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May 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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When the best printers in the country talk digital workflow, they all mention gaining speed and reducing turnaround time. But few address the biggest cause of delays: Distance.

Moving layout, then proofs and, ultimately, the press-ready digital files from one location to another adds days to the typical production schedule.

Remote proofing can help solve that problem once and for all. What fax machines and email have done for the pace of business communication, remote proofing will do for printing. Customers have more time to produce their jobs prior to deadline. Publications can sell more ads. And printers can become more efficient.

"The easiest way for a printer to make more money is to keep his presses running," notes Ken Field, president and CEO of Continental Web Press, an emerging leader in remote proofing with plants in Itasca, IL and Walton, KY. "Historically, we've depended on FedEx to make sure proofs go out to give us the approvals to proceed. We schedule presses to ensure quick turnaround, with like jobs following like jobs, for maximum efficiency. But inevitably a customer will call us back and say we can't proceed with a job yet. We need to make changes to the job. So we generate another proof cycle and lose 24 hours, and that affects the efficiency of our pressroom."

Though located in the Midwest, the majority of Continental Web's clients--nearly 80 percent--are concentrated on the East Coast. Hence, few printers stand to benefit as much from remote proofing as Continental Web, a $100 million firm whose clients include major retailers and publishers such as Time Inc., Conde Nast, Hearst and others.

Continental Web has taken a three-pronged approach to remote proofing. It can either place a large-format Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer in a customer site to produce imposition proofs or use a Kodak Polychrome Graphics DCP 9000 desktop color proofer, a dye sublimation printer that produce continuous-tone color proofs. These options are acceptable to some publications, especially for editorial material.

Or, for critical color approval, the printer will soon send files from its Midwest prepress departments via WAM!NET to a new Continental Web office in midtown Manhattan, where a Kodak Approval direct digital proofing system can produce contract-quality halftone proofs. From that location, the proofs can be hand- carried to a customer site anywhere in the metro New York area.

While customers may feel as if Continental Web has just moved down the street, the printer stands to gain precious time to the production schedule. "Remote proofing gives us the opportunity to cut out almost 24 hours of nonproductive time," explains Ed Zepernick, prepress manager.

Once the customer approves the job, the all-digital workflow jumps into high gear with computer-to-plate production. Continental feeds the data to its Creo digital platemaking system to produce thermal plates capable of run lengths over a million impressions.

Of course, implementing remote proofing isn't just a matter of installing hardware off-site and connecting to a phone line. Think of the challenge of implementing digital workflow within a single printing plant. Now extend that outward to include clients.

It all starts with color management. Continental fingerprinted its Heidelberg Web M1000 presses, and calibrated both the Approval and DCP 9000 color proofers to match press output with the custom output profiles. Now when the company places a color proofer in a customer site, Continental calibrates it and installs the output profile to ensure that color output generated at the customer site will precisely match output from the same device back in Continental's plant.

"Color management continues to be a big issue," Zepernick says, "as evidenced by the fact that more and more creative ad agencies are hiring technicians from our side of the business. They need people with print experience to ensure the color fidelity of their computer and output systems." And it will only become more critical as Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) becomes more widely accepted for document printing. After QuarkXpress incorporates transparent PDF creation and inline trapping becomes more commonplace, people who provide Postscript files today will eventually make the switch to PDFs, he predicts.

As further evidence of the importance of color management, Zepernick points to Continental Web's relationship with W.W. Grainger in suburban Chicago. Grainger prints thousands of catalog pages each year. It handles all its own prepress and proofs jobs on a DCP 9000 proofer before submitting work to Continental. "After that, we go into production," Zepernick says. "Before, two-thirds or more of a typical catalog would require alterations--in a 16-page book, 12 pages were being redone. Now out of a 16-page book,four or five pages require change, and a goal of zero alterations is in view."

As color management systems become more prevalent, Zepernick says, people will focus more on color management than on a particular proofer. Customers will tell Continental Web what they have, then sit down with Zepernick's staff to fingerprint it and develop the appropriate color profile.

Another major step for remote proofing is connectivity. "The proof itself isn't the only issue," assures Zepernick. "It's also the transfer--getting files from here to there--that has been challenging and ever-changing."

Continental Web has adopted WAM!NET, which operates a 155 million-bit-per-second backbone with its 60 hubs nationwide. Files that might have taken an hour or more to transmit in the past now travel cross-country in a few minutes. When a customer contracts with WAM!NET for telecommunications services, it provides a dedicated server at the customer site. This allows the customer to submit files directly to Continental Web over WA M!NET's nationwide high-speed data network, and Continental can respond with a remote proof, again courtesy of WAM!NET.

While it took Continental Web months to line up its first four remote proofing clients, it expects to double that number in three to six months. Even Field is promoting the emerging service in customer visits. "It will allow us to turn something around in record time, and that gets people's attention," he says. "There is not a client out there who believes there is enough time to produce their job effectively."

Today, customer press checks are required for 80 percent of the high-end publication and catalog work that flows through Continental Web. When there is widespread acceptance of digital remote proofing, Zepernick says, that percentage can be reduced. Most customers will approve a remote proof and simply wait for the finished job to be delivered.

Continental Web, for one, is doing its part to bring that about. It continues to develop a data profile for its presses, so that it can deal with each job individually. "Every job has its own idiosyncrasies," says Peter McLean, COO at Continental. "Paper reacts differently in January than in June. Within a short period of time, we'll know before we put something on press how a job will react."

The company has also begun adding Heidelberg Web "Sunday" presses. With them, the quantum leap in prepress is extended to the pressroom. Operators can change plates and blankets in a quarter of the time required for a traditional press.

"It's a great time to be part of the printing industry," says Ken Field. "The technological revolution we've seen has been overwhelming, and it just keeps going. I keep thinking they're not going to be able to come up with an encore. But they always do."