Traditions fall as prepress moves into electronic age

Electronic prepress is growing up and replacing the traditional prep methods in most graphic-arts applications, including most segments of the converting industry. Suppliers are addressing the needs of the converting industry with hardware and software that has been developed specifically with converting applications and processes in mind.

Traditional prepress is fading from the scene for most printing processes, and its replacement - electronic or digital prepress - is bringing many changes to everyone that it touches.

A traditional department that operated like clockwork with clearly defined roles for everyone involved suddenly has changed drastically. From proven techniques to new methods that might still be in the experimental stage, electronic prepress is responsible for bringing much change into the lives of everyone involved in printing.

Many of the reasons for moving from traditional to electronic prepress are the same reasons many other business processes are being revamped in the 1990s. Just-in-time inventory, quality, quick turnaround, smaller job runs, less waste and "I need it now" apply as equally to the conversion to electronic prepress as they do to other parts of the business.

Minton Brooks, president of Minton Brooks Associates, stated the message very clearly last year during hint Quality '94, sponsored by Rochester Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Quality and ProductiVity in the Graphic Arts. "The traditional hands-off processes found in the graphic arts must be changed if the industry is to make a successful conversion to a digital environment," Brooks said.

He said that in traditional graphic production, a job flows from one group of specialists to another. Each group transforms the inputs in new documents: layouts become mechanicals, mechanicals are used to produce films and films are used to produce plates. Boundaries and ownership are clear, and transfer can be successfully made without much prior communication.

In digital processes a job evolves as it moves between functions. Each group of specialists refines the same document. "There is no clearly defined boundary between creative and production, with the result that the ownership of the process is compromised and transfers between processes become problematic if input requirements aren't anticipated at the beginning," Brooks said.

Reengineering can help solve quality problems by pushing production parameters upstream, according to Brooks. In a reengineered process, dear and comprehensive parameters are set at the beginning of a project and a clear boundary is defined between creative and production.

A clear customer focus must be developed when reengineering, Brooks said. Cross-functional teams can help the company resolve problems quickly and make it easier to discuss and reach agreement on problem issues.

Brooks' suggestions for accomplishing work-flow reengineering are:

* Launch a reengineering team with blank-slate endorsement to define a new process.

* Organize talent as cross-functional teams with the knowledge and skills to support the new process.

* Design an environment with open work areas, information systems and other technology to support the organization and process.

"Work flow reengineering isn't an easy process and not one to be taken lightly," Brooks said, noting it can be a powerful strategy for helping an organization gain a competitive advantage, leverage its creative assets and achieve long-term success.

Electronic prepress has found its way into most segments of the converting industry. In some areas, such as flexible packaging and label converting, it's quickly becoming a way of life. Other areas, such as envelopes, are using it as a tool for quicker turnaround of smaller orders. If electronic prepress isn't part of your converting operation today, chances are good it will be soon. Even if you aren't doing it in-house, you will probably be dealing with a service bureau that will provide prepress services to you.

One such company is Chicago Litho Plate Co., Glendale Heights, IL, which provides prepress services to the packaging industry. The firm recently issued a Packaging Solutions Guidebook that helps companies identify key issues in the packaging design and manufacturing process.

"There is a real need for this type of information in the packaging industry," Trey Ludford, Chicago Litho Plate president, said. "In recent years, there have been tremendous changes in packaging substrates and in the electronic prepress area."

The booklet notes that "prepress technology now encompasses turnkey workstations for faster separation input/output, automated step-and-repeat procedures, electronically automated relief-plate processing . . . and the list goes on."

Like many other organizations, most converting operations got their start in electronic prepress with a computer and a page-layout program to do a few simple in-house jobs. That progressed to additional software to do artwork, bar codes and the like to more powerful computers with more memory so the work could be processed quicker to peripheral devices, such as scanners, so a complete project could be done in-house.

Today, prepress suppliers to the converting industry are moving into a new generation of software that is specifically designed for the printing process and end product.

For instance, Professional Computer Corp., Langhorne, PA, recently introduced a new three-tier prepress produce line for the flexo packaging industry. It includes:

* Professional ArtSystem, which was designed especially for the tag-and-label industry and includes design tools, vectorization of line art, continuous tone editing, text functions, Pantone library, bar-code creation, trapping, step and repeat, computer-aided-design import, distortion and dot-gain controls in one application.

