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The Unexpected Consequences of Prepress Upgrades

(August 2004) posted on Sat Jul 31, 2004

Coudray explains how to prepare your shop and clients for the big moves you have in mind.


By Mark A. Coudray

Acquiring and implementing new prepress techniques and technologies does not always produce the results you desire. In fact, there are many instances when delivering a product of clearly superior quality can have very negative effects for the company as a whole.

Consider for a minute that any new technique, process, or piece of equipment will yield a result that's different than what you normally get. Obviously, the goal is to progress and implement practices that will lower costs, improve quality, and reduce the time it takes to move a job through the prepress department. You also may be able to introduce new graphic styles or treatments unique to your company.

All of these are admirable and worthwhile objectives, as long as you approach the whole and not just the parts you can control. This month's column will address the issues involved with modernizing your shop's prepress processes and upgrading its equipment, particularly the importance of including your clients in the changes you want to make.

Graphic design's effect on the workflow

Most prepress departments have a love/hate relationship with graphic designers. They can come up with the coolest artwork, filter effects, and other special, digital treatments. Unfortunately, what shows up on the computer screen is typically a far cry from what can be printed. This is especially true when you start to dissect a file that has 40 layers and heaven only knows how many channels. More often than not, there are dozens of redundant or unused layers and channels in the image file that must be discovered and handled before the seps can be made. You're more likely to encounter printing errors with these files than success. At the very least, you're in for a very long and protracted session of figuring out exactly what should be where and how it will all fall together on press.

From an internal perspective, will the departments or processes downstream be able to handle what you have introduced? A good case in point would be any of the PostScript Level 3 implementations in vector programs like Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand. Gradient meshes and transparent vector objects are fairly new and troublesome examples. They look great in the graphics programs and on Websites, but they are a different story altogether if you have to print them. RIPing with anything less than PostScript Level 3 will either choke the RIP or cause the job to flush on its own. Many times you won't even know it's happened until you find that the RIP has chewed on a file for 45 minutes to an hour.

Worse yet is the file that appears to RIP but in fact is only partially processed. This is a very dangerous situation. In the heat of production deadlines it is very easy to make a casual inspection of the positive image and pass it off as good-to-go. If the image has a lot going on, it is very easy to miss a gradient that doesn't gradate or a transparency that is either opaque or missing entirely. It also is very difficult to compare individual separation films to the composite inkjet proof. Differences between the inkjet RIP and the output RIP can yield very different and surprising results.

One relatively good approach is to export the file into the newest version of Photoshop at a fairly high resolution. I often use 400 dpi. If the file is an EPS, you can usually bring it in as a high-resolution bitmap image and get a good idea of how successful you will be. Bring the image in as RGB in the working space you normally use. Remember that using the most current version of the program will generate the best results.

Open the imported image in Photoshop and compare it to the open image in the vector program. Pay particular attention to transparency and gradients. If you find the imported image has problems, you can almost bet your RIP will have problems as well.

Updating art

Handling legacy art is a delicate operation in more ways than one. Any screen printer who has been in business for 10 years or more has a number of clients who reorder work done with traditional camera film, contacts, Rubylith, or Photostrip. Every time a reorder comes in, the old films are pulled and gingerly passed through the screenmaking process. Each time, we swear we'll remake them when business slows down during the off-season. For some reason, this never happens, and we face another round of trying to hold it all together. In many cases, the original art has long since disappeared, been lost, or destroyed. It may not be possible to even recreate the job using modern digital methods.

In these situations, it is critically important to notify the client, in writing, of the situation with the art. Film, like most things, does not last forever. These kinds of scenarios are disasters waiting to happen. Every prepress manager should have a concrete plan for migrating these old jobs into the current workflow. The client needs to be included in the process. Nobody likes surprises, especially when the part, display, or graphic is an important part of the client's business.

The migration process starts with an open dialog of what can and cannot be done. This is the perfect opportunity to upgrade graphics, if the situation will allow. If the old film is an integral part of an existing assembly or some other structure, you may be stuck and have to rebuild from scratch. This is where an unexpected consequence can rear its ugly head.

If you have not communicated with your clients to let them know about the pending upgrades to their art, you may find yourself in a very difficult situation. This is especially true with old films that have been used for generations of parts. Over time the film experiences wear and tear. The film you are using today is nowhere as good as it was originally. With each use there is handling and potential degradation, no matter how slight. It's all cumulative.

When you recreate the art with modern digital software and high-resolution imagesetters, there is a very real possibility your final product will be vastly superior to what has previously been delivered to your clients. You might think this is a good thing. Not necessarily. If there is an inventory of parts imaged with the legacy film, there will be a noticeable difference between the old and the new. When the new parts look so much better than the old, the client is faced with multiple dilemmas. First, the parts clearly do not match. Furthermore, the new parts are much better than the old ones. Do you think the retail customers will buy the new version or the old--especially if both appear are on the same shelf? It is doubtful that your clients will allow this to happen. When you're faced with a mismatch of inventory, you can bet you'll receive a call from a very unhappy buyer, even though you thought you were doing a favor.

Secondly, there is a trust and confidence violation. When you deliver something clearly superior, without advance notification, your clients will wonder why you gave them shoddy material on previous runs. They will immediately question whether the improved parts are the entire order or just part of the order. It is likely they will increase inspections and overall scrutiny of all your work. This is something you probably won't relish. It raises costs for everyone because clients no longer know what to expect. To avoid both of these situations, make sure you have a full and complete discussion with your clients about how you plan to handle upgrading their image assets.

Finally, introducing new technology can create a similar situation. You may bring in retensionable frames, a new imagesetter, color-separation software, or advanced supplies and materials. Whatever the technological progression, make absolutely sure your clients are aware of the acquisition and what impact it may have on their products. If they will have a material impact on the overall quality of the final products, you need to discuss the possibility in advance. Use this situation as an opportunity to redesign and further add value for your clients.

Is the latest not the greatest?

So far I have focused primarily on dilemmas resulting from the improvements that new technology brings. Unfortunately, new technology can sometimes create more problems than it can solve. A clear case in point is the migration from outside service providers of imageset film to in-house imaging.

Screen printers bring film-production capabilities in house for several different reasons. The two biggest motivators are the drastic cost reductions in the technology and the need for control over short turnaround times. Taking these two factors into consideration, there is almost always a trade-off in quality.

I was recently discussing the state of color separations with a good friend and long-time client. He was bemoaning the fact that we can now do all the things we sent to the separation house ourselves, much less expensively, but just not as well. It is hard to argue with him when we consider that the output resolution of a halftone dot on a Crosfield drum scanner was 12,000 dpi, and we are hard pressed to achieve 1200 dpi with thermal or inkjet devices today. While it may seem insignificant, there is a clear visual difference between the old-school drum scans and what our current solutions can generate.

So the moral of all this is that technology changes constantly--and not always for the best. When it does deliver a clearly superior product, it may still not be a good thing for all parties. We must be ever vigilant on the behalf of our clients. Is our current product consistent with what we have previously delivered? Can we predict whether the new solution will meet our clients' expectations? Finally, is the new method, supply, or technology repeatable into the future? If we cannot answer yes to all three of these questions, it is time to have a talk with our clients and alert them to the possible positive and negative consequences that the use of new digital technologies and processes can have on their products. Involving them with the growth of your business will help ensure their satisfaction down the road.

©2004 Mark Coudray. Republication of this material in whole or in part, electronically or in print, without the permission of the author is forbidden.


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