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GREETINGS from Filetown, U.S.A.

Jul 1, 2002 12:00 AM


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It's a rare dot-com success story. Founded in November 1999, 4by6.com (Oakland, CA) began life as a gang-run printer, doing only 2 × 3.5-inch business cards, and 4 × 6-inch and 6 × 8-inch postcards. Its founding officers had always intended it to be a dot-com enterprise, however, and they began researching and developing an e-commerce architecture. Now, nearly three years later, 4by6.com still prints only business cards and postcards — but with a website as its storefront and a virtually seamless digital production workflow on the back end.

Such an enterprise, however, requires automation to simplify the process for customers and printer alike — particularly when the printer serves a diverse range of customers with varying knowledge of file preparation. With the aid of an easy-to-navigate website, and multifunctional file-management software from Markzware (Santa Ana, CA), 4by6. com does just that.

EMPHASIS ON STANDARDIZATION

To place orders, registered customers simply choose the desired print product, and decide on four-color processing on one or both sides. They can also opt for a satin-matte finish, which provides better durability and water resistance. Next, customers review pricing, and choose between standard five-day delivery or four-day rush service.

Users then download one of six templates, depending on the native application used to design their projects, and begin to prepare their files for uploading. Miles Pickering, co-owner and systems manager of 4by6.com, estimates that 45 percent to 50 percent of the files the company receives are created in QuarkXPress, 20 percent to 25 percent in Illustrator, 15 percent to 20 percent in PhotoShop, and 10 percent to 15 percent in Freehand and PageMaker. The firm also offers a template for Adobe InDesign. Templates are available for both Mac and PC.

The printer's website also has detailed instructions on how to standardize files, based on 4by6. com's workflow model and specifications. Even file naming is based on a standard, according to job number and orientation. For example, a file named “101.front.horiz.qxd” provides key bits of important information: At a glance, the client or the printer can identify the job number, that the file is for the front of the postcard, should be positioned horizontally and is a QuarkXPress application file.

QUALITY-CONTROL MECHANISM

Because 4by6.com only accepts native application files, the company decided to integrate Markzware's MarkzNet software for preflighting and electronic file management. MarkzNet incorporates prepress and file-verification technologies, systems integration, network configuration and programming in a highly automated architecture for exchanging digital files.

“We learned about MarkzNet via Web searches during the research phase for the automation project we wanted to put together,” Pickering recalls. “The main problem we were trying to solve was to standardize the files that were being submitted to us.” All Systems Integration (Woburn, MA), a Markzware Authorized Solutions Provider, integrated the application with 4by6.com's systems.

As a file recipient, 4by6.com can establish custom prepress rules that designate which potential errors and compliance issues MarkzNet should catch before the file is set into further motion. If the file passes inspection, the software automatically collects the file's elements, such as fonts and graphics, and compresses them into a single transportable unit.

Even with MarkzNet acting as gatekeeper to all content coming into the print shop, Pickering is quick to note that his company's goal is to give customers simple instructions for properly preparing files from the start.

While printers may never gain complete control over customer file preparation, MarkzNet allows printers to get closer to that utopian goal, explains Patrick Marchese, co-founder and CEO of Markzware. According to him, preflighting is an essential quality-control mechanism that should occur at several stages of any print production workflow — most commonly at the creative desktop stage, followed by a second checking at the final recipient's end.

PROOFING BY PDF

Once the client's file has been placed in the preordained template and assigned a name, the customer is then instructed to download 4by6.com's Proofing Tool, which works behind the scenes to preflight, compress and send the file to the online print provider, then generate a PDF file of the assembled project. The Proofing Tool is actually MarkzNet in disguise, custom-branded for 4by6.com.

While some printers cringe at the idea of soft proofing, 4by6.com has wholeheartedly embraced it. The generated PDF files are the only proofs the company exchanges with clients, though the website clearly forewarns that the proofs are only for checking content, not for color matching.

“We're not trying to service the customer who needs absolute color fidelity,” Pickering explains. “For them, you still need to have a hard proof or some kind of monitor-calibration system.” Instead, 4by6.com sets the press to a standard ink density and does pleasing-color work.

After viewing the PDF proof, the customer either approves or rejects it. If they don't approve the file, they are asked to re-upload a corrected file.

Although PDF may be the file format of choice for proofing, Pickering observes that his company's clients will not be submitting content in PDF form anytime soon. “PDF files make the customer go through extra steps to load our settings,” he says, “and allow us less control over the final output.”

While it isn't a factor in 4by6.com's workflow, Markzware's MarkzNet and Flightcheck products can preflight PDFs. This fall, the vendor is also expected to announce MarkzNet Client support for Mac OS X and a new desktop-level preflight solution aimed at designers.

LESS FOCUS ON DAILY DRUDGERY

Pickering says creating an automated architecture that not only handles file receipts, but also preflighting and approvals, was a great accomplishment. Automation, the exec says, “has shifted the focus of our work away from the daily drudgery of production and allowed us to concentrate on other aspects of our business — while still offering 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week service.”