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The new contract proof

Feb 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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What criteria determine acceptability for a manufacturing process based on visual perception? For most high-quality printers, a key part of the workflow has been the contract proof. Printers wishing to provide outstanding value to their customers now have an expanding range of options, even while budgets and timeframes shrink.

Contract proofs have changed dramatically during the past 30 years. Yet even with developments such as laser scanning, desktop publishing and CTP — which have improved the quality of the printing process — trends in contract proofing may be driven more by cost than by quality. “If you go back 30 years and look at Cromalin, it took the industry by storm because it was the only alternative to proofing a job on press,” asserts Ray Cassino, director, prepress product management for Heidelberg USA (Kennesaw, GA). “Cromalin was wonderful, but it didn't look anything like a press sheet. What made the technology take off … was the economics of providing a contract proof without having to fire up the press.”

SOLD ON INKJET PROOFING

Today, high-resolution, drop-on-demand inkjet devices have overcome initial resistance to dominate the low-end to midrange proofing marketplace. According to Cassino, while analog or digital halftone proofs can cost between $10 to $14 per page, inkjet is roughly one-tenth of that.

Heidelberg has moved decisively to endorse inkjet proofing by packaging Hewlett-Packard's (HP) (Palo Alto, CA) DesignJet printers and PrintOpen color-management software with many of Heidelberg's prepress workflow systems. “We're sold on it hook, line and sinker,” says Cassino. “Color management and ICC profiles bring inkjet printers closer to the press sheet than can be achieved with traditional photomechanical dot proofs.” In 2003, Heidelberg plans to offer Epson devices as well.

Among Epson's newest products is the Stylus Pro 10600, which incorporates the same high-speed print engine as the Stylus Pro 10000, and uses a variable-droplet micropiezo DX3 printhead with photo accelerator and nozzle-verification technologies for true 1440 × 720-dpi resolution up to 44 inches wide.

Epson devices are available directly from the online Epson Store (epson.com) as well as through a variety of mail-order houses. For print shops, however, Mark Radogna, senior manager, professional graphics, for Epson America (Long Beach, CA), sees great value in acquiring proofers from a knowledgeable source familiar with graphic-arts workflows. “Finding the right reseller/integrator is one of the single most important aspects of purchasing a new digital-proofing solution,” he says.

Radogna also emphasizes the value of the UltraChrome inkset, available for the recently released Stylus Pro 7600, 9600 and 10600 inkjet devices. The UltraChrome is an archival system that uses seven individual colors to create what is said to be exhibit-quality output on a wide selection of media in color and black-and-white. The product line reportedly boasts one of the largest color ranges for pigmented inks, with a level of color extremely close to that of Epson's six-color photo dye-based inks.

“We've been pushing the development of pigmented inks for proofing use for more than three years,” says Radogna. “With the introduction of our UltraChrome inks, we finally have a technology that will hit the most demanding colors on press, while benefiting from pigment inks' color durability.”

INKJET OPTIONS

Epson's Stylus Pro 7600 and 9600 received SWOP certification late last year, in combination with the company's UltraChrome ink, semimatte proofing paper and Best GmbH's (Krefeld, Germany) Colorproof RIP. The certification recognizes that these printing systems meet SWOP's strict industry guidelines for commercial proofing applications. (Electronics For Imaging, in Foster City, CA, recently acquired Best; see p. 13.)

The ORIS Color Tuner 5 from CGS Publishing Technologies International (Minneapolis) was recently SWOP-certified for use with Canon image-PROGRAF W2200, W7200 and W7250 printers. ORIS Color Tuner 5 features automatic device and independent spot-color calibration, and on-screen previewing. (CGS' Digital Proofing System supports the SWOP-certified HP DesignJet 10/20ps tabletop printers as well as almost all Epson Stylus Pro models.)

Though Canon (Lake Success, NY) has long offered inkjet devices, ORIS support should help the company make inroads into professional proofing applications. The W2200, in particular, is a six-color graphic-arts proofing printer for paper up to 13 × 19 inches. It creates output with resolution of up to 2400 × 1200 dpi at speeds of up to four ppm for letter-size printers in standard mode, and six ppm for 11 × 17-inch color prints at high speed.

