Workflow optimization in digital printing
There are no standards whatsoever in large-format printing, which is why each prepress stage has set up its own processes for data preparation. Data preparation consumes vast amounts of time and human resources. The following report by Hans Peter Schneeberger describes the current status of a classic production process in large-format printing and shows ways of getting a better grip on time, control effort and personnel resources.
During the countless visits of large format printing digital printing plants in Europe, the USA and South America, I could not deny myself the impression that the world has apparently come to terms with thousands of self-developed processes in this field of business, even though actually 80% of them all produce the same thing with slight modifications and only 20% of the products require “personal” support. Starting with a non-stop data storage, the highly manual work of data preparation and the partly non-existent material-optimized output by nesting, the quality demands on the output, especially in terms of color, were not present. What could be seen most clearly was that prepress is considered the holy cow in almost all companies. A common approach between data acceptance, data preparation and printing was almost nowhere to be found. Efforts to simplify the processes are then mostly blocked by the prepress department. As a fervent “automator” of processes, my goal was to analyze the processes in order to provide companies in Large Format Printing with a set of tools and recommendations to reduce processing times and achieve a certain independence from prepress. Let’s take a closer look at the current processes.
Data acceptance, storage and file naming
Every job is the most important one! Every print job is the most important one! He is important even if no order is in the house as well if the print data are not yet delivered.. Ideally, the planning of which job is to be printed or delivered today takes place when production management and job planning sit down together and distribute the print jobs based on job descriptions. The available print capacity is the primary factor in planning. The fact that the data must be prepared for this is not considered in any way.
→ Data acceptance
Whereas in the USA, 30 % of print data is still delivered as “open” data in the form of InDesign packages, in Europe it is only 5 %. Normally, PDF or TIFF data is supplied by the clients, and usually must be downloaded to the local computers first by the job acceptance or prepress department. This situation is a fact and cannot really be automated very well in the B2C business, because you cannot educate customers if you don’t want to lose them. For the B2B sector, it pays off to make certain agreements or provide “upload portals”.
→ Data storage
Once the data is in-house, it is usually transferred to the prepress department (preferably by e-mail), which is confronted with the task of storing the data on the server in a structure that is lived in the company and also naming it. The storage of the data is usually done with reference to job numbers. But what is done with data if no job or order can yet be assigned?
The storage of data is manually time-consuming and error-prone regarding the data structure. Why should data storage be provided by prepress? One recipe for success in linking data acceptance with prepress is to provide a quasi “automated” data storage system. This must be ensured by the leading ERP system. Whether the ERP system is used to create the directory structure on a server or to transfer the data to a downstream database-supported file management system is negligible. The advantage of a database-supported file management system – preferably browser-based – is on the one hand the fast retrieval of order data and on the other hand the “hiding” of file access to a server that has to be set up and maintained. If the system is also browser-based, it is possible to merge the order data across production sites very quickly and at low cost. Only by “automating” the process of data storage can deadlocked barriers between job processing and prepress be broken down. The investment must be made!
→ File name
Companies are particularly creative when it comes to giving a print file a name.
Very long file names are often used to make the production method of the file clear. In practice, meaningless file names such as “Sticker 12×3.pdf” up to very long file names such as “1499_flag_ S08_01_696x149_1zu10_print.pdf” can be found, which are usually printed next to the print item on the impose sheet. When asked why the files had to be named in this way, the answer was usually that it must be possible to read the job or its size from it in order to know which files must be used together in printing and to enable a certain logical control by the machine operator of the printer or cutter in the printing and post production process. In database-supported file management systems, it is not necessary to use synchronized file names because all information about the job, the print data and the underlying metadata (dimension, bleed, technical colors, etc.) is assigned to the individual print item. Which print item is located on which impose sheet can thus be easily traced. Additional information to be printed with the print item can be added automatically at any time via dynamically generated labels.
Data check, preparation and release
With the help of various standard tools (mostly Adobe programs), the print data is brought to internal standards and thus prepared for the RIP process.
→ Data Verification
In Large Format Printing companies, data verification is left 100% to the prepress department, which usually performs a visual data verification regarding size and resolution. Just zoom in, measure a little, find out if there bleed or cutting information are missing and save the file with the correct name. Which color spaces are used or which ICC profiles are assigned is skillfully ignored. The data check can be automated in database-supported file management systems with a preflight function to check for technical factors and against the job metadata (expected dimensions and number of pages). Fast statements on the producibility of the sent print data can thus be made further ahead in the order acceptance process.
→ Data preparation
The situation in the prepress department was quite strange for me, where printable files are already rendered in Photoshop to RGB in a standard resolution of 400 dpi and the necessary printing allowances are added by calling Photoshop actions. It is also typical that the data must then be created in layout or graphics programs with a factor of 1:10 or imposed for job-specific output. Many prepress departments lack color management knowledge. Color plays a very subordinate role and the corresponding blurring, which has already been created by rendering in Photoshop, cannot be judged anyway if you have not seen the original. The job-specific finishing is still done semi-automatically – by applying scripts. Even if this is easy to do in daily use, it is those thousandth clicks per day that take up a lot of time (waiting time). From today’s technical point of view, the data can be created in original size (even over 5 meters / 200 inch) and provided with the necessary additional printing areas, such as edge reinforcements, grommets, bleeds and cutting lines, automatically – without opening the file in a desktop application. Corresponding tools are available in one solution or another that is based on PDF. Color management should be standardized in Large Format Printing. File management and PDF processing systems can standardize the scientific demand for color management as much as possible and thus move away from color management settings on individual local workstations. Color management is not witchcraft, it just needs to be well thought out and adjusted. Material utilization in Large Format Printing can often be very difficult to optimize, because there are too few jobs of different sizes. Nevertheless, nesting should not be done manually in a layout program. There are very good solutions available in RIP and file and processing systems for automatic nesting of files. From a practical point of view, nesting should not be done in prepress but based on the print planning.
→ Approval report
Approvals are usually compiled manually and the content is copied from the job description. This is a time-consuming manual and also error-prone activity. Print approvals must be created automatically based on meta information from database-supported file management systems. Whether an approval PDF is then sent by e-mail or the luxury version is available via an approval portal is a question of money. In both cases, the status of the release must be mapped via the status of the file in order to provide information for the necessary automation.
Conclusion: Answer the question, how can data from the ERP system be synchronized directly with the data storage for print items? Once data is synchronized, the second step is to look at how you can prepare individual products automatically without requiring manual interaction from prepress. It is possible to standardize 80% of the products in the data preparation! Then take care of a material-optimized Nesting in your print workflow. Ink saving possibilities with SaveInk technology can save you thousands of €. It is a fact that digital printing generally involves excessive ink application.
If you have automated the process of printing from the ERP system, you can then start to approach production data from the printing systems back to the production or ERP system. Industry 4.0 has now arrived in the printing industry. This is an important tool to get the price wars in the cent range under control in Large Format Printing as well.
Source: Grafischer Revue 01 2020; Österreich / Hans Peter Schneeberger