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Proof to Print: Digital Proofing Options for CTP

May 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Life is full of safe assumptions--the sun will come up tomorrow, rush jobs will always take longer than expected and printshops that use computer-to-plate (CTP) equipment will also use digital proofing. It only makes sense; since CTP enables a filmless workflow, these printers must find an alternative to those tried-and-true photomechanical proofing products.

In reality, however, life is seldom so simple. Many CTP users continue to do a large portion of their work photomechanically, so the possibility always exists to make film and conventional proofs--only to discard those films in favor of exposing the plates digitally! Wasteful, you might say? Of course it is, but so is purchasing CTP equipment that might be underutilized due to a lack of customer confidence in digital proofing.

Fortunately, many of today's most successful printers have found digital proofing options that have garnered the support of their customers. Which technologies are the most successful? Which devices provide a useful mix of affordability and throughput speed? Let's find out, by looking at five companies that have exposed digital proofing's key role in the successful adoption of computer-to-plate.

Bob Tellone, sales support manager at World Color's Chicago facility, has a major role in evaluating all color proofs that leave the plant. When he first discussed the adoption of digital proofing with the management of World Color, one idea came to the forefront: whatever technology was adopted would have to feature a halftone dot.

"What's been important to us is that the Kodak Approval is a dot-generated proof," states Tellone. "Many of the jobs we do involve matching fabrics or clothing swatches. If there's a moire, we want to be able to see it right up front. We use the same Harlequin RIP to drive both the Approval and our Creo Trendsetters, so it's completely linear--files don't have to be re-RIPed between proofing and platemaking."

A number of different devices were considered when World Color made the transition to an all-digital workflow, but Tellone has no regrets over the choice they made. "Our proofs are tremendously accurate in predicting how the jobs will print--there are no surprises," he says. "When you look at the Approval and you look at the press sheet, it's as close a match as the technology today will bring us--and it's much closer than a photomechanical proof would have been."

Digital workflow and digital proofing have both been winners for World Color: "This month, about 95 percent of our work is being done with CTP," according to Tellone. "What we're trying to do is to lead our customers into a completely digital arena by offering to help them make the transition from analog to digital--and they're getting the message."

Early on, World Color decided to sell digital proofs at the same price already established for similarly sized photomechanical proofs. "While it's true that the Approvals don't require film, you've got to include the cost of the technology. We try to keep our Approval prices low in order to encourage customers to use them.

"World Color has one large print customer that does all its own separations, and we've purchased an Approval for that firm. This will ensure that the client's work will be easy to match when it hits our presses."

A typical workflow for World Color's prepress department is to provide initial contract color proofs by sending groups of images to the Approval; after the customer signs off on the color, these images are used in page layout documents. After page assembly is complete, jobs are proofed in a two-page format on the Approval.

"Most of our catalog work fits fine as printer's spreads on the Approval," comments Tellone. "At press side, we just tape them together to provide an imposed proof. We also have a Kodak DCP 9000 dye sublimation proofer for quick color-break proofs and for verifying last-minute changes."

Consistency through calibration is the key to World Color's success with digital proofing. "Our press operators are happy with the digital proofs; they're confident that what they see on the proof can be matched on press.

"We've spent time fingerprinting the presses to improve our proofing methods. We still check our calibration every morning to make sure that we're on track. This is very important because about 50 percent of our work has been picked up from previous runs and, when we proof those images again, we want them to look just like they did last time," concludes the World Color manager.

When you think of a high-tech workflow like computer-to-plate, you might not think of a printshop with only 17 employees. Yet that's exactly the scenario for the success story known as Perfect Image Printing, an 18-year-old venture founded by Gordon Knowles and his wife Susan (partner Alan Gottheim joined in 1983).

"We run 18-inch and smaller presses, doing a lot of two- and four-color work, but still define our market as quick printing," says Knowles. "We had used plastic photo-direct plates for a number of years, but now that we've gone to imaging directly to the plate with an imagesetter, we can run a 150-line halftone screen with no problem. We've converted our ExxtraSetter 300 imagesetter into a platesetter with Mitsubishi's Silver DigiPlate polyester plates. Graduated screens and close registration present no problem at all, but still we think twice before running four-color process (in two passes) with polyester plates. As a rule, we would not run four-color process on polyester plates."