Canon also announced an agreement with Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) (Norwalk, CT) last fall, where Canon would offer KPG Matchprint Professional Server for use with its CLC 1140 and 1180 systems. The CLC 1140/1180 models produce full-color, 12 × 18-inch laser output, while Matchprint Professional Server simulates Matchprint analog proofs and other industry-standard color spaces. Canon is also planning to offer co-branded proofing media with KPG, specifically designed for the CLC 1140/1180. The proofing paper would be offered in two types: publication base, which simulates the stocks used by magazine and catalog publishers, and commercial base.

KPG will be offering One-Bit TIFF Interface (OBTi) for Matchprint Color RIP, which allows customers to proof separated, screened, one-bit TIFF files using Matchprint color inkjet proofers. The combination of Matchprint Color RIP and OBTi lets customers implement the RIP Once, Output Many process. OBTi is compatible with multipage, multicolor (CMYK plus eight) one-bit TIFF files created by various workflows. The product will reportedly be available the first half of this year.

The ColorProof product from GMG (Tuebingen, Germany) is said to calibrate a digital inkjet-proofing engine to produce digital contract color proofs that are precisely color-matched to the printing press. ColorProof's new halftone-contract-proof option, DotProof, enables the output of digital halftone contract proofs complete with original screen data on Epson and HP large-format inkjet devices. DotProof takes the one-bit TIFF information generated by the output RIP and transforms the color while retaining the original screening information.

HIGH-END ALTERNATIVES

“Today's presses, prepress systems, platesetters and proofing systems can be adjusted and tweaked to an extent unimaginable only a few years ago, so now every component of the production system is a moving target,” observes Todd Bigger, KPG's halftone proofing product manager. “The proofing system is thus being used not only as an output predictor but also as a process-control device. Needless to say, this raises the stakes for proofing accuracy.”

There remains, then, a viable market for options providing the maximum available quality. Tradition and differentiation keep some graphic-arts service providers firmly committed to halftone proofing.

KPG's Approval XP digital color proofing system combines high-resolution thermal-laser imaging with its award-winning Color Recipe software for accurate Pantone color matches. It was recently SWOP-recertified.

Training provider Learning Tree International (Los Angeles) buys 6,000 to 8,000 catalog pages per year and orders Creo Spectrum halftone dot proofs on at least 20 percent of them. “You can tell what the press run will look like,” says Peggy Brewster, a senior production manager at Learning Tree, “because the proof provides a good visual comparison of the dot that's going onto the paper.”

Creo Trendsetter and Lotem users whose devices have been equipped for Spectrum proofing can choose between KPG and DuPont materials. High-resolution, binary FinalProof thermal-laser material from Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. (Hanover Park, IL) was also recently qualified. It will soon be available in cut sheets.

In 2002, Creo announced an additional proofing option: the Veris proofer, a four-up tabletop proofing system that uses multidrop-array inkjet to create dots. The device reportedly provides a true symmetrical resolution of 1500 × 1500 dpi.

Veris incorporates Creo's certified proofing process, which checks that the correct process is used to make the proof. First, the system checks that the proofer has been calibrated recently and that the correct calibration setup has been used. Next, it verifies that the correct ICC profile has been selected. Finally, the system ensures that the proof is printed with the ink and media defined for the proof. The Veris uses certified Iris ProPack-GA and IrisPRO II media.

Creo's Integris proofing line integrates leading inkjet printers with Creo workflow and color control. IT combines the Integris Proof Controller with qualified media, inks and inkjet printers, including the Epson Stylus Pro 7600 and 9600.

STOCHASTIC CHALLENGE

A new challenge to standard proofing is high-end screening, “which taxes the ability of the digital proofer to effectively resolve it,” according to Don Schroeder, senior product-development manager for color proofing at Fuji. He notes the latest stochastic-screening introductions — including Creo's Staccato, Agfa's Sublima, Fuji's Co-Rés and Screen's (Rolling Meadows, IL) Spekta — have raised the bar of quality, forcing proofs to follow suit.

Fuji's FinalProof Luxel 5600, winner of Seybold's 2000 Proofing Shootout, is said to easily meet the challenge presented by these new screening technologies. The thermal digital halftone proofer uses Fuji's proprietary Thin Layer Thermal Transfer technology to expose the pigment-based CMYK colors. Finalproof features resolution levels from 2400 dpi to 2540 dpi, to accommodate output screens from 120 to 200 lines. Used with Fuji's newly developed Co-Rés screening, Finalproof reportedly supports high-line screens (up to 300 lines) as well.

