Advances in prepress are making heads spin.

The technology of prepress is changing at such a dizzying pace, that converters keep up or quickly get left behind.

Speaking recently at the 12th Digital Prepress Seminar in Miami, FL, Michael Bethea, operations manager of L.P. Thebault Co., a specialty business printer, noted, "Technology is not the end goal of our industry; it is the means by which we hope to achieve that [end goal]." And, nowhere is technology changing faster than in the area of prepress.

Traditionally, prepress has been the "simple" process of taking information from the customer and preparing it for conversion on press. While the basic function of prepress remains unchanged, the means to achieving that end goal of delivering a high quality product are changing on an almost daily basis.

Bethea noted that, traditionally, conventional prepress equipment was purchased on the assumption that it would remain up to date and operational for at least three years. Today, he says, high-tech equipment is expected to remain "state-of-the-art" for just 18 months.

"In the last [several] years, electronic desktop publishing has changed prepress departments from labor-intensive, time-consuming areas into lean, state-of-the-art technological departments that see new production methods every 18 months," stated Bethea.

"The traditional camera department is extinct," added Bethea. "Coupled with the decline of loose film, stripping and contacting are seeing the advancements in film output devices slowly replacing their function as well. And, as improvements in digital proofing techniques continue, the traditional proofing departments may also follow the cameras."

Leading the Prepress Revolution

As noted by Bethea, the dramatic changes that have taken place encompass virtually every aspect of the prepress area. From initial design and film output to platemaking and proofing, suppliers are continually finding new ways to speed up the prepress process while at the same time improving end-product quality.

Screen USA is a subsidiary of Dainippon Screen Mfg. Co. Ltd. of Japan, reported to be the world's largest provider of prepress equipment and systems. In February the company introduced Total Digital Integrity (TDI), which allows the company and its equipment users to maintain the exact same digital data throughout all stages of the printing process using industry-standard formats.

Ken Newton, president and CEO of Screen USA, explains that TDI encompasses all aspects, from the input of images and text to the output of final imposed, color-managed, and trapped plates. Not only does TDI allow a user to output to film, proof, or plate from the same source, but processing is only done once, eliminating the need for additional Raster Image Processors (RIPs).

Complementing its TDI system, Screen has also introduced a new computer-to-plate (CTP) system that coordinates every step in the direct-to-plate process, from imposition, trapping, and proofing to imaging, color management, and plating. The system consists of the PlateRite PI-R1080 digital plate recorder, the TrueRite larger-format digital proofing system (comprising the TC-P1080 exposure device and the TP-80 laminator), and the TaigaSPACE electronic prepress finishing system.

In addition to debuting its TDI and CTP systems, Screen USA has introduced a variety of new products from imagesetting and platemaking equipment to drum recorders and scanners since the start of this year alone.

For example, responding to industry-wide demand for more environmentally friendly products, Screen has introduced the EarthWatch[R] product series. The initial stage of a comprehensive program of protecting the environment involves the Mojave 1070, the North American model name for Screen's TE-R1070 dry process imagesetter.

The Mojave imagesetter is said to offer a consistently high image quality by eliminating the fluctuations in heat and stress inherent in chemical processing. It utilizes new direct imagesetting film from Kodak that replaces the silver halide film traditionally used by imagesetters, saving time, labor, and consumables. The Mojave offers one-step imagesetting, and film emerges from the exposure unit ready for plate exposure. It is capable of resolutions as high as 4,000 dpi. No peeling or processing of any kind is required.

"Screen has been able to utilize technology to improve both environmental conditions and productivity without sacrificing Screen's high quality standards," says Akira Ishida, president of Dainippon Screen.

The company has also introduced the DT-R3075 external drum Imagesetter that offers four plate-ready 8 1/2 x 11-in. pages at speeds up to 46.8 in./min at 1,200 dpi. The DT-R3075 maximizes productivity through seven selectable resolution settings from 1,200 to 4,000 dpi and further increases productivity through automatic film handling and optional on-line film processing. The imagesetter works with film, paper, or flexible Silver Digi Plate material, with an effective recording size of up to 29.8 x 21.4 in. Its external drum design reportedly helps maintain accuracy (repeatability of [+ or -]5 microns) and increase sharpness as the light source travels the length of the drum.

Finally, Screen has introduced an update of its DT-S1045AI drum scanner with version 3.0 software. The unit has an input resolution range of up to 8,000 dpi; a scanning area up to 12 x 17 in. accepts large-format originals or multiple smaller images for batched scanning. With any original, an AI Setup allows the scanner to automatically determine the best setup for highlight and shadow density.

