31 March 2018 Digital Printing Technologies

Automation in prepress becomes industry’s driving force

According to many suppliers ‘Automation is the biggest driver of business at the moment. Nobody wants to employ additional people’. Automation reduces touch points, curtails costs and improves quality. What’s not to like?

The prepress workflow is perhaps the oldest digital integration in the industry. Companies that no longer exist, Crosfield Electronics, Scitex and Linotype-Hell among them, developed interfaces between scanners and their electronic page composition systems to create workflows that ultimately could go from a text file and scanned image to a single piece of film. By and large these were highly proprietary workflows and were extremely expensive.

At first they were immune to desktop publishing – the CEO of one of these companies famously claimed that standard platform computers would never reach the power of one of its purpose built workstations. He was wrong, and the world correct.

Nobody would consider this type of workflow today, yet the prepress workflow remains at the heart of the printer’s business. It now uses a standard file format, standard hardware components and software that can link together, either for checking files, assembling pages and communicating with a business intelligence system that in turn can track job progress, adjust schedules and relaying this information to the account handlers or perhaps directly to the client.

The natural successors to the EPC dominated prepress dinosaurs are the likes of Agfa, Kodak, Fujifilm, Screen and Heidelberg, driven by a need to feed a platesetter. The lingua franca of this age is JDF, the job definition format that was proposed 20 years ago and was intended to make the integration of disparate systems both possible and much easier.

A JDF enabled workflow would accept files, process them, link to the MIS, and then use meta data to set production equipment needed to deliver the job.

Much of that workflow carries a ‘coming soon’ flag. The prepress element in contrast is perfectly capable of executing a smooth passage from acceptance of a job file to imaging on a printing plate or to the job queue in a digital print workflow, feeding information about the job back to an MIS. Today industry developments are making it essential that printers invest in an automated workflow.

Heidelberg UK specialist Phil Chamberlain says: “We are talking to customers about increasing productivity and raising the OEE levels on their press, they tell us ‘we can’t feed the press fast enough’.” This is compounded by the decreasing run lengths that all printers must cope with. “It means that they will often have to change the way they do things,” he says. “Printers have to get used to Thinking a bit Smarter.”

Heidelberg’s approach is based around merging the press into a production flow that starts with a customer portal for job submission, whereupon the file is split into the business information needed by the MIS, and the PDF that needs to be processed in Prinect. “It is about reducing the touch points for a job,” Chamberlain adds. “Prinect is at the heart of everything.”

The Prinect Portal was introduced at Drupa as the means for Heidelberg customers to take in job submissions from customers.

Previously Prinect had been about production management with the press at the heart of everything. Now Prinect Portal becomes the hub where the Heidelberg customer can fill in job data, attach the artwork, approve the artwork. It is also frequently in use as an internal tool for a CSR to enter the job data into both an MIS and the prepress workflow in a standardised, consistent way.

Working in this way relieves prepress to work on the more complex jobs that need intervention. Everything else can be automated. This includes standard repeat products, a regular magazine for example, brochures that include minor updates. The software will apply the correct level of GCR/UCR for that file and for the paper used; it will schedule the job into the workflow according to the most efficient production, taking account of machine, format and substrate availability.

“We want to make things easier for the customer,“ says Chamberlain. It also becomes part of the company’s Smart Automation strategy, downloading job settings to the press and finishing departments and linking the data collected about the production process into a Business Intelligence process that highlights areas for process improvement. But that is for exploration in another article.

Prinect shares a common legacy with Kodak’s Prinergy workflow. When originally conceived at the end of last century the companies were in a joint venture and Prinergy was one outcome. However, the two have moved in different directions latterly, although the similarities in the user interface indicate that common heritage.

Michael Bialko, Kodak workflow product manager, says: “Prinergy was built on automation, using JDF and XML formats.” Add in an open architecture approach, linking to any MIS via an API and a fierce commitment to JDF. “Prinergy was the first workflow to use Rules Based Automation,” he says. “It means that we know what it takes to automate anything.”

The incoming file is supplied through the Insite Portal, again one of the first browser based approaches to automating job submission. Information is also supplied from an MIS using an XML format to describe what will happen to a job: print, fold, bind, add a hard cover and dispatch to the attached address.

The Rules Based Automation kicks in in a series of questions and answers to create a workflow path for the job. “Prinergy will process, build jobs, add in files and follow the process based on intents according to the press that will print the job.

There is constant communication between the workflow and MIS, tracking every stage, how much time tasks have taken, how much material has been used in proofing or making plates to calculate how much to charge and work out how much margin has been earned,” he explains.

The idea of automation is to ensure that any job will pass through smoothly through the workflow without operator intervention. In order to do that, the file submitted needs to be clean. Surveys continue to reveal that PDF jobs will frequently include errors around images, fonts, rules or vector ­graphics. making corrections in the workflow is both disruptive and expensive.

