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Digital and Offset Printing : Seeking Workflow Oneness

November 2009 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
HYBRID PRODUCTION was originally defined as combining digital and offset printing to produce a finished piece. Common examples include color shells pre-printed via offset and imprinted digitally, and pieces bound together, such as offset covers for digital books or customized/variable digital inserts for static offset pieces.

Advances in technology and greater adoption of digital printing by previously offset-only shops led to a broadening of the term to include the ability to drive both production platforms from a single workflow. The goal is to increase the efficiency of job processing, but also provide the flexibility to more easily direct jobs to one printing process or the other in response to customer demands or pressroom status.

With acceptance of digital printing continuing to grow, now the concept is being extended even further to achieve a continuum of production capabilities that can span from digital (toner and ink-jet, including wide-format) through sheetfed and web offset printing. This means having an integrated workflow that can feed all of the printing platforms, as well as implementing color management and having substrates available to “match” the printed results across the board.

Support for this operating model can be seen in the extension of the G7 proof-to-print process beyond its origins in the sheetfed offset print realm, all the way to wide-format digital printing. Often erroneously referred to as a color standard, G7 is formally defined as a method for reproducing a similar visual appearance across printing platforms, including digital devices. Printing companies of all types and sizes—nearly 350 companies, according to the IDEAlliance database—are now marketing their standing as a G7 Master Printer.

Despite having a diminished profile in the industry of late, the Job Definition Format (JDF) specification also continues to be a key enabler of workflow integration. Solutions that can drive platesetters and digital presses from a common file preparation system is one notable area where JDF has already seen real-world use and remains the focus of active development. This is still not a plug-and-play scenario, since the links are tailored to specific digital devices as the following examples from some recent announcements illustrate.

Agfa Graphics recently introduced the Apogee DigitalPrint Link to the Canon imagePRESS product family, which extends the capabilities of Apogee Prepress to drive digital printing. It already offered JDF-based links to HP Indigo presses for some time, with both interfaces enabling the setting of job parameters within Apogee to eliminate additional input by the digital press operator. 

Canon also offers connectivity to the Screen (USA) Trueflow SE and Heidelberg Prinect workflows through its imagePRESS Workflow Solutions Program.

Even as it makes aggressive moves in the print-on-demand (POD) sector, Screen (USA) says it still maintains a strong commitment to computer-to-plate technology. Its new Equiosnet solution blends the two by adding POD support to the Trueflow SE workflow designed to drive CTP production. The combination is based on Adobe PDF Print Engine 2.0 (APPE) technology, offers JDF automation and supports variable data capabilities.

At PRINT 09, the company demonstrated the Equios-Pre4m hybrid workflow concept. It is PDF- and JDF-based to provide “end-to-end automation” of print production, from job quoting and file submission through finishing and delivery.

Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A. has also been working to roll out a new hybrid production system, the Fujifilm Workflow XMF. It is said to be designed to cross-connect offset, digital and wide-format production via a “JDF engine” that uses APPE technology to preserve PDF content in its original form and store instructions for workflow processes in a JDF Job Bag. Fuji-
film’s imposition engine enables
users to create and edit impositions “live” in the system using dynamic templates to change parameters for different output devices.

Further Integration

During Drupa 2008, Xerox announced the integration of its FreeFlow digital workflow with Fujifilm Workflow XMF and Heidelberg’s Prinect workflow to enable support of its digital printing systems in a CTP workflow. On its end, Heidelberg has also been developing the Prinect Digital Print Manager in cooperation with Canon, HP Indigo and Kodak to provide bi-directional integration of their digital printing systems into the management and production workflow.

Unified Workflow is a concept that Kodak has been championing for some time now. It has been carried over as branding for the production automation and color management solutions the company offers for digital and offset environments. ColorFlow Software is a core component that provides color matching of original files to digital and offset presses. It is designed to be used in conjunction with the Prinergy workflow, an APPE- and JDF-based product line that was extended this spring with a model configured specifically for digital environments—Prinergy Digital.

Along with connecting to the Agfa workflow, HP Indigo presses can integrated with a Kodak workflow via the HP SmartStream Product Pro print server. Earlier this year, HP introduced another form of process integration by achieving what is said was the first-ever GRACoL (General Requirements for Applications in Commercial Offset Lithography) certification of digital production presses. Through a two-day process offered by the company, HP Indigo 5000, 5500 and 7000 models can be certified as meeting this specification for color printing.

GLS Cos., an offset and digital printing operation based in Brooklyn Park, MN, was the first printer to implement the capability. While the solution is designed to provide proof-to-press matching on an HP Indigo press, GLS reported that the certification process also enabled it to hold more consistent color during a digital press run and improved its ability to match output from the HP Indigo 5000 press to its Heidelberg sheetfed presses. The shop frequently incorporates digital components into a larger direct mail package and already used GRACoL (as well as G7) for its offset work.

According to the IDEAlliance organization, the impetus for the development of G7 was the frustration expressed by print buyers when receiving proofs and prints that had matching dot gain measurements, but clear visual differences. They were asking for metrics that more closely relate to the visual appearance of a printed image. The G7 method focuses on neutrality and tonality as key metrics for process control to achieve a similar printed appearance across the full range of output devices.

The basics of G7 were developed by Don Hutcheson of HutchColor LLC, who subsequently granted the intellectual property rights to IDEAlliance. Refinement of the process control methodology and its publication as a specification were initially handled by the IDEAlliance GRACoL Working Group. This led to the misconception that G7 was akin to GRACoL, rather than being applicable to a range of processes beyond sheetfed offset printing.

The G7 specification formally defines process controls that determine the “visual appearance” of an image as perceived by the human eye rather than a mechanical device. It breaks from the long-standing practice of focusing on dot gain and instead uses gray balance (neutrality) as the basis for defining the metrics of “visual similarity” in a printed piece. Controlling tonality is the other key component of the specification, which is done by employing the concept of Neutral Print Density Curves set forth by the development team.

Printers must complete and maintain a G7 Master qualification that is specific to the facility, rather than the company, to legitimately claim the designation. This involves doing an audit of the plant’s output equipment and calibrating all of the proofing and printing systems to G7 gray balance and density curves. Although not required, use of ISO-standard inks and papers is recommended.

Qualified Consultants

The calibration work must either be done by, or reviewed and approved by, a “G7 Expert” consultant who is currently qualified by the organization. A link to the G7 Expert database can be found at 

IDEAlliance charges a $400 one-time application fee and a $690 G7/GRACoL Network two-year membership fee. It doesn’t set the fees charged by consultants, some of whom offer a turnkey package that includes those costs. There is also a $95 yearly re-qualification fee.

The broader applicability of G7 was demonstrated in the recent announcement that QuantumDigital had received G7 Master status. Based in Austin, TX, the company said it was one of the first all-digital printing operations to complete the qualification process.

According to Steve Damman, president and CEO, the designation provides assurance to its corporate print buyer and ad agency clients that the printer can uphold their brand integrity across all of their printed collateral. The G7 method also enables QuantumDigital to produce consistent color with less preparation and reduced paper and ink usage, he notes.

So far, printers primarily have been driving the adoption of G7 as a way to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. It’s worth noting that creative companies can themselves be qualified as G7 Masters, enabling them to have a more active role in dictating its use. Ultimately, the measure of any workflow comes down to that one metric—the ability to meet customer demands. PI












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