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Focus on Digital Front Ends

February 1999
Digital front ends are growing in flexibility and functionality, allowing for greater output opportunities, especially in areas of digital color proofing. Are DFEs where they need to be—technically speaking? Most are headed in the right direction, thanks to the promise of PDF.


BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO


The success of any print production process—whether it is direct-to-film, direct-to-plate or imposition proofing—relies fully on the competence of the digital front end in question. Digital front ends, or DFEs—rich in providing controls for color management, PDF support and a host of in-RIP capabilities, including trapping—are taking the front end to higher levels of sophistication.

What is a DFE? In some circles, that may be up for debate, as certain segments of the prepress industry consider the term DFE to be too abstract and even limiting in scope.

At its core level, a DFE is a glorified RIP—with all the hot buzz word bells and whistles—capable of handling a multitude of functions and workflows. A DFE is a sophisticated, multi-tasking RIP.

Another line of thought is that a DFE is more than just a super RIP. While the RIP certainly acts as the conduit for all print production, the functions of a DFE are well beyond the stage where the RIP is the absolute focal point. Case in point: Certain aspects of the prepress production environment in which content is multi-purposed for use on the Internet or for CD-ROMs.

What the industry agrees on, however, is that a cooperative publishing vehicle, capable of a variety of front-end tasks—including PostScript interpretation, PDF support and especially trapping—is needed to control all aspects of output, whether the destination is a digital platesetter, digital proofer, digital color printer or even the Internet.

Until a collection of technology minds within the prepress community devise such a clever term—Cooperative Publishing Engine (CPE), Integrated Production Control (IPC), Production Control Center (PCC), Super Front End (SFE)—the acronym of choice used to discuss the almighty RIP and the complex digital workflows it serves is conveniently tagged a DFE.

With the semantics lessons closed, it should be mentioned that a host of DFE solutions are hitting the prepress market, such as LDR's relative newcomer to the DFE domain, Fusion. Recently, LDR announced impressive PostScript RIP timing against industry standard benchmark files on LDR's Fusion DFE running on a Silicon Graphics Origin 2000 server.

The Fusion DFE combines software from Harlequin and Xinet on Silicon Graphics hardware. Fusion DFE is a unified PostScript DFE that provides network services, print spooling, OPI, color management processing, RIP functionality, trapping and screening, as well as direct imaging to digital proofers, imagesetters, platesetters and wide-format color printers, including devices manufactured by Agfa, ECRM, Fujifilm, Krause, Polaroid and Scitex.

Bob Boyce, prepress specialist at Phoenix Color, knows Fusion DFE quite well. Boyce reports the new digital front end has taken Phoenix's workflow a step forward. "Although we haven't had Fusion very long, I have a hard time recalling how we got along without it," Boyce reports. "With competition in the printing marketplace being so intense, sophisticated DFE technologies, like Fusion, which runs right off of our server, is a big advantage."

What are other moves in DFEs?

Throughout 1999, Scitex will further extend the capacities of its best-selling Brisque DFE by adding support for additional input and output formats. Export PDF will allow users to automate the generation of PDFs from RIPed Scitex CT and LW files. Compact PDFs can be sent electronically to clients as a reliable, remote proofing tool, and full-resolution PDFs can be provided for output in other environments.

"Brisque will also move to Adobe's PostScript 3 RIP, which supports native consumption of PDF," reports Howard White, product marketing manager,

Advanced Product Marketing, at Scitex. "Components of Adobe's Extreme technology will help shape the directions of the Brisque DFE during 1999; the Adobe CPSI PostScript 3 RIP will allow Brisque to consume PDF files natively."

White reports Scitex's implementation of Extreme's Normalizer technology that converts PostScript to PDF on the Brisque, providing effective preflighting and often speeding RIP times. For the four-CPU Brisque4, Normalizer opens the possibility of speeding throughput by splitting multi-page documents over several RIPs. Brisque's new Export PDF option creates compressed, low-resolution Acrobat files for remote proofing, as well as high-res PDFs for remote exposure.

New proofing options for Brisque include connectivity to the Kodak Approval XP4 from Kodak Polychrome Graphics, as well as Presstek's PEARLhdp digital halftone proofing system now interfaced with the Brisque family of DFE solutions. Connecting Scitex's streamlined production-oriented prepress system to Presstek's PEARLhdp proofing system allows users to maintain their current prepress capabilities while enhancing their output flexibility, allowing output through Brisque to PEARLhdp.