Just as Perfect Image uses polyester plates to keep its production costs low, the cost of proofing is an important consideration for its customers. In the days when metal plates were required for many jobs, most customers couldn't justify the cost of a photomechanical proof. Today, however, Knowles has found a simple and effective answer to the proofing dilemma.

"We have a networked Minolta CF80 color copier that shows placement and color that's 'about right.' For match colors, however, we still run to a Pantone swatchbook. When we show a customer a color proof, we have to explain that it isn't exactly what the color is going to look like; but most of the time, our customers simply appreciate the opportunity to see something in color that is pretty close to what they've created."

At this relatively low-end of the proofing cost spectrum, Perfect Image's color copies provide something that many more expensive proofs do not: a halftone dot. Customers typically receive a proof featuring halftone dots that approximate the screening pattern of litho reproduction. "In the color copy," says Knowles, "you do get a halftone dot; we output these proofs at 133 lpi, which matches the screen ruling we typically use on the plate."

To support a remote proofing workflow along with CTP, Banta's Chanhassen, MN location relies on a tried-and-true product: dye sublimation proofs. Kim Stern, a team development coach for Banta, says, "We use the Imation Rainbow 2740 and also the Kodak DCP 9000 for remote proofing at customer sites, using dedicated T1 lines, which seems to work out very well." This temperate phrase seems to be an understatement for describing the success that digital proofing has been for Banta's catalog publishers.

"Probably 80 percent of our work is done based solely on dye-sub proofs--mail order catalogs and the like," states Stern, "and at least half of those customers use remote proofing."

In contrast to the one-RIP mantra that many CTP users are repeating, Banta finds contentment with a variety of proofers and more than one brand of platesetter. "Most of our work is eventually imaged on either Creo or Gerber platesetters, although some of it is sent out."

Stern also points out that a lack of halftone dots hasn't held Banta back from implementing a digital proofing strategy. "We were using digital proofing frequently in the past, even when that work would be output to film, so not having halftone dots in these dye-sub proofs does not seem to be a problem. It all depends on whether the customer will buy into it. Digital proofing is just a mindset--all you have to do is prepare your customers for it."

It seems that Banta's customers are prepared for the convenience of having an electronic connection to their prepress service provider. Stern admits, however, that remote proofing and dye sublimation is not a one-size fits all solution: "If a customer wants a higher quality for an annual report or some other high profile job, he or she may request a different type of proofing--but many of our customers are happy with dye-subs as their only proof."

Color quality also was a prime concern of Stan Monfette when evaluating the Iris inkjet proofing system, but so was the creation of an integrated workflow. "We've been a Scitex shop for many years," says Monfette, "so it was only natural to add the Iris to our existing stable of equipment."

When Kirkwood Printing added CTP capabilities with a Scitex DoPlate platesetter, the inkjet proofer proved its worth. (The company has since added a Lotem CTP device.) "Customers benefit from the Iris because we can offer better turnaround times; most customers also have a fair amount of corrections, and the IRIS can save costs on regenerating film. This savings is then passed onto the customer.

"We price the Iris proofs themselves slightly cheaper than photomechanical proofs, but it's mostly on corrections that they see the cost benefits. Of course, turnaround time on jobs is also shortened. Previously, our Dolev 400 would take two hours to image eight pages; today, we can output four pages in 20 minutes on the Iris."

The total integration of digital proofing within the Scitex workflow has been a benefit for Kirkwood's productivity, according to Monfette. "Since our Brisque DFE drives both the proofer and the Lotem computer-to-plate device, we move files from proofing to platemaking with ease. When you spend a lot of money on one of these boxes, all you really want it to do is to keep making plates.

"We do all single-page RIPing and then paginate on-the-fly during output. When we print a document from the Mac, the same RIPed file is used on our Iris, then our DoPlate and finally backed up on the server," explains the Kirkwood exec.

When asked about the lack of halftone dots in the Iris inkjet proofs, Monfette seemed unfazed. "Our customers don't mind, and our press crews are fine with it. The real key to making a dotless proof work for us has been careful calibration of all parts of the process. If we're concerned that a particular image might have a moire problem, we'll output that image to film."

Potential plate remake woes elicit a similarly response. "Documents are imaged to a digital proof; we then cut the Iris proofs down to size and tape them together to make a backed-up book. When the proof comes back, we have a preflight department for CTP that serves as a final quality control step. At that point, the job is sent down to our CTP department; basically, it goes smoothly beyond that point.

