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Hamilton--Bits and Bytes vs. Dots and Spots

September 1999
Gurus of management love to publish books with titles like "Reinventing the Corporation." And while many of this genre provide useful information about breaking down corporate barriers—usually internal ones—they assume that the reader works in a large corporate environment.

Sadly, this is of little help to managers of the average commercial printing company or trade shop, whose employees are often numbered in two digits. Yet, the impact of technological change is just as large in a 25-person prepress firm as it is for a giant corporation such as Applied Graphics Technologies. Therefore, this month's pontification will try to address workflow re-engineering in our little world.

Like any manufacturing business, prepress consists of raw materials and processes that result in an end product. In the good ol' days, the raw materials consisted of type and layout boards, hand-drawn graphics and photographs. The processes included page assembly, scanning, retouching, trapping, masking, stripping, and film and proof outputs.

Today, however, type and layouts are almost always provided digitally and only the images are supplied as physical materials. And the day when all images will be supplied digitally isn't too far off, either. Of course, this transformation has eliminated many profit centers, and the content creator continues to encroach upon the prepress technician's territory.

Workflow Re-engineering
This is where the re-engineering blather comes into play. Given the inevitable technological trends, we've got to stop looking at the workflow from a process point of view and start looking at it from a data-centric one. That is, every job must be designed and processed with the idea that each component on the page is a discrete object made of bits and bytes. The essence of a data-centric workflow is that every job is modular and built out of digital files that do not inherently have anything to do with any of the other components that make up the catalog, book, magazine, etc.

I'd love to tell you that I thought of this and am patenting it, but, sadly, others beat me to the punch. Bill Ray, president of Group InfoTech (East Lansing, MI) and one of the brighter bulbs to light up our industry, has been working on this one for a while, and he's been joined by a number of others, including the vendors selling digital asset management systems.

There are several important consequences of data-centric thinking: First, many, if not all, components can be processed in parallel to increase throughput; and, the ability to complete the job no longer hinges on a single point of failure. That is, when the inevitable font is missing from an EPS graphic nested in a Quark page, you can still produce the magazine on time. But not by using a workflow based on processes. Given the conventional serial workflow, pages are created, assembled into flats and then the entire job is RIPed. That's when you get courier type, tempers flare, and money and time are lost.

 

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