A pressing engagement

10 December 2019

For all the focus that companies give to the finished printed product, many times they have ignored the previous , vital step that occurs to deliver the printed product to the machine. Matthew Rogerson reached out to Mike Ruff, an industry expert of 40+ years graphics arts experience to understand the fundamental part prepress plays in print quality and excellence, and where he feels the market will go next.

“Nothing has seen more innovation in the graphics production industry than prepress. I define prepress as “work, functions, procedures, or processes that must be applied to a creation of artwork in order to transform a file to a printing plate or screen used by a printing press or digital printer prior to the action of press setup and printing.” Some would include plate making and screen making in this terminology. I’m not saying this is wrong, but for this article, I will just stop at the point the file is ready to be sent to a plate making unit, CTS system, or digital press” explains Mike Ruff.

Without taking the reader through the entire history of print and the origins of pre press, to provide context Mike feels the first major innovative development was Desktop publishing. Starting around 1985 this technology was initially seen as inferior and clunky, as Ruff continues , “Their claims that the quality was inferior were correct for the most part. The lower paid desktop computer operators lacked the skill and print experience of the old-time film strippers and the quality was not as good – but not for long. Quality quickly advanced in the modern prepress services. Professional prepress at that time required very expensive equipment for image manipulation and scanning, as well as highly skilled prepress technicians that most print shops could not afford. Because of this, all moderate-size metropolitan cities had “prepress houses” that supported local print shops as a way of reducing the investment of in-house prepress.”

Through the 1990s there was a major improvement across software; Photoshop, Illustrator and others provided the structure to the modern prepress that remains today. Ruff explains,  “most of the work was manual and slow. Shops with heavy workloads had to hire more and more people to keep up with the demand. Automation began to be a necessity rather than a luxury. Most of the early automation solutions were standalone. Compatibility was an issue at first but a problem that was rapidly solved. However, the software needed to do special functions and file work was clunky and could cost as much as $25,000 to truly automate. That problem went away through the introduction of software and servers that automated all these functions, or at least had plug-ins to do it.”

Ruff points out that today many functions are automatic; files can be placed on a server and reach a digital press shortly without needing any human involvement at all!

As file preparation became faster this led to the need for better , automated colour management, as Ruff says , “It was not doing us a lot of good to get a file to press and have inaccurate color results. But where there is a great need, there are always great people who step up and solve the problems. At that time, the best technical people in the world worked for free on color management committees like the Print Properties Committee ISO/TC 130, CGATS, US TAG, GRACoL, SWOP, Fogra, G7, and others. They have provided the understanding of how color can now be precisely controlled for proofing and plate/screen making prior to a file reaching the press. This was huge in increasing profits for print companies that were innovative enough to invest in cutting-edge prepress technology.”

By the mid-2000s, prepress was evolving even faster as traditional print companies were attempting to survive the disruptive digital revolution. Again, prepress software and equipment companies embraced prepress innovation, integrating it into their products. Great prepress was now possible by marginally skilled technicians.

One of the biggest fundamental shifts has been the appearance of “The Printing Equipment Trap” . Historically a graphics art company could buy equipment and know it would be useful for 20 years. As digital grows, companies are now getting caught in the trap of buying very expensive equipment that would be obsolete within 5 years.  Ruff states, “Digital equipment that was “state of the art” could quickly become a cash-sucking boat anchor with a huge maintenance contract. Our industry had never experienced that before and some did not survive. “

Which brings us to today. The modern prepress department is smaller and more technical. Staffed by skilled millennials who have always known computers and technology they learn quickly because digital is part of their DNA, “sophisticated software does not intimidate them and they are now producing up to 10 times more files than their Gen X counterparts did.” Ruff continues with thoughts on the future, starting with automation.  “Automation has already advanced to very high level in prepress but new systems are now coming to market that enable prepress technology to move to a level not seen before. Is this disruptive? I do not believe prepress technology actually qualifies as a disruptive force because it represents pure innovation that makes products more affordable and accessible to a wider range of print customers. It is advancing our industry, not destroying it.”

“I see three areas that I believe will separate the “innovative” prepress shops from the “wannabes.”

1. Cutting-edge color management. Productivity with no production-stopping color control issues.

2. Truly automated, one or two person workflows even for large print shops. The prepress technician of the future will not be doing anything but supervising software, updating and innovating a system that does the work for them.

3. Prepress taking control of estimating, purchasing, and costing. Handling files will be too simple for the prepress technician of the future. The estimating, purchasing, and costing workflows will be integrated into prepress workflows in the future. In fact, it’s happening now.”

So what conclusions does Ruff draw from all this available innovation and information? As he says, the onset of ever more technical and fast innovation is allowing prepress to be increasingly profitable, and the systems providers continue to seek new and better ways to seamlessly link makeready prepress and print but he does end with a warning.  “We need to abandon our personnel hiring thinking of the past. A wrong hiring approach will delay or completely stop the evolution toward a totally automated prepress print shop. The number one mistake is to think we need to hire traditional prepress personnel with massive print experience. We must think differently. The people we need in these highly technical positions are younger, like the top IT grads from Cal Poly, RIT, Clemson, and MIT. We need fearless software and computer geeks with IT experience. These are the employees that will drive our companies forward by reducing cost, increasing quality, doubling speeds, and differentiating us from the competition. “

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