The computer-to-plate digital revolution is in full swing, but print buyers are finding that turning their back on film hasn't led their organizations to the promised land.
While film production processes are largely linear, slow, and inefficient, they are, in the eyes of many print buyers and manufacturers alike, supremely manageable.
Contrast that to digital computer-to-plate (CTP), where content moves at a dizzying pace, with dozens of people-including content creators, prepress suppliers, and printers-interactively massaging, moving, tweaking, sharing, and perfecting the digital data files that, at many shops, have pushed film and hard-copy proofs aside.
While going digital and working in real-time offers many advantages for print buyers and manufacturers, project manageability isn't one of them. It's all too easy for digital production processes to weave a tangled web, leading managers to impose ever-tighter workflow controls.
But advocates of pure digital CTP aren't allowing these barriers to go unchallenged. Innovative publishers and printers are working more closely than ever to iron out the wrinkles in digital production, reaping huge productivity gains and cost savings in the process.
HEAVY PROCESS, HIGHER COSTS
Digital data exchanges are typically accompanied by quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC) phases, manifested as preflighting, proofs, QC inspections, and things like press OKs.
These get the workflow in tow, but can also backfire by weighing down the process. Indeed, many organizations are discovering that applying process control to all-digital workflows is more art than science. Too little or too much oversight can balloon costs, and push deadlines to the limit.
"Cutting costs is one of the driving business forces today," says Alan Darling, chairman of the Digital Distribution of Advertising for Publications Association (DDAP), Marblehead, Mass., a graphic arts industry association. "When process control becomes an obtrusive part of the process, in operations like preflighting and proofing, aren't we creating more cost?"
In the usual production scheme, jobs move between at least two different enterprises: the creator and the printer. Darling says when these business partners standardize their digital data exchanges - meaning file types, file formats, and file transfer methods - they can automate the process, and virtually eliminate the preflight person and salary cost.
Regardless of whether a company has one or 100 manufacturing partners, most printers today are equipped to produce, consume, and exchange digital files using all the popular computer file formats (such as PDF, PDF/X-1a, TIFF/IT-P1, RAW, etc.). Most can also adapt their digital workflow specifications to align with customer requirements.
Forward-thinking content creators are discovering they must exploit their vendors' untapped capabilities to fully reap the production and cost efficiencies promised by going digital. They're standardizing workflows and file formats across their printer partners. Printers who want to grow their businesses are taking note, and embracing the need for change.
"Standards are a God-send," says DDAP's Darling. "They level the playing field. But print buyers and printers need to adopt the technology and optimize process standards, and require their partners work with them as well. When creators, printers, and software vendors correctly support established standards, the data flow becomes transparent."
DEMANDING SUPERIOR SERVICE
Printers, software, and hardware solution providers are feeling their customer's pain, and starting to adapt their offerings to support better communication, flexible cross-company workflow integration, and accredited digital media file formats.
In fact, some vendors are now offering completely open systems that leverage established file and data transfer standards, enabling their customers to collaborate with them more closely, and automate tedious print production tasks.
Others are customizing their solutions on an as-needed, customer-by-customer basis. Both approaches are recognition that agreement on data and process standards are key to successful digital publishing, ensuring consistent print quality, improved manageability, and offering profound financial benefits to both sides of the buyer/vendor relationship.
For vendors, it all boils down to one word: Service, perhaps the crucial differentiating factor in this highly competitive, recession-bound market.
"Increased service is what customers value most," says Mark Jones, senior VP of customer solutions with Quebecor World North America, in Greenwich, Conn. "We need to support the customer's requirements and [popular] industry standards, and not the other way around."
Jones' organization practices what he preaches. Quebecor World recently made significant investments in its enterprise computing infrastructure. The company upgraded the front-end of its digital workflow offerings, the primary point of customer contact for electronic content submissions.
Rather than require people to exchange files according to some arbitrary Quebecor World standard, the printer now allows customers to submit files in a variety of ways: Group Logic's MassTransit, WamNet's WAM!NET, secure extranet connections over IP (Internet protocol), removable media (including Iomega's ZIP, CD-R/CD-RW, DVD), and industry-standard FTP (file transfer protocol).
In addition to expanding support for popular file exchange technologies and media formats, Quebecor World's computer department developed valued-added capabilities, such as automated e-mail and online reporting notifications, to help customers better manage their data transfers.
