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The Collaborative Workflow

Customers want more access and control of jobs through the production process.

Collaboration: It's something you probably are already doing to some degree. But get prepared to do even more because it has steadily become one of the hot-button issues of printing workflows. When your customers begin asking how they can be more involved in the actual production process"?and they will"?you will need to come up with answers that will work for you as well as them.

The essential concept of collaborative workflows is to give both the print provider and the print customer access to and control of jobs going through the production process. That sounds good to most designers, and scary to most print shops, but it's starting to happen in a big way, whether you like the idea or not.

Some workflow companies are making collaboration capabilities a big selling point for their products. In the commercial arena, for instance, Creo (now a subsidiary of Kodak) has made a big push on its Synapse InSite product, which provides interactive tools for marking up proofs, on-line job approval, and even the ability to make changes to a job, job ticket, or job schedule through an Internet connection. But the concept is by no means just for commercial printers.

Of course, the biggest advantage is the ability to zap files across the Internet virtually instantaneously, eliminating the cost and time loss of sending hardcopy proofs. The time and cost benefits can be particularly important in the wide-format market, since speed is almost always an important factor; in addition, the short-run/one-off nature of the business makes the cost of a hard-copy proof a much higher percentage of the total cost of producing a job.

From basic to sophisticated
On the most basic level, it's a fairly simple matter in many of today's workflows to create a PDF of the final output file and email it to the customer for approval. If you are already working in a PDF environment, you don't have to invest thousands of dollars and have a custom-designed workflow to begin collaborating with your customers.

PDF is rapidly becoming an important tool for soft proofs, for instance. The new Adobe Acrobat 7 Professional program offers an array of tools to mark up and comment on PDF documents, and many companies are using these tools to streamline the workflow. Since ICC profiles can also be embedded, Acrobat 7 not only permits accurate color evaluation (assuming the client understands color profiling and uses calibrated monitors), but also allows them to mark up any corrections directly on the file so they are easily understood and applied.

Beyond Acrobat, the actual extent of collaboration can vary widely: from the ability to track every job and even manipulate files and the production cycle while offsite, to merely being able to verify that a job is in production.

Collaboration can get very sophisticated if you want. Systems are available that allow users to actually grab assets from your servers and make corrections and alterations. Printers can set up file-access permissions to allow varying degrees of access. It can get very complicated and very pricey, and solutions can be homegrown or vendor supplied.

The best route, however, may be to start simple. First, learn to use the new tools in Acrobat for marking up PDF files, and then show your customers what can be done. You might want to hold off for now on more sophisticated collaboration.

How much access?
Customers will soon be clamoring for access to their jobs, and once some print vendors begin providing it (as some already have) the demand will steadily increase. Some clients will insist on having near total control of their projects"?something that can cause intense headaches for production managers.

That's the downside of collaboration, and you'll have to make a decision as to how much access and control you want your customers to have. Will allowing such control improve or impair your production efficiency? How much do you really want your customers to know about your workflow? And what do you want to let them see?

Most of the solutions to these questions can be answered by consulting a proficient IT professional to set up the proper safeguards and permissions. Although they can execute the software and hardware tinkering, they'll need to know exactly what you want them to do before they can do it.

Don't let the access questions scare you away from the idea of collaboration. At the very least, check into the options you have and the various possible methods of implementing such a workflow.

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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