At a minimum, the configuration for a Presstek/Scitex workflow includes a Scitex Brisque proof for PEARLhdp with new hardware and software to produce Presstek-compatible files, a Presstek Windows NT-based PEARLserver with PEARLtools and a Presstek PEARLhdp proofing system.

"Early in our CTP/DI experiences, we heard loud and clear that workflow and, more specifically, RIP options were paramount to ease of integration and acceptance of an efficient production environment," explains Sandy Fuhs, marketing manager at Presstek. "Since the RIP is the connection between the DFE and the output devices, we put most of our efforts toward RIP connectivity." She's also quick to note that Presstek has gone through years of grueling interfacing to the most popular DFEs, including Scitex Brisque, Harlequin, Agfa and Rampage.

"Every time an operating system or Adobe announces an upgrade, my hair gets a bit more gray," Fuhs jokes of the pressure to expand DFE functionality. "Each survey we conducted and every prospect we visited told us of new challenges and connectivity requirements, ranging from OPI, trapping and imposition to numerous applications including preflighting. Improving DFE functionality is a huge task."

Why? Quite simply, all connectivity requirements call for alternative front ends, whether the print environment in question is a short-run packaging concern or long-run

publication printing operation. The solution? Flexibility, expandability and upgradeability of the DFE across numerous platforms and operating systems appears to be the productivity boost needed for maximum functionality.

Easier said than done.

"Every day," Fuhs reports, "Presstek's challenge is to stay current on new DFE capabilities so that our line of PEARL output devices, including the PEARLsetter and PEARLhdp halftone proofer, can take advantage of these features and make certain that the total workflow works as a smooth, efficient system."

"In practice, ROOM is misunderstood, but in concept it is the Holy Grail of all good DFEs," she adds. "By allowing a partial RIP operation—just the PostScript interpreting portion—into an intermediate format, jobs can be output to a number of devices.

"The challenge we all face is the second part of the RIP operation: screening," Fuhs continues. "All output marking engines require different resolutions, orientations, linearization and dot gain curves, and screening alterations that are output device specific."

At Ultimate Technographics, the DFE solution of note is its On-Q, a server for prepress workflow. Konica Graphic Imaging recently signed an agreement with Ultimate to distribute the new On-Q server for prepress workflows in the United States and Canada, to be offered in combination with Konica's server hardware.

On-Q is an advanced and automated OPI, trapping and imposition solution for Macintosh and Windows NT. Mark Scott, director of marketing at Ultimate, reports that On-Q derives its name from its functionality—users define preferences for various print queues and then access them under a chooser.

"Over the next several years, the DFE market will continue to simplify the process of print management—OPI, imposition and trapping," Scott projects. "At present, all the different DFE solutions and different workflows combine the main prepress steps to achieve the needed result—getting data through the RIP, to the output device and out the door, in as simplified of manner as possible."

The key words in DFE development, Scott states, are combine and simplify. Combine as many tasks as possible within the RIP and simplify the user interface, giving users the freedom to select a plethora of output vehicles, or at least let them push data through to a variety of digital proofers.

Heidelberg Prepress will be broadening its workflow product offerings throughout 1999, as well as introducing significant improvements on its Delta Technology. It has been Adobe PostScript 3-based since August and utilizes the popular NT Server OS. The company also plans to build upon its strengths in ROOM workflow with its color management, color proofing, trapping and forms-proofing technologies.

The marketplace can expect advances in trapping, with multiple, off-line Mac and PC-based solutions, as well as improved interconnectabilty with high-end screened color proofers, such as the Kodak Approval, Creo Proofsetter and the Heidelberg Creo Spectrum. Heidelberg will also focus on Delta connectivity to the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI and the Speedmaster 74 DI direct imaging presses.

"Heidelberg plans to move aggressively in the direction of PDF processing and Adobe Job Ticket support. In 1999, the market can expect to see Job Ticket support on Delta," reports Dennis Ryan, Heidelberg Prepress product marketing manager.

"There will be other workflow-related developments, including an increase in the number and variety of input and export formats supported," Ryan continues. "We anticipate a high-end PDF editing workstation solution from DaVinci based on the SGI graphic workstation, which is being extended to provide PostScript 3 and PDF 1.3 import and export support."

