The modern veneer and the medieval core
Broadly speaking, Web-to-Print is a notion that an end user should be able to order a printed product from a supplier, using web technology to perform all interactions with that supplier. The web-enabled collaboration that we discussed previously is an important subset of Web-to-Print, connecting all stakeholders from digital artwork approval onwards. There are however, many matters to be agreed upon before artwork approval. These include design, substrate selection, production tolerances, delivery schedules and most importantly, price. This interactive process involves many emails, submission of proofs and price-vs-quantity negotiations. In many cases, all this horse- trading between the procurement fellow at the customer’s end and the marketing guy at the printer is conducted with a modern veneer and a medieval core that is impenetrable. But that’s another story for another day.
When digital prepress made its appearance back in the 80s, it truly revolutionised the way reprography was done. The ‘mechanicals’ from the art department with linework neatly drawn using black ruling pens and tone percentages marked on the overleaf gave way to digital files with all sorts of fancy elements on the page. This was a time of vignettes galore just because it was possible to create them in graphics software. Decades of labouring with film negatives, positives, contacts, and dot-etching became obsolete when large format imagesetters began to output fully laid-out films (a.k.a. ‘clean positives’), which went straight to the platemaker.
In fact, the much hyped CtP process that followed in the mid 90s was not a revolution of the same class. The quality improvement due to the first generation dot was obvious. But there was nothing in the associated prepress software (trapping, step-and-repeat, imposition, colour management) that had not existed before. The difference was that while users often did not use these functions for film output, they were forced to learn and use them when it came to plate output. A classic example is what I saw in the middle-east even in the late 90s, where pages for books and magazines were output on 8-up imagesetters as single sets filling the available area and then cut and manually imposed as signatures, while the imposition software was sitting idle!
CtP did make a difference in the pressroom where there were dramatic improvements in make-ready. This created some excitement among printers. Once the prepress equipment vendors realised this, they re-packaged their software and started selling directly to printers. Even now, many printers believe that digital prepress started with CtP, which is not true.
Actually, digital prepress had its beginnings with the ‘big four’ comprising Scitex, Crossfield, Hell, and Dainippon Screen who had their proprietary stuff which was prohibitively expensive, at least for those of us in South Asia or what is sometimes called the Indian subcontinent. I remember the day in August 1991 in Singapore, when I had to pull various strings just to get an appointment with Scitex. When I finally succeeded, I was told within the first couple of minutes that they did not believe that anybody from our part of the world could own their system! I also remember the reaction from a top manager at Dainippon Screen in 1992, when I mentioned the word ‘Postscript’. He went something like, “Are you joking? We are in the quality end of the business and the thing that you mentioned will never get there. Don’t mention that word again.” He was not totally wrong. Although it was six years since Linotype had introduced the L300, ‘desktop colour’ had not gained respectability.
But the inevitable happened. The big four began to offer PS connectivity and other players such as Barco Graphics and Dalim came into the scene and made it quite lively. With the PC revolution in full swing, the affordability of hardware and the functionality of prepress software were reaching new peaks unimaginable only a few years before. While the proprietary systems were being ported to off-the-shelf hardware, DTP systems such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Aldus (later Macromedia) Freehand became ever more powerful in handling colour. The actual usage of it all, however, was questionable given that anybody who could chase a mouse was seen as a ‘Graphics Designer’ and that is another story for another day.
With most prepress processing being done on some type of computer system in the late 90s, the industry started to introduce some of the well established technologies from the IT sector. Prime among these was workflow automation. Barco had an early lead in this area with their ‘digi’ platform. However, vendors could not offer the icon-based, point-and-click interface (taken for granted in their editing software) for their workflow automation solutions. Configuring them successfully required knowing the fundamentals of batch processing, having some exposure to programming and getting your hands dirty on a command line interface.
After almost a decade of improvements, they are now in a form where the user interface is all graphical with the flow of logic beautifully laid out. Anybody with reasonable ability to think logically can make these systems work. Unfortunately, this has not created the hype it deserves. It could be due to the fact that it was all very slow in coming. It could also be that this has not excited the marketing people to the extent it has excited the production people.
Well, that brings me to the point. I am pretty much excited about a new technology that takes workflow management to the next level, where it has the potential to get the marketing people and the end customer excited. In generic terms, we can call it Web Enabled Collaboration. The current front-runners are Kodak InSite, ArtPro WebWay and Esko WebCentre, although the latter two may fuse into one at some point in the future. While there are many shortcomings in all of the products currently available, I do believe that we are at the threshold of another revolution in prepress. More about it next time.
(David Jeyaraj formerly Ceo of Iris Graphics in Colombo is now the chief technologist and General Manager of Jennings PrintCare, a Sri Lankan-UK joint venture for export of packaging prepress formed in 2003. Jeyaraj retains his interest in Iris Graphics and also advises another company involved in medical imaging.)