It's progress, but it hasn't closed the gap. While the vast majority of Quebecor World's content creators now submit content electronically, many of the digital files received are not prepared according to accredited specifications, company officials say. That means they require additional time and money to repair.
It's a problem that only partnering and better communication between creator and printer can solve. "We partner with customers to create seamless digital workflows; it's the only answer," Jones says. "This enables them to gain the necessary level of control with less capital investment, and more efficient labor utilization."
HARD KNOCKS FOR SOFT PROOFING
Content creators are also implementing design methods for digital proofing, to abolish dependency on hard-copy proofs. Doing so can dramatically speed production cycles by eliminating the trafficking of hard copy.
And because it's purely digital, organizations can create decentralized virtual production teams by leveraging extranets and other Web-based collaboration tools. That can be a huge productivity booster, allowing graphic artists, writers, and editors to work anywhere, anytime.
But once again, the digital dream is rosier than reality. While soft-proofing has made dramatic inroads among content creators during creative cycles and for content approvals, most printers say it remains inappropriate for the most sensitive applications, such as color mark-up, final color approval, and contract approval (certain colors don't convert accurately or at all when translating between computing's RGB and publishing's CMYK color spaces).
"Digital soft-proofing is the norm for us, but only about 20 percent of our clients are using digital proofs exclusively," says Forest Wathen, manager of prepress for EU Services, a commercial printer and prepress house, in Rockville, Md. "The other 80 percent see a soft-proof, but it's a complement to a hard-copy contract proof that's exchanged."
Some leading content creators are committed to overcoming these obstacles, and aggressively embracing all-digital workflows with carefully monitored, finely tuned business processes.
Case in point: Condé Nast Publications, in New York, which has so far committed 15 of its 20 magazine titles to a new optimized digital workflow that's tightly integrated, at both the process and technology levels, with those of its printers.
The company, which publishes popular titles such as Vogue, The New Yorker, Glamour, and GQ, hopes to have all of its magazine titles converted to its fully electronic manufacturer-integrated production and approval process next year.
The end game: To utterly eliminate the cost and need to print and ship content proofs around their offices, and between manufacturing partners.
"Publishers, printers, and prepress vendors have done a decent job managing their workflow within their own operations," says Michael Arpino, director of manufacturing and distribution for Condé Nast. "[But today, they] need to look beyond their own walls, and into the workflows of their customers. We need to share data and feed each others systems electronically."
Presently Condé Nast's all-digital workflows bolster communications and collaboration between the publisher's internal advertising production operations and its manufacturing partners.
The effort started last year, when the company standardized on Adobe's PDF (portable document format) files for digital output. Advertising production managers throughout the organization have been equipped with Adobe's Acrobat software, which is used to create, view, and annotate the digital documents.
Likewise, production managers' desktop computers have been outfitted with "hot folders" for managing the revisions process. These smart folders execute scripted business rules (behaviors) when data files are dropped into them.
When ad managers receive a PDF file, they double-click it to open, and then perform their normal checking procedures. When a correction is necessary, managers can attach electronic notes indicating what needs to be done. Then they simply drag+drop the file into a "Corrections" hot folder, and the document is routed back to the appropriate party.
Once the pages have been corrected, final approval is as simple as assigning a page number, and dropping the PDF document into a hot folder dubbed "Approved." Content that hits the Approved folder is automatically cloned and routed: one copy goes to Condé Nast's archive; the other to the assigned prepress vendor partner, via a secure Internet connection.
That spawns an automatic e-mail to the printer's customer service department, advising them of the file's arrival. From there, the vendor sends the approved high-resolution PDF files to the printing plant for production.
Should a file need a last-minute correction, it will be automatically routed to the proper party, updated, and electronically returned to the advertising manager at Condé Nast for another look. It's purely digital, purely electronic, process optimized - and it's working.
"Our goal was to improve communication between our people and our suppliers, to reduce processing time, and shorten cycle time," Arpino says. "Going digital has been very effective in meeting these goals. It provides users with a step-by-step approach to implementing a digital creation and submission workflow, covers pros and cons of various accredited and non-accredited file formats, offers an overview of digital workflow concepts, and instructions on how to prepare clean digital files destined for print."
-Gretchen Kirby Peck