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Soft Proofing — Virtually a Lock

June 2006 BY MARK SMITH
Technology Editor
IT HAS taken almost a decade, but the adoption of soft—or virtual—proofing now seems to be on a trajectory similar to the one for computer-to-plate production. Critical color and press-side applications still could be considered in the early adopter stage, but the number of users is growing and a much larger group is becoming open to the possibility.

The product category also continues to expand, both in terms of the solutions offered and the applications they support. In just about a year, the number of vendors offering SWOP (Specifications for Web Offset Publications) certified systems has gone from two to five, for example.

There doesn’t seem to be any development in particular that answers the question, “Why now?” System vendors and printers have been experimenting with soft proofing for decades, and most of the current generation technologies have been available for several years. Also, high-speed Internet access has been a standard business requirement for some time now.

Standard Operations

Certainly, one of the contributing factors has been a growing acceptance of “printing to the numbers” with SWOP and GRACoL. Developments in ink-key presetting and automated color controls have contributed to this trend.

Competition has led to more aggressive moves on the pricing front, with regard to base costs, licensing and ongoing charges, when applicable. Stepping up to critical color proofing, though, adds requirements for monitor calibration and controlled viewing conditions that can boost the investment required.

Publication printing is again among the industry sectors leading the way. Publishers are inclined to jump on any ideas that extend advertising closing dates and editorial deadlines. The technology can be introduced at the blueline stage to ease concerns and then spread to other stages of production once a comfort level with, and confidence in, the technology has been established.

Time Inc. clearly isn’t representative of publishing houses on the whole when it comes to resources and clout (both with its printers and advertisers). It also has earned a reputation for pushing the envelope of new technology. Given the company’s sphere of influence, though, the trickle-down effect does come into play for the broader industry.

Virtual proofing is an area where the publisher recently has been making a big push, starting with its weekly titles, reports Kin wah Lam, director of digital development. It quickly progressed to 100 percent virtual proofing—including into the pressroom—with seven of its publication printing suppliers.

“Our speed of adoption has been faster than we planned,” he says. “Our printers have embraced it so enthusiastically, we had to curb their enthusiasm. We initially did two test forms and they wanted to spread the (soft proofing) implementation to the whole book.”

Time Inc. not only stopped delivering hard copy proofs to those printers, it also has said it will no longer accept hard copy proofs for advertisements. That directive is now part of the published ad submission instructions on the appropriate Websites, which also specify that PDF/x1a files be submitted as an integral component of the new workflow.

A special Ad Portal Service has been set up, with help from Vio Inc. and Enfocus Software, for uploading ad files via the Internet. To use it, advertisers must download an application which has Enfocus preflight capabilities built into it. Ad files that fail preflight can’t be uploaded, and the submitter instead gets a report with instructions on how to fix the problems.

Time for a Change

By this spring, the portal already had some 300 registered users and had successfully processed around 400 ad files, wah Lam reveals. What resistance the publisher has encountered from advertisers has more to do with the file processing aspect of the system than it does virtual proofing. “The ones who create bad files don’t want to use the system,” he adds.

At the printing plants, two 23˝ monitors have been installed in a stack configuration inside a controlled light booth to enable four pages to be view simultaneously at full size, notes the publisher’s director of digital development. The titles are being “printed to the numbers” using the SWOP specification.

Another indicator of the strong interest in soft proofing was provided by the recent Vue/Point 2006 conference. A session on “Workflow Standardization” across multiple output devices evolved almost entirely into a discussion of the issues in soft proofing.

According to Christy Miners, CTP supervisor, Democrat Printing & Litho has already converted about 20 percent of its customers to working online, including for proofing. The Little Rock, AR-based printer is now doing beta testing of a system in its pressroom to enable virtual press checks.

Figuring out the ROI “can be an adventure,” she admits. “A complete system costs about $3,200, so it’s not a huge investment.”

However, that figure may have to be multiplied by many user sites, depending on who (printer or customer) ends up being responsible for picking up the tab. The primary benefit is the time that clients save, Miners adds.

Democrat Printing conducted classroom training sessions to help clients become comfortable with the technology. Issues still have come up, such as a few of them wanting to get both hard copy and soft proofs without paying extra money, she says.

A trickier consequence of the switch for the printer is the tendency it has noticed in its customers to not look at online proofs as closely as hard copy. More of the files that are soft proofed are going to plate without editing, Miners says, which makes job production more efficient. But, there is a greater risk of these customers ending up unhappy about something that makes it into print.

Williams Printing in Atlanta has taken high-end monitor proofing all the way to the press, with one caveat, according to Hamp Jones, vice president of manufacturing. “We still need a blueline to check pagination,” he notes. “We’re still doing hard copy proofs too, for now, because we need to get everyone used to going off a monitor.”

The printer runs to standards, uses ICC profiles and specifies that monitors need to be calibrated daily. For client installations, it does a site assessment and calibrates the monitors, then furnishes them with a spectrophotometer for ongoing use.

“We are doing critical color proofing,” he adds. “I was a prepress guy, and even I think it’s incredible how close color can be matched on-screen.”