* Professional FlexoSystem uses a Macintosh-to-UNIX interface to perform packaging prepress functions designed especially for the flexo industry, including computer-aided design and manufacturing input, automatic register marks, distortion, white plates, press-gain cutbacks, and flexo tab and split trapping. FlexoSystem files can be sent to any plotter for film.

* Professional Advanced Packaging System has multi-Macintosh and multi-UNIX capabilities and files can output to large-format plotters capable of imaging up to 43 in. x 80 in. Advanced software modules allow for electronic stripping, editing raster-image-processing files, color separating high-resolution scanned line art, the set up of perfect registration and the incorporation of stochastic screening for moire-free images, greater tonal range and less press gain.

Alan Graphic Systems Inc., Peekskill, NY, is another prepress supplier developing programs specifically designed and configured for converters of labels, packaging, and corrugated.

The firm's AlanRIP is a raster-image processor designed specifically for flexo prepress with a built-in die data base and step-and-repeat and distortion functions. Tools in the AlanRIP allow the user to step and repeat any image from a graphics workstation, apply the required flexo distortion, add bearer bars and produce plate-ready films from an attached imagesetter.

The unit processes one-up images from the graphics workstation, resulting in faster processing and smaller files on the front-end system and the AlanRip. Once the file has been printed to the unit, the image can be previewed as it will actually print - one up or stepped and repeated/distorted. It can be interfaced to Macintosh systems, PC/clone systems or networks with both kinds of computers.

Allan Graphic's TrapServer for flexo is designed to provide automatic, user-definable trapping, including spot and process color, for files created in virtually any desktop application. Trapping is off-loaded to the TrapServer, which frees the operator of the production workstation. It offers full file-service functionality and can be used in design or production systems.

The firm also provides front-end workstations for prepress production. All systems are configured individually to the specific needs of each customer.

Barco Graphics, Vandalia, OH, has an Imaging Group that produces imagesetting equipment and a Production Group that has automated the most challenging prepress tasks, including layout and assembly, trapping step and repeat and imposition, special-ink separations and universal compatibility.

Barco recently introduced the GigaSetter, a high-resolution imagesetter that can image 96 in. x 63 in. of film in under 14 min. It was designed for the special niche markets of flexographic, large-size wide-web offset and screen printing, such as corrugated and folding-carton packaging billboard and display manufacturing, and textile and wall-covering printing.

The firm also produces software, such as Creator 6.1, image-manipulation software with powerful masking capabilities and blur functions. Another product, Strike has the ability to open and edit any PostScript file. Strike has a DesignLink functionality that makes it possible to send any file back to the desktop system.

Barco recently introduced Gravure-Link, a high-speed prepress network featuring direct-to-gravure control of cylinder engravers. It's designed to reduce the digital cylinder-imaging processing bottleneck in the gravure process and reduce production costs and turnaround time. The firm said a cylinder engraver currently producing five gravure cylinders per day can increase output 40% to seven cylinders per day by using GravureLink.

There are many more companies devoting their energies to developing computer hardware and software for specific applications in the converting industry.

This brief overview only touches upon some of the changes that are pushing the various segments of the converting industry from traditional to electronic prepress. It's an exploding technology that will continue to bring more changes into the production process as computers become more powerful and software becomes more specific to the printing and converting processes being used to produce the end product. The process will probably be a never-ending one for some time to come.

Another aspect of the prepress era is the bulletin board system (BBS), which until recently was a tool used mostly by computer hardware and software companies to allow customers to exchange information.

Today, a BBS system provides a fast way to transfer live electronic files between the customer and the converter.

Most BBS systems assure confidentiality by offering password-protected mailboxes. The systems also offer flexibility by being accessible 24 hours a day seven days a week. A typo or trapping change can be made instantly in the end-user's design department, and the new file sent to the converter's prep department via modern in a few minutes.

In today's world where time is a major consideration on every job, BBS systems can provide a bonus by eliminating delays caused by waiting for something to be delivered. Proofing and customer approvals can also be done through the BBS system, allowing a further speed up of the job.

BBS systems are also finding other uses in the converting industry. For instance, Bar Code Systems Inc, Atlanta, GA, recently announced a BBS system for companies desiring electronic bar codes.

Within minutes, customized bar codes will be ready for importing into most application programs, including QuarkXpress, Illustrator, Pagemaker and Corel Draw.

Anyone with modem capabilities can use the BCS BBS. Bar codes can be retrieved as encapsulated PostScript files or in Illustrator format if the user needs to modify the customized bar codes for spot color.