This is the role of preflighting, a vital stage of any prepress workflow. Enfocus Pitstop has the widest user base, but it is not the only preflight option for PDF. Prinergy, for example, uses callas preflight Plus. If the job fails the preflight check, the client is given a report indicating where the errors lie and what needs to be done to correct them. “It means that the customer does the work,” Bialko adds. And it seems that customers are happier to be told by the technology that their files need fixing than being told in a phone call by a CSR.

This is less of a problem where the customer interacts with the printer through a web to print portal. This can deliver what the customer needs to know through menus with parameters on the settings to prevent a client submitting an odd number of pages, out of range paper and the wrong type of image.

The job is presented back to the customer to approve in the same session. This works for the simple jobs and is gradually moving into more complex work: Printed Easy focuses on multi section brochures, Where The Trade Buys offers any style of product.

But where the job is part of a project, has a higher value or requires more complex instructions, jobs submitted via email, Dropbox or FTP will remain the norm. The Insite portal or similar technologies offered by other suppliers will be used by the CSR to open a job, attach the artwork and create the digital job ticket.

Kodak employs its Colorflow colour management throughout the Prinergy workflow. This is based on the final output intent, the paper and processes used. It also lightens the load on the Rip or DFE when the job is finally released to print.

This has a key advantage in distributed workflows, for packaging say, where the artwork is destined for different printers in different regions or countries.

Prinergy guarantees that the colour will be consistent. The file can include Inside Digital Matchprint representation. And there is proofing software to drive inkjet output,” says Bialko.

What is also necessary in an automated workflow is imposition. This can be the biggest challenge, requiring input from finishing as well as from the client. Any changes to a job, increasing from 16pp plus covers to 20pp plus covers say, will demand a new imposition.

The traditional way is to use a library of templates to cover every eventuality, and for an operator to create a new imposition when a job falls outside the specifications in the library. Even with only one or two presses of the same format, this can quickly become unwieldy. Prinergy will build the imposition on the fly, says Bialko.

Kodak introduced Dynamic Print Planning at Drupa to handle ganging applications. “Prinergy can handle any type of imposition or layout,” he says.

Then there is the question of whether imposition is something for the prepress workflow, or whether in a new era where automation is more fluid, imposition is something that an MIS should handle. Tharstern thinks so. It has developed software to track individual jobs on a ganged up sheet or nested sheet of cartons in order to level the correct proportion of costs to each product on that sheet. The flip side is that it can control the position of jobs on a sheet, part of the role of imposition.

The MIS knows the format and extent of the pages in a job. It knows the size, the capabilities and the operational cost of each piece of equipment. It is not too much of a stretch to use this information to build the imposition. This is what Tharstern calls the Layout Profile. “It can handle from the smallest A5 jobs to the largest sheets,” says John Murphy, “making adjustments when a customer adds more pages.

The software understands the relative geometry of each page, what is needed in the printing process in terms of crop marks, colour bars, space for trims and fold flaps, gutters and so on. Like JDF itself these are not expressed in absolute values. “There can be 20 solutions to printing a job,” says Murphy. “With this solution you have a really good opportunity to fully automate this process, you cannot rely on templates or shipping parameters.”

The task of the MIS is to select the most appropriate way to produce the job taking into consideration not only cost but delivery, customer preference, equipment loading and so on.

The dynamic approach to creating an imposition is equally a home when changes are introduced or when a folder or press becomes unavailable. There is no need to go back and apply a different template, the software handles the change fluidly.

Murphy is one of two integration specialists that Tharstern has on its team. “We are not interested in creating bespoke installations, we want a global approach,” he says. It means integration with Prinergy, with Apogee and others with JDF at the heart of the integration. “Once we have calculated the ideal imposition, we will use Switch to attach the artwork and submit into the workflow.”

In the reverse direction, a job submitted into the workflow will be stripped of production related data by the MIS. It can also handle the communication between printer and customer, sending back proofs for approval or through a linked web to print application.

Dean Anderson, automation expert at Imprint MIS, says the company does not yet offer responsive impositions. “But we do a multitude of solutions for different clients,” he says. “For the small printer just doing digital work we will link to a web to print portal and receive XML files which creates the job in Imprint, checks that the number of pages is correct and delivers the JDF into prepress.

“What we are finding more and more is that people are working with ‘known good templates’ and we map the job to these.”

The MIS role is to track the job through the process, recording what actions and materials were used and recording these for both costing and for later analysis for a better production method. “The process can involve imposing to four B2 plates, calculating the costs of this and the operator has not had to do anything,” he explains.

The simple set up can extend into multi technology operations where there is no hard boundary between what is produced litho and what is printed on the digital press.

The tracking functionality links the job to the press, to the operator of that press enabling costing to be applied accurately and again to understand where problems may lie.

