CTP Troubleshooting--Covering All Bases
BY CHERYL A. ADAMS
"Batter Up!" Simple words that can induce anxiety in the heart of any rookie player facing a world-class pitcher for the very first time...a feeling all too familiar to a computer-to-plate (CTP) novice, who's switch-hitting from a conventional workflow. With so much riding on success, the last call you want to hear is: "Swing and a miss!"
So here's a crash course in CTP Troubleshooting 101.
The troubleshooting process should be incorporated into every aspect of the prepress operation, from preventive pre-installation measures to management of incoming digital files, all the way through final proof.
"Troubleshooting begins before the technology is installed," notes Verle Osborne, president of Print Direct in Houston, which began CTP production in early 1997. And that means having vendor support.
"Without it, you're doomed. You can overcome anything with enough information. It's up to the vendor to supply info along with support," says Osborne. "The trick is to make sure there's enough info to make the decisions that keep us up to speed with the equipment."
Doug Brustad, director of prepress operations at Challenge Printing, in Eden Prairie, MN, also emphasizes the importance of vendor involvement—particularly in the area of training.
"Vendors are willing to work with you," says Brustad. "They want their equipment to work."
For the equipment to work, printers must go through the rigors of implementing—and mastering—a digital workflow. Then, once the transition is made, printers will need to troubleshoot the variables that surface.
"That involves everything from press chemical compatibility [with digital-style plates] to plate exposure, to calibration between the dot on plate and the final printed piece," Brustad explains.
As the film stage is eliminated by the very nature of CTP, so is the crucial point at which mistakes can be detected before going to plate. However, when one door closes (the elimination of film), another one usually opens: enter preflighting. This allows printers to make the appropriate adjustments during the earliest stages.
Lehigh Press, of Cherry Hill, NJ, has been fully operational in CTP since November 1997. Eric Roberts, technology marketing manager, believes the key to a seamless transition is having an infrastructure that's as digital as possible. This includes digital proofing.
Roberts explains that Lehigh implemented QuickLink, its high-speed data transmission system, two years prior to going CTP: "With QuickLink in place, there was very little transition in the front end. Our customers were already used to submitting their work digitally."
Lehigh is careful to catch problems early on. Incoming files are assigned a job number and ticket, before being run through the preflight process to determine if any are corrupt. Lehigh uses Markzware's FLIGHTCHECK, a standalone software application that verifies all the elements of an original file, then reports detected problems.
Preflighting programs such as these are becoming an essential part of the troubleshooting process, says Roberts, especially since an increasing number of customers are completing their own scans.
But preflighting is only part of the troubleshooting process. For Osborne, things started happening as soon as the system was running.
"Program issues were the least of our worries," he says, "until the program we tried to use grounded us down to a halt. We weren't expecting that."
In this case, troubleshooting meant trying other programs, and Osborne claims the answer came from an unlikely place: the Mac. By using programs like Quark and PageMaker, and treating the CTP system as a printer, Print Direct was "able to go straight-to-plate with no problems," Osborne says.
Challenge Printing reports several successful troubleshooting experiences as well. Brustad notes solutions in such problem areas as plate scratching (tracked and located in the transport to the processor), plate fall-off on press (presently experimenting with increased exposures) and inconsistent laser exposures (eliminated by weekly inspections and equipment maintenance). The end result: Challenge may soon be switching from photopolymer to thermal plates.
Before any company can experience successful CTP troubleshooting, however, it must first win over employees resistant to change.
"We've got a couple of conservative guys in back who'd rather wait [to go CTP] until the technology is more fine-tuned," says one printing executive, who requested anonymity. "But that's not going to happen. There's a continual learning curve, which takes place each time a piece of equipment arrives. So, you'll always be fine-tuning. You just have to roll the dice and make it work."
Facing an untamed, filmless technology, which will inevitably throw some wild-pitch glitches, the rookie CTP printer must practice to gain maximum control over its digital workflow process.
Repurposing is part of the practice.
"CTP is an important piece of the workflow equation, but it's only one piece," contends Lee Webster, prepress production manager within R.R. Donnelley's Commercial Print Sector. "Photography, page geometry, images, text, SKU numbers, price, permissions, photographers, copyrights—you have to be able to bring all these pieces together. Repurposing is the key."
Webster says repurposing has been an essential link in the evolution of Donnelley's CTP process, which began 20 years ago with the company digitally burning plates.
"What's most important here is how you manage your digital assets," continues Webster. "It doesn't matter what the output is—plate, film, digital press, etc. The key is to create the file in a way that can be repurposed. Content management is especially important in repurposing."
But there's a lot more to repurposing than just content management, says David Donovan, systems engineer at Print Direct in Houston.
"Repurposing gives you better control over the manufacturing process; it gives you more flexibility in output, while maintaining consistency in input," he explains. "In the digital environment, we have the flexibility to control the input, which allows us to output in many formats."
And whatever the format—plate, film, digital press, video, electronic media or the Web—the more consistent the process, the easier it is to control.
As an example, Donovan cites stochastic screening, where the tone reproduction curve is more radical. According to Donovan, repurposing allows a printer to alter that curve.
Repurposing also allows more consistency between press set-ups. For example, he says Print Direct might be running a job on two presses, with interstation UV drying between each unit. "With repurposing," Donovan explains, "we can run either press and still get consistent results."