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Is Universal Workflow on the Horizon?

Several technologies have emerged to make tighter workflow integration possible.

At the recent Graphics of the Americas show, there was a buzz that digital-printer manufacturers are finally realizing that the creative and manufacturing communities need a seamless way to go from digital, to offset, to Web, and back. There was a consensus that a "one-workflow-fits-all" approach is needed"?and it seems that there is much work going on to make this happen.

A holistic approach to printing! It almost sounds too simple. But, why not? After all, we are starting from essentially the same point"?with raw files created by a designer. The challenge, however, has been that the end product has a powerful impact on the design and production workflow. At present, the designer needs to know what the target output device will be in order to create a design that works. Designing for print requires a different approach than designing for the Web. And designing for digital printers uses a completely different rulebook than designing for output on an offset press.

A merger of technologies

Several technologies have emerged to make tighter workflow integration possible. One has been around a long time: OPI (Open Prepress Interface, from Adobe). While many print-production programs don't follow the precise Adobe code, the essential idea is to use smaller (in terms of file size), lower-resolution images for design, and then swap out the high-res images on-the-fly once the job hits the RIP. That concept is about to be pushed a lot further.

The other is PDF. Used for all manner of file delivery, PDF has the capability of retaining vector data for clean output of those elements at any resolution, and the ability to apply compression to raster images to keep the files small. The fly in the PDF ointment, though, is that the raster elements can be low resolution, and common office software likes to treat black text as "rich black."

For that matter, the vector content of a PDF file can have every single vector element rasterized at any resolution and still be called a PDF. While the fact that a print file is in PDF format means it can be viewed on virtually any computer platform, it does not mean it can print satisfactorily on any machine.

What's happening is the merger of these technologies into print workflows capable of yielding excellent print quality on any output device. At least that's the goal. The key is to develop intelligent software that can analyze both the file and the output device, and then make adjustments accordingly.

The idea is to have images available of sufficient resolution on the server for any of the output options. When the file hits the RIP, the software detects the resolution of the images in the file, compares that with the requirements of the output device, and then"?if that resolution is not what's needed"?it queries the image database for an image that will work, and can even change the data coming from the original file without changing the file itself. And, a truly holistic workflow would allow you to reverse the process (downsize the file data) for Web output.

Of course, that's not all that is involved in an all-in-one workflow. Other feature sets needed are: the components of hot folders to guide the job through production; JDF capabilities to control JDF-enabled-devices; report and e-mail generation to notify operators and CSRs of the job status; and, of course, variabledata capabilities. Plus, there should be the ability to handle anything the designer might throw at them, like transparency.

Lofty goals

No one actually has such a workflow yet, but you can bet it's coming. And there are some good signs of this.

At Graphics of the Americas, for instance, I saw Xerox running its new 4110 printer with the latest version of the company's Freeflow"?a product that ultimately aims to serve all of these needs. Right now, Freeflow hands down JDF calls to tell the printer not only how many copies to print, but to control the inline folder and send an e-mail when the job is done.

And it's not the only product with such lofty goals. Remember that Creo manufactures the Spire, which runs Xerox's high-end digital printers and is based on the old Scitex Brisque, as well as Prinergy (Creo's offset print solution). Part of the reason Kodak says it purchased Creo is for the latter's workflow technology, so you can bet that Kodak has a real interest in a workflow that will drive everything from the VersaMark high-speed variable-data printers to the Encad wide-format printers and the NexPress.

This month, at the Vue/Point Conference, I'll be moderating a panel on "The Quest for a Holistic Workflow." To those who have been frustrated by different workflows, this will be an opportunity to help the vendors in attendance understand the value of a more holistic workflow"?and to see what solutions may already be available.

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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