"We really haven't had very many problems with trapping; FullAutoFrames seems to work great. We also pull a large-format imposition proof on our Hewlett Packard 750C inkjet plotter, which gets ruled up to make sure that everything is in the correct position. The HP750C connects directly to the Brisque, so we can make press-sheet size proofs without recreating any PostScript data," adds Monfette.

Some companies thrive on pushing technology to its limits, and that's right where Tom Forsythe wants LANscape to stay. This trade shop from the Twin Cities area is truly a rarity: a prepress service bureau that has added computer-to-plate to its repertoire.

"You don't have to go back that many years in the industry to see that most trade facilities started out as platemakers and evolved into film manufacturers," says Forsythe. "We think that extending the customer's data to the plate is just a logical extension of our service. After all, these are very expensive pieces of equipment, and we can flex the investment over a larger customer base."

Recently, LANscape acquired a Creo Trendsetter thermal platesetter. As part of this package, Forsythe opted to take the Spectrum proofing option. This adds the capability to make color halftone proofs right on the Trendsetter, using Imation's Matchprint LaserProof thermal proofing materials.

"Our current business plan calls for a total of four units at the end of three years, but our implementation of more technology is based on the successful completion of the (Matchprint LaserProof) digital proofing beta--we don't believe that we've got a solution without it," says Forsythe.

"The advantage of this solution over other digital proofs is that you're getting a level of predictability never possible. You're working through a common RIP solution, driving the same dot at the same screen angles used to generate the plate. Based on those attributes, it allows us to be confident that we've created a predictable, accurate proof for our clients," asserts the exec.

Many pundits consider making proofs on the same drum that can make plates a poor financial decision, since a platesetter that is busy making proofs is unavailable for platemaking. "You're always going to have some available manufacturing time; in fact, as a tradeshop, we want to encourage equipment redundancy in order to provide the most reliable service for our print clients," says Forsythe.

"Clients expect fast turnaround even if a plate has gone bad on press, so you've got to have redundancy. For us, CTP is a multiple device business plan. Just as importantly, we believe that the predictability of the plate is so critical that you can't afford not to proof on a device that's identical in specification, running off the same RIP. Our plan requires that all our platesetters need to be technically identical," maintains Forsythe.

After having tested a variety of different options, LANscape is happy to have found a solution that fits its needs. "In the past, we've had a number of digital proofing options here--inkjet, dye sublimation, a few different thermal devices and some color copiers. They're getting better and better all the time, but they don't have that precise correlation to the printed sheet that the printshop requires--it's got to have a dot, it's got to have the same screen angle, it needs to come from the same data that's gone through a common RIP. Until you solve all of those problems, you're never going to go to press without some reservations over what the end result will be," claims Forsythe.

These five stories provide valuable insight into the purchasing decision process of today's CTP and digital proofing users. In addition to the products and vendors mentioned previously, many of the industry's most popular digital proofing products are detailed in the two accompanying figures.

Compared to the 50-year legacy of off-press photomechanical proofing, digital proofing is still in its infancy. At this point, no one can foresee the amazing developments that are likely to shake up the graphic arts marketplace in the years to come. Already, we can see tremendous influence being wielded by manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard and Epson that have been traditionally associated with the office products market. The Epson Stylus Pro 5000 inkjet plotter (featuring a DuPont CMYK inkset) is available for approximately $10,000 and may steal some of the market share that has been the domain of dye sublimation.

At the high end of the proofing spectrum, Polaroid's PolaProof system offers a simple, manual operating workflow and extremely high resolution to produce a digital proof whose quality exceeds traditional photomechanical proofing.

At the end of the decision-making process, however, equipment purchases are made not only on price, throughput and quality--you've also got to factor in those intangibles such as service, support and the name recognition each vendor brings to the table.

As the preceding interviews have shown, printers must set their own priorities regarding which points matter the most, then evaluate all relevant options to find the device that excels in these attributes. In today's digital proofing marketplace, the only safe assumption may be that these priorities are different for every printshop and service bureau. Whatever drives your decision-making process, at least you can proceed knowing that many of today's digital proofing options can--and do--provide the quality needed to enable your all-digital workflow.