Prep for Digital File Management

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Some History

Reflecting on how far we have advanced with prepress today brings back memories of how files were managed years ago. Jobs that used to take days or even weeks to be completed are now done in hours. One of the relatively recent advancements in prep technology was the displacement of proofing from dye sublimation to ink jet technology. Along with thermal transfer, dye sublimation was the preferred method of proofing at that time. The devices used to image and laminate the proofs were expensive, but often given away by the dealer because the cost of the actual proofing material was even more exorbitant. Although the time to make these proofs was much faster than what had been done in the past, it was still very laborious. Each color had to be exposed individually and then laminated to a base material. This was the proofing method in vogue well after the advent of desktop publishing.

Led by our IT director, we began a lonely battle to replace that method of proofing with the newer and cheaper ink jet technology. It took awhile to convince salespeople of ink jet’s advantages, so we kept both systems running in tandem for at least a couple of years until it got to the point that we were paying out more for a single proof than what we were charging our customers for the entire prep work. The market no longer accepted the cost of a proof in the $300 range. The primary complaint with our ink jet proofing was that they didn’t have “dots”. The fact that the dots on the proof bore no resemblance with the dots on the press didn’t hold much weight. Customers now sign off on an electronic proof on a regular basis.

Prep for Digital Printing

It needs to be understood that there is a huge difference between a document and a stock keeping unit (SKU). It must also be emphasized that these differences have significant implications in prepress production management. For one thing, if that SKU has to fit within a die line, such as is the case with a folding carton, the original structure should be created by a trained engineer to ensure all of the panels, flaps, and scores come together properly when erected. Even though our engineers provide a die line for the graphic artist to place their original art, we still prefer to place our own die line in the native file. The reason? Getting the file back as a PDF rather than the native file is a more efficient method for our operators, but we must follow certain processes including naming conventions to ensure that the die line doesn’t actually print. An improperly embedded die line in a PDF will appear on press.

Unlike a typical document, a SKU is usually part of a product, if not the product itself, and expected to perform several functions such as protection, display, and for informational purposes. A package or label that fails to do its job ruins the entire product. Labeling information has to be complete and accurate. An incorrect or unreadable bar code could result in huge penalties for the manufacturer. Labeling and packaging defects can never happen. Guarding against this from happening starts in file management.

Version control is a critical requirement of file management.  SKUs are revised and become obsolete on a regular basis. Every customer has their own methods for identifying and managing these changes, but the responsibility lies on the converter to ensure that an obsolete item is never printed. It is even more complicated to manage versions when files are sent and produced in batches. For regulated health science products, we never gang these items together as a matter of policy.

In the world of short-run digital printing, file management needs to strike a balance between efficiency and quality control, with the latter always taking precedent.  One example already mentioned was providing the native working file rather than the PDF. Every file for a SKU we receive will be examined by an operator first, followed by a report and some type of visual proof sent back to sales for confirmation and approval. Once prep gets the go ahead from sales or the customer, they can start the workflow which includes correcting, trapping, imposing, certifying and saving as a PDF. Although trapping would not be a requirement if the item were only going to be printed digitally, this is often not known until the product gets out into the marketplace and succeeds or becomes obsolete. If it succeeds, then it may very well be printed by a different method that requires trapping and we are responsible to ensure that the item looks the same regardless of how it is printed.

Over and above standard prep operations, we use several control elements in the imposed layout that are the responsibility of the prepress operator. Registration marks, color bars, and other tools must be added to the imposed file for quality control in the production facility. I should also add, every file is examined against the original using pixel evaluation software, and then the 1-up file is compared in the same manner against the imposed file.

We do this every time because we are trusted to provide our customers with a carton or label that serves the need of their finished product. If every file we received from the customer was perfect, we could build in more efficiency to our internal prep processes. But that is not the case – most files we receive have problems. Typically these problems are nothing major, but it still requires some adjusting.

Retail and packaging trends are clearly demonstrating that the number of SKUs will continue to grow, resulting in shorter production run lengths. Similar to what has happened in the commercial print market; digital printing will make inroads into packaging to help solve this problem. Because of packaging’s engineering requirements and higher potential product risk, any prep efficiency improvement must always be weighed against the possibility of producing a defective product.

We handle a lot of files on a daily basis, most of them being SKUs, and we will continue to invest in prep automation. At this point of time, the risk of product failure is too great to not continue using human analysis, discussion, signed approvals and quality control in our file management process. The product quality must never be compromised.

Author: Nicole Hannover

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