the software has handled. At DG3, another with a Switch powered workflow, there are more than 50 workflows for different product types with stops for approvals, automatically routing jobs to different presses and output in digital form as well as on paper. At Bluetree the approved files head for a Matrix imposition application where 95% of impositions are correctly produced without any human decision making.

This is still a rules based workflow, where decision making makes choices at gates on a yes or no basis. The future will be AI based, once sufficient data is gathered. Tilia Labs, another producing an imposition software, has declared an intent to use Artificial Intelligence in a forthcoming version. It will need a lot of data.

For the same reason Kodak has considered opening up its Prinergy workflow in a limited version for free of charge operation by smaller printers. The amount of data that Kodak will receive in terms of decisions about how to handle jobs, will be worthwhile because it will be collecting the data needed for an AI implementation.

Back in the present, most printers will have some kind of automated workflow, says Andrew Bailes-Collins at Enfocus, simply because “if they haven’t done something about it already, they are already a bit late to the game”. This applies with knobs on in the hyper competitive UK market. “We have been very, very successful in the UK,” he adds.

That can be though a preflight step, generation of a proof that needs client sign off, integration with an MIS. Switch is in itself not an automated workflow. “It is an automation platform that allows you to do pretty much what you want,” says Bailes-Collins. It started out 20 years ago as a means to control different off the shelf applications in a workflow through a single device rather than needing to launch different applications and adjust to a new user interface each time. The Switch cockpit allowed the user to set each the parameters for each application and integrate it into a workflow for a job type.

The more applications that link to Switch, the more powerful the environment becomes, and the more powerful the eco system, the more applications will be attracted to it. And it has become so addictive that some printers are able to bring all development in house, or else to use an integrator like Colour Engine to build the workflows.

It means, says product manager Toon Van Rossum, that the printer ends up with a bespoke workflow for his customers, presses and work profile. “A standard prepress workflow doesn’t provide any added value over the next guy using that workflow, whereas with Enfocus you can end up with your own custom made tool. You build what you need.”

And in the last two or three years the interest in doing exactly this has soared, he says. It is partly because printers that had settled into an automated workflow in part of their business, sheetfed litho for example, wanted to include cut sheet digital, or large format and wanted to create more value for their end customers in this way.

Thus commercial printers find it easier to take automation to large format inkjet than existing display printers find it to implement an automated workflow from scratch.

The path to automation, he explains, will usually begin with the identification of some pain points, bottlenecks in the process which hold up the rest of the process. Once Enfocus or its dealers show that automation can fix this problem, the printer can become hooked.

Three years ago, Enfocus staged a series of Road to Ipex events across the UK where the Belgian software company visited a number of its users. “Most were running Push to Stop presses,” says Van Rossum. This was not the intention, but shows a commitment to automation throughout the business. Automation becomes a way of life, an almost religious journey that will never end and which provides the foundation to take automation into new areas.

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Enfocus Switch is the key piece of technology to allow printers to build customer workflows that meet their specific needs. Colour Engine and Enfocus worked with Bluetree to build their implementation, which is one of the most complex that the software has handled to date.

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