Software downloads, such as that new font your new customer wants, are possible through BBS. Computer-system technicians are increasingly using BBS to solve operational problems with their systems.

BBS systems are also being used as information tools. Some companies are posting new product information and announcements for their customers on BBS, Computer-aided-design libraries are posted on some BBS. The possibilities are almost endless.

Trade associations are also beginning to go on-line with BBS. AIM USA, Washington, DC, the trade association of the automatic data collection (ADC) industry has an electronic BBS that offers members flee access to interactive information, support and solutions on ADA technologies.

"AIM USA Online provides immediate access to the information needed to implement an ADC system or to improve or upgrade a current system," Steve Halliday, vice president of technology for the trade group, said. Fax back and electronic mail are among the features of this BBS.

The conferencing abilities of the system allow users to ask questions and join debates on the latest ADC issues. Two special areas include Positions Wanted and Positions Vacant Conferences. Within each conference there are messages for sharing general or specific notes of interest and file areas for permanent reference. AIM USA Online also has a daily weather forecasting service for US cities to help members in planning business trips.

A wide range of educational opportunities is available in the prepress area. Here's a sample of some of the upcoming events:

* The 11th Digital Prepress Conference sponsored by the Research and Engineering Council of the Graphics Arts Industry Inc., Chadds Ford, PA, will be held on Feb. 7 and 8 at the Tampa Marriot Hotel, Tampa, FL. The meeting continues a series designed to deliver current and emerging electronic-imaging technologies to printers and publishers.

The conference will be in three parts. Industry Trends - The Direction to the Future will cover intellectual property rights, database management issues and electronic-delivery systems. Production Issues - Staving in Business Today will cover using direct-to-plate in production, stochastic screening and general production issues. New Technologies - Preparing Today for Tomorrow will cover direct to press and other emerging technologies, such as non-silver films, use of telecommunications systems, alternate delivery systems, security issues and color management.

The conference program and registration information is available from the R & E Council office, 610/388-7394.

* The Rochester Institute of Technology's Technical and Education Center of the Graphic Arts, Rochester, NY, offers seminars on a wide range of printing issues.

A Color Scanner Workshop from Feb. 20-24 is designed for beginner scanner operators and provides training in scanner operation, color proofing, basic color theory and related film processes.

Photoshop for Print on Feb. 23-24 will teach participants about scanning, resolutions, color separations, halftones, import links to page-layout programs and transferring images to and from high-end imaging systems. This hands-on seminar is designed for anyone involved in the reproduction of color images and is using or planning to use Photoshop software to produce quality printed products.

Getting Started with Aldus FreeHand on Feb. 27-28 will show participants how to convert rough sketches into finished, high-quality work, draw with the pen and other tools to create Bezier curves and prepare graphics for print.

Getting Started with Adobe Illustrator on March 1-2 teaches participants how this software can achieve black-and-white or color artwork effects for print and audiovisual media.

Digital Printing and Platemaking for the 21st Century on March 2-3 introduces applications of electronic printing to markets, electronic-printing processes and short-run printing applications and technology. The seminar is designed for management-level personnel as well as commercial and corporate in-plant printers.

Fundamentals of Electronic Imaging on March 9-10 provides an introduction of electronic imaging, digital-imaging fundamentals, image processing, hardware and software systems for digital-imaging processing and technological trends.

Understanding Desktop and Electronic Prepress - Level 2 on March 9-10 introduces participants to advanced Macintosh concepts, including file formats, file translation between platforms, image-setting equipment, computer peripherals, storage devices, transfer and setting specifications for ink densities, screen angles and dot gain.

Electronic Color Production Workshop on March 14-17 guides participants through the color-production process from color manipulations and separations to the finished process-color work.

Digital Color Prepress with QuarkXpress on March 23-24 introduces participants to color publishing, including color handling, trapping, layout and image setter film-separation concepts.

For more information, call the RIT/T&E Center, 800/724-2536 or 716/475-7000.

* CONCEPPTS '95, a 63-session conference program that addresses key prepublishing subjects in depth, will be held on Feb. 8-11 at Disney's Contemporary Resort, Lake Buena Vista, FL.

Desktop scanning, color, trapping and proofing will be covered in 10 sessions. Digital proofing, direct-to technologies and digital printing will be the focus of more than a dozen sessions. Industry expert Thad McIlroy will discuss The Future of Prepublishing, providing a guide to key trends and technologies in such areas as input sources, image-processing technology, direct to press and electronic-document formats.

For registration information, call 703/264-7208.


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