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Making Critical Prepress Upgrades

"So as we move into faster printers and bigger files, don’t we also need faster and more powerful prepress equipment?"

The economy continues to improve and our business has been growing faster than the recovery. As a result, we have recently bought two wonderful grand-format printers and are now looking toward a third. These machines print better and faster and do things I couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. So, we’re set, right?

Well, no. As wonderful as these technical marvels are, printers are not capable of making money in and of themselves. It’s what we feed our printers – jobs – that makes us money.

Obviously, it takes sales and marketing to land the jobs. And it takes customer service and project management to coordinate the jobs. It is our prepress department, however, that accepts the files for the jobs and has to get them print-ready.

Even though we have nearly more work than we can handle, our printers will occasionally be idle and staff will be standing around in both the printing and finishing departments. The prepress department is working like mad to get work to them. The print room waits on the prepress department. If files aren’t ready, our printers are idle. When they’re just sitting there, our printers are costing us money – not making it.

On the printer side, we can talk about performance in terms of thousands of square feet per hour. But, a $100,000 printer is making zero income when it’s idle, no matter how fast it prints. Printer manufacturers continue to develop machines capable of higher resolution and expanded gamut. We can now print files 10-feet wide with an image quality I never thought we’d see at that size. On the capture end, cameras continue to take pictures in ever-increasing megapixels – it’s no longer unusual for us to get files in hundreds of gigabytes. It takes considerable computer power to manipulate just one of these mega files and get it print-ready.

Combating down time
So as we move into faster printers and bigger files, don’t we also need faster and more powerful prepress equipment? It’s a sad truth that we sometimes focus on providing our staff with the latest and best production equipment, but then have our prepress people languishing on old computers. This is a big mistake. We have had 20 production people and all their associated equipment idle because files weren’t ready. Remember Moore’s Law: Processing power will double every two years. It often doesn’t take very long for computers to become obsolete. So how do you keep up?

For those of us with a printing background, we tend to be Mac-centric in our prepress departments. Those who evolved from the sign industry tend to prefer PCs. At least all of us now run prepress computers with Intel processors (sorry AMD).

My own shop has historically been a Mac shop for prepress and a PC shop for RIPs. And while Apple has been releasing amazing consumer products, its last Mac Pro was released in August 2010 (has Apple abandoned us graphics pro users?). Our shop’s old Mac Pros were getting old and too expensive to upgrade, and we decided to not wait for Apple to release its next Mac Pro. One solution we’ve found is to buy consumer-oriented Macs. The iMacs now have screens measuring up to 27-inches and smoking i7 processors, and it’s easy (and cheap) to upgrade these to 16 gigs of RAM.

We also have tried top-of-the-line Mac Mini servers, using these as prepress workstations. If you already have good monitors in-house, these little gems work very well. They have two hard drives, but no optical in their compact case. We use external Blu-ray drives, max out the RAM, and replace one of the drives with a solid-state drive. They cost less than $1000, and we put another $300 to $400 into their upgrades. The Mini’s biggest weakness is its graphics card. We upgraded two of our staff to this Mac Mini solution (from old Mac Pro towers) and they have been very happy with the performance results. For the price of a new Mac Pro, you can buy three of these.

As I write this, we’re bringing a new killer PC online in our prepress room. Built in-house, this bad baby is equipped with a 3.3-Ghz six-core i7 Extreme Addition Intel chip. We have built our own PC RIP workstations for more than a decade. We have a very talented guy on staff who builds what we believe to be some of the fastest PCs in the world. So we have always enjoyed rippin’ RIPS, which, also helps get files printing faster. However, we have never had a PC as a front-line prepress workstation. We felt it was a good opportunity to try a PC because one of our designer/prepress specialists is equally comfortable with either Macs or PCs.

Ancillary improvements
But making a prepress department process print files faster and more efficiently isn’t just about the computers themselves and how fast micro-processors have become. Ancillary computer technology can make equally impressive improvements in your operation.

For instance, when we began tracking upload times to our FTP site, we noted that customers were sometimes taking hours to upload huge files. So we recently replaced our T-1 lines with fiber optics. We now have a 100-MB pipe. And, with fiber, we have the option of having our speed throttled down to 20 MB for everyday use – this has been adequate and saves money. When we have some big events and we anticipate our FTP site getting hit hard, we have our provider turn up the speed just for this period.

Then there’s peripheral connectivity. USB is, of course, everywhere, connecting everything to our computers. It’s gotten faster with USB 2.0 and now USB 3.0, but, frankly, it still is no speed demon. The latest consumer Macs, however, come with not only a USB 2 port, but also FireWire 800 and Thunderbolt ports. If you haven’t experienced it, Thunderbolt (co-developed by Apple and Intel) will transfer information at 10 gigabits per second, versus 800 megabits per second on a FireWire 800 and 480 megabits per second on USB 2. Plus, Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained. So you can connect a monitor to your Mac that connects to a RAID drive enclosure, for example.

Speaking of monitors, I have been a big fan of multiple-monitor setups for more than a decade. On one screen, you can have your graphics file, and on the other your tools. It’s a very efficient solution; there’s no need to open and close windows. Back in the mid-1990s, it was a considerable investment to outfit all of our designers/prepress specialists in this fashion – not to mention the fact that you had to have a really big desk to accommodate two 20-inch CRT displays. Today, though, you can buy decent 20-inch flat-panel monitors for less than $150, and their combined footprint is much smaller, so there’s no excuse not to have multiple monitors on all your prepress machines (and RIP stations for that matter).

Earlier, I mentioned our use of solid-state drives (SSDs), and we’ve integrated these into a number of machines, installing the operating system and applications onto the SSD. This allows the computer to fire up and applications to launch almost instantly. We also use SSDs for scratch disks. The way I look at it, we have never made a nickel having one of our prepress or design personnel sitting at their desks watching a progress bar.

Finally, a note about RAM: The price of RAM has fallen so dramatically that there’s no reason every computer in the prepress room can’t be maxed out. Two 4-gigabit RAM sticks now cost less than $50. This combination of a ton of RAM and properly set up solid-state drives can dramatically improve the performance of any graphics computer.

Optimum performance
We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in our print rooms, sometimes millions. Yet it’s all too easy to ignore the capital expenses required by our prepress departments. To bring prepress up to optimal performance and efficiency, however, isn’t that expensive in the scheme of things. If you want to keep your expensive printers running, you need to attend to your prepress equipment.
 

Craig Miller is principal shareholder in Las Vegas-based Pictographics (pictographics.net), where he is also director of military and law-enforcement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.

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