Web Enabled Collaboration

Digital communications for pre-press workflow management

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In my last article, I ended by saying that I was pretty much excited about Web Enabled Collaboration, which takes workflow management to a higher level. We will first look at the arguments for using it and also at the enabling technology.
Collaboration is a vital part of the printing process, which has been least appreciated. Many printers still see printing as applying ink on paper and getting the stuff out their door as soon as possible. Customers too cheer the printers on until they receive the final product. Then starts the blame game. Suddenly, everybody awakes to the reality of ‘wrong text’ and missing elements and, at times, wholesale mistakes involving page sizes or die-lines. They realise that these are not high-flown glamorous problems like colour matching that require expert input. Many of the problems could have been noticed if somebody took a critical look at a printout (even from a cheap, non colour-managed printer) or a low resolution PDF or JPG of the artwork.

I can already hear some of you thinking ‘Email’. That’s right. The correct process would have been to send all stakeholders an email with a LoRes proof of the artwork attached. The trouble is, while email is the primary means of business communication these days, it is a lousy mechanism for many-to-many communication, especially when the majority are contributing participants and not silent observers. There is no easy way to consolidate the input of so many people. Imagine a situation when the creative agency sends a PDF proof of a corporate brochure to marketing department for approval, with copies to prepress, the printer, maybe the legal department and perhaps also the chairman for good measure. Usually, marketing will respond first requesting all kinds of changes while prepress will watch the fun and wait since they don’t want to waste time pointing out problems such as poor image quality because nobody knows which elements will stay and which ones will go. After a month the printer will pitch in, reminding everybody about the delivery deadline. Things will thereafter shift into high gear resulting in three to four mails a day, each with 10MB attachments eating up the corporate bandwidth and ending up in everybody’s inbox. Many will not bother to look at them anyway because they know that they are just being kept in the loop.

Then comes the day when the printer says “It’s now or never”. Prepress will send printouts for marketing to sign off. Then all hell breaks loose. Mistakes that were never seen before (or assumed to have been corrected) jump out at you. While there is frantic movement up and down the inbox looking at who said what when, trying to pin the blame on somebody, the chairman looks at the printout for the first time (you see, it is his secretary who manages his email for him) and decides that the end result is not to his liking and wants to redo the whole thing!

Before I say another word, let me tell you that the problem with the chairman will not be solved by web enabled collaboration. In fact, it will be further aggravated by any technology input and that’s another story for another day.

When you think of it, the ‘mechanical’ of the old days with paste-up linework and various instructions marked on the overleaf was a better vehicle for getting everybody on the same page. Whatever changes one wanted had to be marked on the overleaf and if it wasn’t there it was not going to be done. Essentially, web enabled collaboration takes this method to the internet age. The mechanical is replaced by the digital master artwork file (mostly PDF) stored in a central server with an overleaf layer of comments added. Although there are some offerings that come with a stand-alone server dedicated for this purpose, most useful solutions have a prepress workflow management system as a backend to the whole process.

The first step in many of these systems would be to register a project and upload all associated artwork files. Once the participants are identified, login authorisation can be given to each person restricting their role to what is expected of them. For example, marketing will be able to do on-screen commenting on the artwork (using the highlighter and pencil tools, just like how they would do on a printout) and change its status to ‘amendments pending’. Depending on the nature of the change, the creative agency or prepress will carry out the amendment on the master artwork and upload it again. Marketing will immediately get a simple email notification (without the whole artwork being strapped on) that the amendment is done. Finally, the user with authorisation for approval will have to login, take a good look at the artwork, take a deep breath and click on a button that in effect says “Approve”. The artwork status is then flagged as approved and the high resolution digital master file will be available for download by the user with necessary authorisation (usually prepress or printer) to proceed with platemaking and printing.
For me the most interesting tools are not the pencil and highlighter for marking or the ruler and the dot meter for measurement, because these can be done even in an off-line manner with PDF attachments to an email. Web Enabled collaboration is all about several other benefits that are commonplace in IT, which the digital artwork now acquires, being on a digital platform. We have already seen the ability to flag the status of the artwork (‘amendment pending’, ‘approved’ etc.). A key benefit is the ability to keep a log of all project activities from the inception. I have seen the very knowledge of the existence of this log file bringing about a high level of accuracy in communications between stakeholders of the project. Another one of my favourites is a task list where every user, as she logs in, is given a list of pending tasks assigned to her.

Knowing that readers of this magazine are intelligent people who would not want to be bored with details that they can otherwise find, I haven’t gone into a detailed How-To list. You can gather a lot of information at the following sites. You will also notice that there is a lot of common underlying technology in the various commercial offerings and the market segmentation is mostly in the dressing of it all. However, this is only the beginning. Prepress and printing were computerised long ago. But it is only now that they are being IT enabled. Isn’t that exciting?

http://graphics.kodak.com/ (Unified workflow)
http://www.esko.com/ (Software -> Online collaboration)
http://www.artwork-systems.com (Webway)

David Jeyaraj is the COO of Printcare PLC, based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.