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Repackaging RIPs

Today’s RIP suppliers are promising software that is scalable, affordable, and bundled with MIS, ERP, and workflow management functions.

Have you seen a runner selecting shoes? It’s a mystical process, guided by a salesperson/guru, who carefully examines the foot, the stride, wear on previous soles, etc. And it ends with a glowing athlete holding a new pair of treads.

Today’s software developers are trying to make buying a RIP something like that. They know that RIPs are “fit it and forget it” shoes, and so they’re spiffing them up with new features for a perfect fit.

When it comes to buying this software, well, it’s not quite there yet. “To me a RIP should almost be a transparent thing. I’m working in Photoshop and I should be able to print it and forget it – that’s the ideal situation,” says print industry consultant Chris Morrison.

There are whispers and rumors that perhaps RIPs are not here to stay. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by in-printer functions or Photoshop updates that outstrip this software of its usefulness. Manufacturers aren’t entertaining the possibility; some are even going on the offensive. A recent Roland press release noted: “Rolandprintstudio also has many design features to help reduce reliance on expensive design software.” So, will RIPs replace Photoshop, or will Photoshop replace RIPs? And let’s not forget that the idea of embedding some sort of RIP function into printers is hardly new.

“I’ve worked with printers and RIPs for years and years, going all the way back to PostScript Level 1,” Morrison says. “This was one of the things we tried to do – embed the processing into the printer.” So much for that.

A more likely possibility is that RIPs could end up on the cloud, but file sizes make this difficult, too. Still, manufacturers we spoke with, including EFI, are leaving this option open.

Certainly, RIP providers hope to provide a one-stop product that addresses all the computing needs associated with digital print. And bundling software speaks not only to the still-remote potential for RIPs to fade away, but also to the growing complexity of working in a digital realm.

Still, companies like Apple have helped consumers learn that technology can be simple, even fun, to use and still produce complex results, and print consumers now expect to send you files digitally, track job progress digitally, and receive orders on a tight turnaround.

Expanding Education
First-time RIP buyers (people investing in printers, in other words) face three choices, according to Morrison. The first are slow, limited Windows or Mac print drivers that are virtually useless. Then, there are RIPs bundled with entry-level devices that “aren’t half bad,” but allow for little flexibility when shop owners are ready to buy new machines. This, of course, is when most printers typically invest in a standalone RIP – the third category.

While RIPs tend to remain in the background for skilled users, implementation of new software still creates hurdles for many. Suppliers have addressed this with user conferences, like HP-relative Dscoop’s myriad of small-group, how-to sessions on software and machine use (last year, they also had a smaller sub-event for package printing, showing how manufacturers are increasingly focusing on diversifying outputs, not simply do-it-all machines). Others are sponsoring their own webinars and training groups. Mutoh, for example, expanded its educational docket this past summer with an Onyx Dye-Sub/Textile workshop in Phoenix. Onyx itself became more application-focused as early as the Onyx 11’s Textile Edition, which includes pattern tools for printing wallpapers and custom fabrics. And EFI has recently showcased customer successes with its variable-data printing functionality.

Real-Time Tracking
A few years ago, the move toward multiple machines with a single RIP began to solidify, and this offering is now a staple. It’s the rare, or small, shop that has one RIP per machine. That means an increased focus on the ability of a RIP to work with multiple machines – hence the demand for bundled workflow features.

And these packaged-together features, not the RIPs themselves, are where printers say they can save. Morrison points to the usefulness of mobile apps with real-time tracking: “If I have salespeople onsite, they can get on their iPhones and see what the status of the printer or the print environment is. Is there going to be a printer available, what’s the turnaround going to be, etc. Or, if I go and visit a customer and they say ‘Hey, where’s my job?’ maybe [they can see that] it’s on the printer, in the queue, printing as they speak.” And companies are capturing this demand. Caldera’s latest version (10), for example, offers remote print monitoring among a host of upgrades.

Lean Manufacturing Techniques
Increasingly, this remote, in-depth production tracking is linked to lean manufacturing efforts, which tell us that saving a few seconds many times can add hours, even days, to a production cycle over time. Mark Bohan – who sees RIPs sticking around for the foreseeable future, by the way – says this mindset can influence RIP buying, too. Bohan currently serves as VP of technology and research for the Printing Industries of America.

“Look at the workflow state that you want to be in, not the workflow state that you are in,” he advises. “Maybe do a value stream map looking at where you want to be and where your bottlenecks and cost points are. Each time you touch [a job], it’s not only cost, but a potential error. In certain cases, it’s understanding what those steps are and how they’re used. It might only be a five-second activity, but if you do it 200 times a day, then automating that five- or even one-second activity is going to free up significant portions of time.” And you don’t want your staff spending valuable time on those repetitive jobs.

Staff time has become ever-more valuable because even as technology becomes easier to use, jobs become more and more complex. PSPs are dealing with multiple printers, substrates from matte and glossy papers to a range of textiles, and, increasingly, variable data jobs that require finesse. Scott Peterson, pre-media manager at Vectra Visual, Photocraft-Portland (Oregon, vectravisual.com) says, “Because we’re now operating in a digital press world, there are more variables to look at if something starts going out of calibration. You’re dealing with ink sets, different gamuts; we have roughly nine digital presses. Their inks are different, cameras are different, and trying to match across multiple presses … In the conventional press days, you could calibrate pretty well and maintain that in a simpler manner. It’s like working on a ’67 Mustang versus trying to work on your Toyota Camry today.”

New media types are also posing color management challenges, as printers need consistency in bulk runs, but also with rigid and flexible substrates used for the same brand.

So, while staffers are less frequently needed to run jobs that can now be automated, more people with technical know-how are required to troubleshoot. That means hiring people who can rework customer files that come in without enough bleed, or with multiple spot colors when the client intends just one to be used, or the ever-present issue of missing fonts. Add to that additional demands to print for more dimensional surfaces, like the differently sized windows Vectra encounters with its retail clients, and you can see how Peterson’s job has grown more challenging.

And as printers run toward increasingly demanding textile and interior décor work, the value of managers like Peterson is on the rise. That means a demand for “shoes” that are both an excellent fit and dependable on any surface.

Keep reading with Maximizing RIP Earnings.
 

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