In moving more functions to the Web, the one point where Williams Printing is meeting some resistance is from clients’ internal IT people, Jones says. “We have to convince them to permit access.”

Disaster Recovery

Suddenly being without them gave the entire staff at Knight Abbey Printing & Direct Mail, in Biloxi, MS, a new appreciation for how integral Web-based capabilities had become to the shop’s communications with customers, reveals Benson Young, chief technology officer. The company was cut off from its customers when the facility suffered major hurricane/flood damage.

Soft proofing was a capability the company immediately looked to get back online. “It had enabled us to win business,” Young reports.

Implementing the technology also pays off in terms of providing an opportunity to improve working relationships with clients.

“We had one customer where hard copy proofs were being reviewed under three different lighting conditions. With soft proofing, you have an opportunity to get control of how proofs are viewed and used at client sites. It helps you set parameters for their sites.”

In the final analysis, adding soft proofing capability is worth the investment because time is money, asserts Robert Thompson, president of Color Craft Printing, Charleston, WV. It speeds up the process of getting a job approved, but that also can create a problem, he says. “Clients get the proofs back so fast, they also want the finished printed piece instantly.”

Proof of Concept

To the extent there are any lingering doubts about the merits of soft proofing, suitability for critical—or contract—color evaluation is the likely sticking point. Pursuing SWOP (Specifications for Web Offset Publications) certification has been a common strategy among the vendors to establish color credibility. Participating in the IPA Color Proofing RoundUP is another.

SWOP certification has long been a de facto requirement to be a player in the critical color proofing arena. This has held true for soft proofing systems, even though the specification was developed with hard copy systems in mind. To ensure it addresses the needs of the current graphic arts environment, the group responsible for SWOP is in the process of modernizing both the specification and accompanying certification program.

The steps being taken were deemed significant enough to merit suspending new certifications until July 1, 2006, when an updated industry certification program will be in place. Currently certified systems will retain their certification status for the normal two-year period, reports Dianne Kennedy, SWOP spokesperson and vice president of publishing technologies at IDEAlliance in Alexandria, VA. Manufacturers will have the option to submit their products for certification under the new system as soon as the new program begins or wait until the end of a product’s current certification period, she adds.

One of the issues being addressed is the desire of proofing system vendors to have one certification process for SWOP, GRACoL and SNAP.

“We are working to have all three specifications under the same certification umbrella,” Kennedy notes. “If all specification bodies can agree to use the same methodology based on gray balance and neutral print density curves, the only remaining difference will be the shape of the aim curve(s) that is plugged into the RIP or the ICC profile that is used. So, in theory, a single certification program will be feasible.”

Several of the SWOP Advisory Committee members see a bullish outlook for the adoption of soft proofing by large publishers and agencies. The group is working on responding to this new reality.

“We have convened a SWOP Mission Subcommittee focusing on updating SWOP’s mission to include best practices and specifications specifically addressing soft proofing and the challenges this poses,” Kennedy explains. “We plan to address initial soft proofing issues beginning July 1, but will be defining additional best practices and guidelines in the future.”

Research on “running to the numbers” will also be incorporated into SWOP’s actions in the soft proofing arena.

Further evidence of soft proofing’s suitability for critical color review has been coming from the Color Proofing RoundUPs conducted by IPA, the Association of Graphic Solutions Providers. Five dedicated soft proofing solutions were signed up for this year’s edition of the press sheet to proof matching test: CGS Publishing Technologies’ Oris Softproof, Dalim Software’s Dialogue, ICS’ Remote Director, Kodak Matchprint Virtual and SAi International’s Visual Proofer. Monitor viewing options also provided by some of the hard copy solutions are included in the test.

The 2006 roundup was organized under the leadership of Abhay Sharma, chair of the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University. Sharma points out that a big change has been instituted in the procedures this time in that all participating vendors were just sent a digital file—no hard copy reference—for the ANSI/IT8.7/4-2005 target being used. The resulting proofs will then be compared to press sheets during the judging.

IPA has arranged to have controlled viewing stations on hand for the monitors to be set up in, but the choice of monitor and all calibration is being left up to the individual vendors. Sharma says some adjustment may also be made to the general room lighting conditions for the test.

Along with the visual assessment of color match, the patches displayed (from CMYK data) on the monitors will be measured using a “telespectrocolorimeter” to check the accuracy with which the soft proofing systems are able to establish a relationship between CMYK and L*a*b*. “We are not calculating the Delta E between a press sheet and the screen,” notes the project leader.

Based on the results of the 2005 roundup and continued development of the technology, Sharma anticipated the soft proofing systems again comparing very favorably with hard copy solutions for critical color matching. This test strictly looks at color match, though, and is not intended to address issues such as ease of use, speed of rendering and cost.

Color Proofing RoundUp results were to be announced at the IPA Technical Conference in early June, then will be presented in a follow-up Webinar and report. For more information, visit www.ipa.org.

SWOP Certified Soft Proofers

Agfa — Delano WebApproval/StreamProof
CGS Publishing Technologies — Oris Soft Proof
Dalim Software — Dialogue
ICS — Remote Director
Kodak — Insite Proofing (Creo)/Matchprint Virtual Proof

 

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