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Aug 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Current trends in servers and RIPs serve as the building blocks to a completely automated prepress workflow. With Ipex and Graph Expo looming on the horizon this fall, the graphic arts industry can expect an array of exciting new product introductions in the coming months. In order to put these new introductions into perspective, and more fully understand the global graphic arts marketplace for prepress, the editors of american printer have invited Meeno Mooij, a European consultant specializing in prepress automation, to share his views on trends involving servers and RIPs.

Although important announcements concerning RIPs and workflow automation have been made during the past year, most digital prepress users are still anticipating widespread applications using technologies such as PostScript 3 and direct PDF printing. Prepress operations are increasingly computerized today, but this does not always mean automated. Repetitive operations such as opening and closing files, checking page components (images, fonts, etc.) and PostScript printing are done manually.

However, the automation of prepress is necessary to accommodate the ever diminishing prices associated with page handling and the increasing number of color pages being produced. One-to-one marketing using variable data printing on digital presses is destined to become a growing market, creating demand for fully automated workflows in order to facilitate cost-efficient prepress operations.

Technology, components and standards such as ICC, PDF, desktop databases and networking are emerging. After investing much effort in the development of that part of the solution, vendors in the graphic arts industry now are concentrating on the usable prepress implementations. Color management solutions, digital archives, page component databases, electronic job tickets and on-the-fly parallel RIPing for digital printing output are being assembled in high performance front-ends for computer-to-film, computer-to-plate (CTP), computer-to-press or digital printing applications.

High-end prepress vendors such as Heidelberg, Scitex and Barco have developed systems employing several of the required elements for an integrated and largely automated workflow. However, for prepress operations in a multi-vendor operation, the currently available solutions may not completely cover their needs. Some companies, in fact, are waiting for "open" solutions that can be adapted to specific prepress requirements.

One of the more promising desktop workflow management products is the Imation OPEN application. Unfortunately when considering the world market, design parameters make it more suitable for the United States market than Europe or Asia.

Companies such as Shira and Dalim have carved niches in specific prepress markets with advanced workflow servers, providing the glue between the desktop and high-end output devices for CTP or digital gravure cylinder production.

In color management systems, the ICC2.0 standard and Apple's early adoption of ColorSync provide most of the technology and tools required to implement a prepress workflow. Desktop-based color management systems appear to have had only limited success in prepress color production for several reasons. First, the graphic arts industry has based its color control and judging methods on CMYK, whereas the ICC color model is based on CIElab/LCH or RGB. Second, most popular application programs such as QuarkXPress, Illustrator and PhotoShop did not natively support ICC2.0-based workflows. Xtensions and plug-ins provide color management functionality. Although plug-ins offer great solutions on an application level, they are useful only in a heterogeneous workflow.

OPI is a technology for streamlining PostScript printing workflow. Recently it has been refined and provides a platform for additional workflow tools such as job ticketing (Agfa Mainstream), font management, color management systems (Helios), PostScript preflighting and archiving solutions. Because of the use of UNIX and NT-based platforms, processes now are more stabilized and support different workflows, including DCS, EPS and Scitex proprietary APR.

In the RIP arena, PostScript has established itself as the imaging language of choice. RIPing platforms are following the general computer trend of doubling the speed and reducing the prices every six to 12 months. Quality issues associated with PostScript RIPs have largely disappeared. PostScript 3 RIPs running on Windows NT platforms such as Intel Pentium PRO and DEC Alpha drive the imaging devices at high productivity. Digital trapping has been implemented by most RIP vendors, including Heidelberg, Harlequin and Adobe.

What is lacking is the required integration to provide highly automated prepress workflows with maximum productivity and minimum human intervention.

Actually, there is no such thing as one workflow. Many applications, such as catalogs, packaging, books and commercial printing, each have their own requirements regarding workflow. Even within these disciplines, requirements differ from one shop to the other.

The different flavors of UNIX always have provided programmers with the ability to script processes to couple different applications together. This is also available as AppleScript on the Mac and Visual Basic on the PC, both of which are being used to automate different tasks. The average prepress operation has to employ staff who are being educated to use these tools for adapting systems to in-house requirements.

There is a general trend to Windows NT as the platform of choice for servers. NT does not yet provide all the bells and whistles or the aboslute reliability for which UNIX is famous, but it runs on different economical hardware configurations and provides a smooth upgrade path without a steep learning curve.

Several companies, such as Imation with OPEN and Agfa with the PDF-based Apogee, have announced availability of their workflow automation products on the Windows NT platform. All these efforts will boost the move to the NT platform for integrating processes. In the coming years, expect to see more automation of workflow. Database-driven makeup and re-use of documents or parts of documents will be accelerated. It is likely we will see one-off Web page generation from databases.

Another strong influence of the Web is the use of browsers, locally or remotely, as user interfaces for processes and devices. A good example are digital archives of images, accessible through the Internet for selection. OPI applications also are possible, with prepress shops retrieving high-res data in an OPI/preflight stage for production. This method of working could also be applicable to complete documents ordered via the Internet or Intranets for reprinting. RIPs using a broswer as the user interface have been emerging and this trend will continue.

New versions of application programs such as PhotoShop and Illustrator will provide native support for ICC2.0-based color management. This, combined with the full ICC support of Microsoft within Windows 98 and NT 5.0, will bring color management systems closer to general use.

More scriptable workflow solutions are expected to show up, providing automation and customization of the processes within the prepress operation. Because of the availability of multi-processor servers, different functions (OPI, imposition, trapping, color management and RIPing) are used on one or several closely integrated computer platforms, providing more productivity with lower investments.

There is a trend to provide economical RIP platforms, either on standard PC or MAC or as a standalone "box." The adaptation of PostScript 3 will take time; many years after the introduction of PostScript Level 2, most of the applications still were not using all of the capability afforded by this language.

Nonetheless, some features will be implemented relatively quickly. Native RIPing of PDF is a feature that is not restricted to PostScript 3; clone RIP maker 5D and Harlequin have introduced it. RIPs will be accepting more file formats--PostScript, PDF with out without Job Tickets, TIFF-IT, HTML, etc.

On the back end of the RIPs there will be more systems generating data. As with the Extreme architecture of Adobe or the existing RIP architectures of most high-end vendors, there is a tendency to uncouple the RIPs from the imaging devices. Even the most simple output devices will, therefore, have a choice of RIPs and workflow management tools to be connected with. This trend also provides a simpler integration for CIP3 applications, providing the data communication from prepress to the press control system and even finishing departments.

In 1998, PDF-based workflow will be boosted by applications such as imposition packages supporting Adobe's Portable Job Ticket Format (PJTF). They will use information supplied by the client for auomating imposition and to set-up printing devices. PDF also will become the language of choice, used for database-driven page makeup or variable data printing.

Ipex 98 will showcase these developments in prepress servers and RIPs. Expect to see both finished products and important indications for further developments in the near future.