One Step Further

Gerber Systems has introduced the Crescent 42T thermal platesetter that takes computer-to-plate one step further by eliminating the need for darkroom and processing units. The Crescent 42T builds on the technology of Gerber's Crescent 42 internal drum platesetter, offering the same 32x42-in. image area but replacing the 42's argon ion laser with a high-powered YAG laser. The existing Crescent 42 is field-upgradable to the thermal unit.

Howtek Inc. offers a line of drum and flatbed scanners designed to serve a variety of needs. The large-format Scanmaster 7500 drum scanner features two drum sizes and is oriented to a high-volume production environment. The midsize Scanmaster 4500 provides trade-shop quality and PMT drum scanning. The 2500 is a high-end, tri-linear CCD flatbed scanner.

Purup Prepress has introduced the Image-Maker Maverick, a high-end imagesetter that is targeted for users that need high quality and productivity but do not need the ultimate performance features that are standard on other Purup imagesetter models. It features the Pump cast iron internal drum, a 20x26-in. format, and produces plate-ready film with all crop and registration marks for most four-up presses. Resolutions include 1270, 2540, and 3175 dpi. The Maverick can run paper or polyester and can be fitted with either a Bacher or Stoesser punch.

The Proof is in the Print

The final step in the prepress process can be the most critical: determining what your printed product will look like before your print it. Digital proofing allows converters to do just that. One of the newest digital proofing systems, designed specifically for special demands of the packaging industry, is the PCC-DuPont Cyrel Digital Proof. Developed by Professional Computer Corp. (PCC) in cooperation with DuPont, the system is described by its manufacturers as "the most accurate and consistent way to predict what color will look like on press."

The Cyrel Digital Proof is based on DuPont's Digital Waterproof ink jet engine plus color management software and multiple spot and process color capability. It makes it possible to evaluate the integrity of electronic files before producing film and provides an accurate match of CMYK process and spot colors, up to 12 total colors per job.

The Cyrel Digital Proof has advanced color management software that allows the proof to be custom-calibrated for a precise match to specific inks and printing conditions. It shows how the job will print, without having to first output film or make plates. Color conversion software allows verification of print-ability from the workstation using the CIELAB color model and an 1851-step target to match the proof to a press. Plus, the digital proofer comes with standard calibrations to match conventional proofing products.

The 3M Rainbow digital proofing system is based on 3M's Matchprint color proofing technology, combined with Adobe's PostScript RIP and Mitsubishi Electric's print engine. The company reported in February of this year that 6,000 units of the original Model 2720 Rainbow proofer had been shipped. With the latest version of Rainbow software driving the process, the same digital file, running on Macintoshes with the same software at different locations, can output 3M Rainbow color proofs of up to eight colors (process and four matched colors). The proofs can be calibrated to within 2% of each other.

Total Color Management

Bringing it all together, the International Color Consortium (ICC), headquartered at NPES, The Assn. for Suppliers of Printing and Publishing Technologies, is dedicated to maintaining digital color integrity uniformly between creation (such as computer design stations and scanners) and output (film separations, color printers, etc.).

The ICC was established in 1993 for the purpose of creating, promoting, and encouraging the standardization and evolution of an open, vendor-neutral, cross-platform color management system architecture and components.

Through the efforts of companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Kodak, Barco Graphics, Dainippon Screen, Pantone, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Xerox, and more than 20 other national and international member companies, the ICC was able to establish, color management profiles that allow the uniform reproduction of digital color regardless of input or output device.

"Color management is the final piece of the puzzle for the digital world of the future," explains Larry Warter, director of new business opportunities at Fuji Photo Film. "A standardized approach like ICC is absolutely essential. I'm sure we've all experienced problems in accurately reproducing colors with a computer. The problem is that for most software and hardware, colors are more like a recipe than a measurement. They don't describe colors based on an absolute standard, rather how to create a color by combining various amounts of red, green, and blue, or cyan, magenta, yellow and black. But there's no standardization of the measurement or ingredients used, so the results are unpredictable. The color you get depends on the device used to create it."

According to Todd Newman, chairman of ICC and a software engineer at Silicon Graphics, "the heart of the solution is to find a better way" than the inefficient, device-dependent method to describe color - a better method being a device-in-dependent, objective, measurable way.

The software that does the conversion is called a "CMM" (for Color Matching Method or Color Management Module). The CMM can handle input from, and output to, many different devices by changing the device profile. Many ICC companies, including Kodak, Microsoft, and Sunsoft, have already adopted ICC profiles in their newest products, making it easier for printers and converters to at least attempt to keep up with the latest prepress equipment.

This report does not claim to cover every new development and product in prepress; it is just a sampling of the changing technology that is affecting much of the converting industry.

It's a fast-moving ride through the world of prepress today, and, like all such rides, it's both scary and exciting. The advice from the experts seems to be: Hang on, enjoy the ride, and don't look back.


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