At Kodak Polychrome Graphics, a complete DFE solution based on the Harlequin RIP delivers an open front-end approach to the new Kodak Approval XP system, which can take a screened bitmap file from other dot generators, allowing for inconsistencies between proofs and both film and plate output.

"The key ingredient for any DFE driving to a proofing device is to be very complementary to other workflows," reports William DeMarco, product specialist, at Kodak Polychrome Graphics. Nader Anvari, chief architect at Kodak Professional, cautions that, when the topic turns to DFEs, there are two aspects one must look at separately: the trend to PDF and the operational format of the DFE.

As for the latter, Anvari suggests, it is important for a commercial printer to determine how it wants to RIP. For example, do you RIP in front of every output device or do you RIP once and then push the file to different output devices? The wrong answer costs money.

Dr. Johan Rommelaere, marketing manager, Printer Systems Div., at BARCO Graphics, offers the following perspective on understanding and establishing successful digital front-end systems.

"Until now, the graphic arts industry was not capable of introducing fully reliable data exchange concepts and systems that could reproduce the data consistently in order to feed the platesetter productively with error-free, plate-ready data," he reports.

Today, the BARCO FastLane expert continues, the prepress production process for a commercial and publication printer is an assembly process where different pages are imported, imposed and output on several offset plates.

Rommelaere reports that high throughput and speed combined with powerful automation tools are required to cope with the demand for shorter turnaround times and lower production costs. The many data formats that are used today for file exchange can be divided into three classes.

  • The first class contains the CEPS or legacy system formats like Scitex, Screen, Crosfield and Hell. These are the pixel-based formats for continuous tone and line work.

  • In the second group are DTP formats like PostScript, EPS, TIFF and all their variations for bitmap, continuous tone, object-oriented, compressed and non-compressed. These are today's most frequently used formats, since nearly all page makeup is generated in a DTP environment. However, they are also the most troublesome for data consistency.

  • The third class is the one of bitmap files such as TIFF-g4, which is mostly used for CopyDot data exchange of scanned advertising.


"Full openness not only means being able to import all these files, but also having the ability to mix all these differently formatted pages on to one and the same offset plate," Rommelaere explains.

The BARCO technologist offers one final word of caution and common sense in the hunt for DFE deliverance: In order to respond to any business opportunity, it is important for the commercial printer to be able to accept any of the frequently used data formats in the graphic arts industry.

Don't get caught off guard.


An AGFA Counterpoint: Is DFE What We Need?

Many prepress vendors have announced that they are jumping on the DFE bandwagon in response to demand in the marketplace. Agfa feels quite differently about this, as Michael Jahn, PDF evangelist for Agfa, explains.

"The concept of the DFE is much like the concept of adding a clock to a toaster oven. The industry does not need a bunch of black boxes that consume PDF or PostScript, process them into bitmaps and then drive devices that spit out paper, film or plates," Jahn argues. "The industry needs to invest in systems which preserve the data that the file contains—data that is used for archiving, EDI, links, URLs, validation and CIP3 post-processing."

Today, most graphical elements are not conceived and designed with efficient prepress processing as the main goal. Agfa contends that this fact is being overlooked by many prepress vendors. "The same document might be required to go through several final-output processing requirements. The designer may have selected an approach for an effect because the designer knew that a specific element was needed—you can't dictate how even a single element is constructed or will be processed later on," Jahn explains.

Agfa's Apogee—don't call it a DFE—foundation supports the fact that service providers are offering other services besides prepress, such as CD-ROM creation, Web site design—tasks that a simple DFE does not support. "So simply having a DFE that converts to some form that can be printed efficiently falls miserably short," Jahn argues.

"In the case of CTP, Agfa indeed preprocesses PostScript into PDF, but again, using the Adobe Normalizer to simplify the approach that was taken to represent a graphical element for faster processing, without quality degradation, so that the PDF files RIP faster than PostScript on our newest PostScript 3 RIPS and, more importantly, process PDFs directly while preserving the important embedded information that was built into the PDF," he continues.

A digital front end, Jahn emphasizes, simply RIPs a PDF into some TIFF-like file format so it will efficiently mark the paper, film or plate it is marking with a laser. "That is one of the reasons Agfa likes PDF. It can retain the art as a 'digital master' and predictably render it for the specific device as that device requires, whether that device is paper, film or plate, as well as a Web site or a CD-ROM."
 

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