The system will know precisely where a job is in the system and this information can be fed back to a customer if required. Likewise the software tracks which sections have been approved and so can be released into platemaking.

At the start of a job, a CSR can create the shell of a job in Imprint and file it to the prepress system while awaiting the approved artwork. The CSR is best placed to do this, says Anderson, because of the wider view over the entire process. Even so automation cannot be applied without question in most print businesses.

“Nobody is doing lights out production at the moment because there are lots of anomalies,” he says. “There are files received that are of poor quality, files that are produced to US letter size rather than A4.”

Many jobs will arrive without an estimate, either through a portal or as part of price agreed contract. These need to be identified and processes in a standardised way that suits the customer. “Our clients have the complete mix, some raise a conventional estimate, some use a price list, some take work through a portal,” he says.

To adapt the MIS to these and other requirements, Imprint will use extensions to JDF or will link in Switch. “We will use Switch to link to a customer’s web to print system. We are not going to write our own web to print system. JDF is part of the automation story, but it’s not The Automation Story.”

For the prepress vendors it is a very big part of the story. Agfa was one of the founders of the Cip4 consortium that originally devised JDF and its Apogee suite of workflow tools are built on JDF. Apogee Prepress is the designation for the digital workflow; Storefront its job capture application; WebApproval the collaboration tool and PrintSphere, its data storage and exchange tool.

In addition Apogee Cloud can link different sites in a single workflow, Bridson & Horrox being the lead example in the UK.

PrintSphere is also a cloud based service operating as the brain above the prepress workflow. It can accept jobs, will track files and store data, handle the sharing of that data (for repeat jobs, online ordering of pre-approved marketing materials etc), managing that the correct versions are used. It centralises input of files from email, FTP, USB, and saves time looking for jobs that customers say have been sent. “We reckon that as a customer spends more than 15 minutes a day looking for input files, PrintSphere will pay for itself,” says workflow specialist Barbara Cooper.

Apogee Impose is the dynamic impositioning tool to create the imposition with the marks in place and taking account of production equipment without the need for extensive template libraries.

Fujifilm is the other traditional prepress vendor providing a PDF workflow in XMF, developed from the outset with PDF as the file format.

The environment combines the core workflow and XMF Remote its online portal that handles the preflighting and online approval before the job reaches the XMF workflow proper.

Job details can be read from the incoming file or more likely according to John Davies, be supplied from an MIS. “Any CSR who starts a job in the MIS is also creating a job in XMF,” he says. “And the client is notified where to send the artwork files to go with the job.”

There can be various approval levels to achieve a full sign off and this is part of the system set up for that client. In a publishing environment where online page submission and sign off is very well established, this might mean a single person, but will involve a second click to confirm that the page has been approved. This is a low rez version of the high end final rendering of the PDF. If the page is Ripped twice for online viewing and then for print, there is a risk of admitting changes.

If the page fails, the client is expected to make the correction, though this may be an extra service the print business wishes to offer, says a Davies. The usual culprits are lack of bleed, which has overtaken font problems, colour space and spot colours. The company does not try to colour manage the file at this stage. That is a task for the Rip, Davies explains.

Once the final page is approved the job is relayed into production, picking up imposition information from the MIS job ticket. The prepress operation will now see an FPO image of the job and job details highlighted in green in its position in the job queue. The production order can be moved around to cope with an urgent job or reprint.

This can be assigned to the prepress department or the CSR. “The account handlers are using XMF Remote to submit jobs to the workflow,” says Davies. It means that the account handler is viewing the latest data about the progress of his or her job. This can be seen on a tablet as XMF has moved away from Java to display data to HTML5 operating through a browser.

This has opened the way for Remote Express, a simplified version of XMF Remote for customers working remotely. An email contains the link to the Remote Express allowing the customer to upload artwork or to approve jobs, on a pay per usage model.

It is intended, says Davies, for commercial printers who might find XMF Remote “too heavy”. No doubt once bitten, as volumes increase, the transition to the full system will be an easier step.

The full system approach exemplified by Kodak, Agfa and Fuji and also by the likes of Dalim, Screen and others in commercial printing, is not the only way to automation heaven. Linking standard products to create a tailored solution for an individual print company is relatively straightforward thanks to open interface tools, JDF, XML and other standard protocols.

Enfocus Switch will almost inevitably be at the heart of such a set up, with off the shelf or bespoke web to print applications, a choice of imposition tools, preflighting, colour handling and so on.

“A modular approach can mean making a selection from the very best applications,” says Alan Dixon, managing director of Workflowz, one of the leading integrators. “Workflow needs to be more open and transparent, not closed as it used to be. We believe the modular approach is the way forwards.”

With print runs falling, the pressure on existing workflows is increasing. There are two ways a business can cope. Either it employs more people to manage more jobs at a lower margin. Or else it automates. One approach leads to extinction; the other is the future.

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