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Automation Without Sticker Shock

Prepress folk can start to enjoy lower-priced workflow tools.

One of the keys to many of the big-ticket workflow products is workflow automation, but I’m now beginning to see a migration of automation tools to the lower end of the spectrum as well. That’s a welcome relief to those shops needing to increase efficiency without incurring sticker shock.

Some of these new tools come in the form of features that have been added to programs that many of us have been working with for years. For instance, it’s now fairly simple to build a little script in Photoshop CS2 that can tackle some pretty nifty things (Photoshop refers to its scripts as "actions"). You can use the Bridge application to automatically convert images from RGB to CMYK, change them from JPEG to TIFF, and move them to a new folder.

Another example: One of the most-requested tips in my "Prepress Trouble Shooting" course at Prepress Training Solution is adding noise to vignettes to eliminate undesirable banding. This is something else you can readily automate: Just go through the process once (while recording your moves), assign the action to a keystroke, and Photoshop will do the work for you next time.

Print-specific automation
Many prepress folk have taken the time to learn to write their own scripts. Most of us, however, have enough to learn just in keeping up with the changes in applications for print. All of which may be one reason that several software publishers have decided that there is an opportunity to create simple-to-use automation tools designed specifically for output.

some of these tools help us do things beyond the scope of the application. Apago PDF Enhancer (www.apagoinc.com), for example, allows users of PDF to drop files into a folder and automatically repurpose them. You can create a high-, medium-,and low-resolution PDF from the same original (assuming you’re starting with a file of sufficient resolution). Meanwhile, Markzware’s FlightCheck (www.markzware.com) can inspect files automatically based on whatever parameters you choose. And Callas Software (www.callassoftware.com) makes a variety of products for inspecting, converting, and analyzing PDF files and for performing actions such as automatically converting RGB images to CMYK and combining or changing spot colors.

For QuarkXPress 7 users, there’s a suite of XTensions from Gluon (www.gluon.com) called ProPack 7. Although not all of these are pure automation tools, the tools are certainly production-oriented-ProScale, for instance, allows you to scale entire multipage layouts, and DragIn lets you drag pictures and text files directly from the desktop.

couple of the very latest automation tools are standalone applications designed specifically for print workflows.

Enfocus (www.enfocus.com), recently purchased by Artwork Systems, has created PDF Automate, which is a product that falls somewhere between Enfocus PitStop Server and Artwork Systems Odystar. It provides a high level of automation and, while it looks a bit clunky when you start it up, it offers a great variety of automation tools. You can: set up routing; generate e-mail responses; distill, compress, and expand files; split and merge pages; preflight; and much more.

Polkadots Software (www.polkadots.ca) has developed its AutomateIT product; an alpha version was previewed at Graph Expo and the full product should be available soon. Among its capabilities are: PDF distilling, splitting, merging, and file renaming. It uses hot folders for FTP upload and download and can handle preflighting, load balancing, and file-housekeeping functions (moving, copying, archiving, and deleting). AutomateIT also will interface through scripting to popular software like PitStop, Acrobat, Photoshop, and other scriptable applications.

Share your tools
Of course, I’m only presenting here a short list from the universe of automation tools that are available. We’ll hit on more of these throughout 2007.

In addition, I’d like to know what your favorite tool is. It might be an entire application, or it might be an XTension for your favorite page-layout program. It could be something you use to direct your FTP downloads to the right place or to check the file’s integrity. It might just be a few lines of script that have made a dramatic difference in your workflow. Or it could be a product that speeds up your color calibration or conversion process.

After more than three decades in this business, I’ve found that many print shops rely on tips and tricks to keep their workflow running. What might seem to be a very small idea can make a very big difference. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money-it just has to do the work when you need it.

Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.

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