There was a great 1970s song by Bob Dylan called “Watching the River Flow.” In his poetic lyrical style, he summarized that you can just sit on a sandbank and watch the river flow past and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Workflows should be like that in the graphic arts industries, but often the ‘flow’ is interrupted by logjams, flotsam and side-eddies swirling around and swallowing files. Sometimes a particular type of ‘boat’ just won’t float on the surface and tributaries get dammed up before they get a chance to mingle with the main stream.
It took a while for workflows to be identified as such; first film imagesetting and then computer-to-plate took over from skilled hands to define the inexorable march toward full digitalization. RIPs were considered fancy pieces of hardware and software in the 1990s, and many of these did evolve into workflow-like products, adding pre-flighting, imposition, trapping and colour management. However, as RIPs got smarter, they also proliferated for different devices, with some printing companies thinking they were in fact “RIP farms.”
Along came JDF and CIP3, MIS and W2P adding to the need for connectivity and the piecemeal approach to workflows were beginning to resemble Frankenstein-like monsters. Legacy file formats such as CT/LW, PDF2Go, ExportPS, DCS 2.0, EPS, PDF/X TIFF, TIFF/IT, 1-bit TIFF, and even MS Publisher only added to the challenges – extra bolts in the neck, so to speak.
What IS Workflow?
To those who understand it, workflow is not just ‘something the business uses.’ It is the business. Savvy print media businesses rate workflow above any other piece of ‘equipment’ on the floor, often describing it as the ‘backbone’ of the business. It is rare that any two workflows deployed in different businesses are the same; like a high-end suit, they tend to be tailor-made.
Even good tailoring needs to start with good quality material and measuring, and so it is with workflow. A workflow supplier needs to understand each and every customer’s needs, modus operandi and scalability plans going forward. It is startling so many workflows are allowed to get out of control and clunky, simply because ‘that’s what we’ve always used.'
Despite this disparity; there are three fundamentals of printing workflows:
- It must define all of the processes involved from job inception to final delivery
- It must implement a set of rules for the handling of job files, for example ‘if’ the print run for this job is only 500 ‘then’ it must be routed to a digital short-run press.
- It must be able to speedily and efficiently move, receive and send information around the network, up-and-down, side-to-side, and place to place.
If banks did not pay intense attention to their workflows, there would be no ATMs, no e-commerce, no PayPal, no online loan approvals and so forth.
In the evolution of graphic arts workflow, there is one genre of file format that stands head-and-shoulders above all the rest in terms of efficiency and portability—Adobe’s PDF. Some would argue that IBM’s AFP (Advanced Presentation Format) still rules for high volume, variable data transactional printing of statements and direct mail, but even here, PDF/VT is making rapid inroads and is an accepted ISO standard.
PDF in all of its iterations represents an excellent way of getting workflow simplified and more universal. A pure PDF workflow makes everybody’s life easier and, since virtually every designer/creator of pages, packages and posters for print reproduction uses programmes that output PDFs, receiving, pre-flighting and processing these files is considerably easier than battling older, incomplete file formats. Even if these are received, distilling them to PDFs before they enter the workflow is the way to go.
Purity of PDF
Users of pure PDF workflows also benefit from the might of Adobe’s development, most significantly the Adobe Print Engine 3. Adobe has also introduced its Mercury RIP architecture with astounding Ripping power, so much so that, when deployed in Fujifilm’s new XMF V6 workflow, the number of RIPs in an organization can be drastically reduced. It is claimed that one Mercury RIP can supply page data to the equivalent of five B1 platesetters in real time. The output devices can vary from CtP to proofers, digital presses, roll-feed wide format and flatbed UV machines.
Connectivity to MIS and W2P systems is made possible by heavy JDF and JTI integration and the online world has not been forgotten with the XMF R10 Remote viewing and proofing module that even allows job approvals on an iPad using true HTML5 language.
It looks like graphic arts workflow is taking a giant leap forward, using the very latest and even next-generation componentry (Adobe’s Mercury RIP is optimized for Variable Data Printing).