Stochastic screening has been a successful differentiator for Haig's Quality Printing (Las Vegas). Haig's uses Agfa's Sublima technology and outputs proofs on a DuPont digital proofing system. According to CEO Haig Atamian, stochastic printing and the stochastic output on the proofer go hand in hand. “Digital contract proofing has improved tremendously in the past three years; in fact, we are matching the proofs exactly,” he claims. “Having a stochastic proof and printing with stochastic screening on press makes things easier to match all around. It is time to get away from the dots and get into the best way to print and proof: stochastic.”

LEVERAGING COLOR EXPERTISE

DuPont Imaging Technologies (Wilmington, DE) recently leveraged its long history of color expertise with the introduction of the CromaPro XP Inkjet Color Proofing System for drop-on-demand (DOD) inkjet printers at Graph Expo 2002. CromaPro XP bundles X-Rite's DTP41UV spectrophotometer and DuPont's CromaNet color-management and profiling software with a genuine Adobe PostScript 3 RIP, which can drive both Epson and HP inkjet devices. Pitman Co. (Totowa, NJ) is marketing the CromaPro XP in the U.S.

DuPont is also marketing a new line of cross-platform proofing media for use with DOD inkjet devices as well as dye and pigment inksets.

Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ), for its part, is shipping newly upgraded ColorTune Pro 4.0 color-management software to drive its hallmark inkjet output device, the Sherpa proofer. Announced at Graph Expo was the Sherpa 24m, a seven-ink system that utilizes two densities of cyan and magenta, along with a second black printhead. The lighter cyan and magenta are said to produce better color matches for pastel colors and to highlight image details. The vendor says the Sherpa 24m gives small and midsize printers a contract-quality proofing system, allowing them to take advantage of the latest advances in digital-workflow technology.

“Automation and productivity are key,” notes Deborah Hutcheson, Agfa's senior marketing manager, proofing and workflow. “It's one thing to get an accurate color match, but the device must also be efficiently integrated within your workflow, as well as provide an accurate representation of the data being sent to plate or film.” This tight integration of the Sherpa within Agfa's ApogeePlus workflow system is said to enhance the speed of prepress production.

“People have always wanted higher quality at a lower cost in less time,” says Hutcheson.

INTEREST IN SOFT PROOFING

Indeed, faster production cycles and a lower cost per proof have both helped to widen the acceptance of digital proofing. Taken to the extreme, our industry would embrace a proof that can be produced instantly at virtually no cost. Sound far-fetched? Not to Greg Bassinger, manager of process controls for GATF (Sewickley, PA).

“There has been a lot of interest in soft proofing,” observes Bassinger. “Some people are trying to completely eliminate the hard proof, but what needs to be determined is whether print buyers will accept the image on a monitor as the sole basis for a color-approval sign-off.”

The soft-proofing arena has two main competitors that will participate in a new GATF study: KPG's Matchprint Virtual Proofing System, bundled with Sony monitors and Web-based image serving from RealTimeImage (RTI) (San Bruno, CA); and Integrated Color Solutions' (ICS) (Encinitas, CA) Director software, used in conjunction with Apple Cinema displays.

“Obviously, you can't fit an entire 40-inch press sheet onto a monitor. But it's going to be interesting because now we have both CRT- and LCD-based systems trying to match the press sheet,” notes Bassinger.

Matchprint Virtual, said to enable accurate, consistent viewing of CMYK color reproduction on RGB displays, “allows customers to view contract-quality proofs on screen,” says Yehuda Messinger, executive vice president, graphic-arts division, RTI. The system features a rigorous, instrumented color-calibration process, employing an automated and numerical — rather than visual — color-science-based instrument, measurement process and ongoing color-control method to achieve and maintain optimum color renditions. Extensive annotation tools, provided through the RTI software, facilitate multi-user collaboration.

ICS, manufacturer of the basICColor suite of color-management applications, has applied its knowledge of monitor calibration and experience with on-site color consulting to create the Remote Director application for virtual soft proofing. Within the Director system, the print shop or service bureau controls the transmission of color images to all remote parties; a warning is displayed if any participant is attempting to view the image using an uncalibrated monitor. ICS also supplies a digital signature tool for legally binding proof approvals. Remote Director 2.0 recently received SWOP certification.

ONE SIZE FITS ALL?

So with halftone dots, pigmented inkjets and color monitors all in play, what exactly is the “new” contract proof? The best proof is no longer one size fits all. No longer able to confidently claim, “We use the industry-standard method of color proofing,” each printer now must divine the methods that can please the largest number of customers.