Going full circle with Illustrator

Competitive approaches to prepress workflow

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Both Artwork Systems and Esko have to handle input from Adobe Illustrator files. After performing their packaging related functions, they have to generate high level and certified PDFs for prepress output. Simon Eccles looks at the rival approaches of the two companies products.

Creative design for packaging is often done using Adobe Illustrator desktop software, yet the pre-press stage usually switches to specialist programs and the PDF file format to handle colour separations, CAD integration and final output to printing plates. It’s often useful for the designer to take back processed files for late corrections, or to ‘repurpose’ the design for special offers or related products with different text and colourways. The snag is that if you create PDF files in Illustrator and then modify them in another program then it becomes hard to re-edit the files later on in Illustrator.

Artwork Systems and Esko-Graphics, the major rival developers of packaging design and pre-press systems, have both solved this problem but in very different ways.

Esko’s approach is the most direct: it has taken the features of its high end PackEdge design system and written them into a series of plug-ins for Illustrator, which collectively it calls DeskPack. The whole design to pre-press process takes place within Illustrator, so if a file needs to be re-purposed later, it can be passed back to the designer’s copy of Illustrator with no loss. PDF is only generated for final output to proof or plate via a RIP, and is never re-edited.

“The move to Illustrator recognises that this is what designers want, while preserving the data integrity for round trips,” says Frank Adegeest, Esko’s senior product manager for packaging application software. “So there is one file format, one asset throughout.”

The DeskPack suite is modular, so add-on modules can be selectively added for various stages of production. They mostly run on Illustrator but a couple are for Photoshop, running on Mac OS X or Windows 2000/XP. In South Asia the DeskPack suite sells for Euro 10,500 with a warranty support of six months. Additional seats of DeskPack modules are considerably less expensive.

The first DeskPack modules appeared in 2002. The range now covers CAD file import, advanced object selection and alignment, special colour generation, bar code generation, continuous packaging pattern generation, blends, special trapping, flexo dot previewing and repairs and step and repeat layouts.

Most run on desktop computers but two or three benefit from servers to do the number-crunching. Last July Esko added its headline feature: a 3500 Euro plug-in called 3-dx gives 3D creation, manipulation and previewing in a special window, with live bi-directional linking to the 2D flats in the conventional Illustrator window – changes made in either window are immediately applied in the other. As a bonus, 3-dx PDF proofs can be generated using Adobe’s Acrobat 3D technology. This can be opened in the standard free Adobe Reader utility, so customers don’t need special software to view proof files and add comments.

Eventually DeskPack will duplicate all PackEdge functions, but there are still a few things to add, says Jan de Roeck, Esko’s director of product management software. “Some niche applications such as shrink sleeves or metal distortions are only available for PackEdge, though we will add these to DeskPack in future. Also the PackEdge colour model is still better than Illustrator’s.”

Artwork Systems entirely different approach uses an Illustrator plug-in called InPDF (standing for Intelligent PDF) that adds the PDF creation library from its high end pre-press workflows. InPDF creates a PDF with embedded references to the original native Illustrator AI format document. If you edit the PDF in AWS ArtPro, Nexus or Odystar systems and then re-open it in Illustrator, it can reconstruct the original layers, groups, image links, brushes, libraries, and palettes. InPDF is particularly intended for use with the AWS Odystar Packaging pre-press workflow, which processes PDFs natively.

In PDF costs about Euro 14,000 as a server-based licensing dongle. This allows all copies of Illustrator on the same local area network to run InPDF plug-ins simultaneously. AWS also offers ‘satellite’ licences to allow pre-press companies to supply the plug-ins to external customer sites.

Although AWS doesn’t have a direct equivalent to DeskPack, it is introducing a few Illustrator plug-ins to handle links, previewing and bar codes. Other plug-ins are planned.

A new InPDF version 2.0 is imminent. This will add Pa:CT (Packaging Certified Technology), a packaging-specific version of the Certified PDF embedded job history and tracing technology developed by AWS’ Enfocus division. Pa:CT is currently in all AWS products except InPDF. “InPDF 2.0 with Pa:CT will close the loop,” says Petra Tant, AWS product manager for labels and packaging. “This means that a high resolution traceable PDF with the complete creation, editing and production history can be delivered to the brand owner.”

“Designers and repro houses are feeling tremendous price pressure,” points out Adegeest at Esko. “So the cost of ownership of the design system needs to be lower too. DeskPack is not just about the purchase price it is the lower cost of integration, training and salaries. Brand owners and retailers will pay more for complexity, but they still want to squeeze the prices!”

The DeskPack and InPDF approaches have different strengths. DeskPack’s method of a single Illustrator end-to-end file format is simplest, but it means that existing PackEdge would also have to implement DeskPack for the ‘round trip’ aspects to work.

The AWS InPDF method of switching and restoring file formats seems more complicated, but means that Illustrator files can easily be exchanged with existing ArtPro, Nexus and Odystar installations. If you don’t have an AWS pre-press system already, you could implement an equivalent to DeskPack by adding AWS’ own Illustrator packaging plug-ins and using the PDF-native Odystar Packaging as a pre-press back-end.