Web Offset--Efficiency Is Inevitable
Labor shortages, advancing technology and customer demands are issues driving web printers toward streamlined operations.
BY ALLISON ECKEL
"I.N.S. is Looking the Other Way as Illegal Immigrants Fill Jobs: Enforcement Changes in Face of Labor Shortage." This headline sang out from the front page of an early March edition of The New York Times. The article reports that the current pool of labor in this country is so small that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is turning its back on any illegal immigrants who are contributing to the U.S. workforce.
Where did everyone go to create such a crisis? Well, the Baby Boomers are retiring—some earlier than others, if they played their stock cards right. The GenXers are the heirs apparent and there just aren't very many of them. The new Boomers are not even in high school yet. For web offset printers, this means belt-tightening time. It also means—the connection is arguable, but unmistakable—incredible advancements in automated prepress and pressroom technology.
"Finding people is difficult," states David H. Bracken, president and CEO of Brimfield, OH-based Press of Ohio, and current president of the Web Offset Association (WOA), an affiliate of Printing Industries of America. "We have a full-time recruiter; we also search high schools in the area and provide incentives for employees to bring people in. You just can't let it defeat you."
Tom Basore, WOA executive director, reveals that the Web Offset Association 48th Annual Conference—April 30 to May 3 at the San Francisco Hilton & Towers—will offer several sessions regarding personnel issues such as hiring, training and retention.
Basore has observed that as the pool of qualified and trainable workers continues to shrink, web printers are looking elsewhere for solutions. "There's a real people issue out there and it is driving a greater use of technology: If you can't find people to do it, then you have to rely on technology to get the job done."
New web presses are featuring automated functions such as ink key setting, plate changing and press washup. Finishing lines, both in-line and off-line designs, are providing high value-added techniques. Digital prepress is phasing out film and enabling digital file transmission.
Of all of these technological enhancements, the digital front end has caused the most headaches for everyone involved in the printing process. But every advancement brings relief, and many advancements are on the horizon.
A digital, computer-to-plate (CTP) workflow is designed to accomplish speed, efficiency, control. The model filmless workflow is elegant in theory: files fly around the globe from creator to press in the blink of an eye, stopping only briefly to generate a digital contract proof. Digital plates are engineered precisely with a laser, moiré is all but eliminated and "out-of-register" is a term reserved for history lessons.
However, the current reality of the all-digital workflow is not quite the ideal. The technologies are still relatively new and sufficiently varied so as to have made standardization difficult. And industry adoption has been a slow, but steady, process. Any technology upgrade costs significant capital, and the printing industry has seen its margins shrink of late. The interim state—the dual workflow of film and CTP—is a financial drain for printers, but many see it as worth the cost of a complete transition. "Because of our reprint business, we need to have two workflows: a conventional and a digital," Bracken explains.
Another snag in the streamlined efficiency of digital production has been file formats. Without an industry standard, printers have been forced to accept nearly everything generated by ones and zeros. Conversion of inappropriate or poorly preflighted files costs everyone time and money, and can affect the integrity of the print job.
Although it will be some time—and maybe never—before the industry locks down on one digital file format, printers and clients are customizing workflows of their own.
Ithaca, NY-based Wilcox Press, a top winner in the 1999 Gold Ink Awards for printing and production excellence, recently installed the Creo Prinergy workflow ("Print with Energy"). Adobe, Creo and Heidelberg Prepress have put together a system based on Adobe's Extreme workflow, whereby the printer need not revert PDF files back to PostScript prior to platesetting. This page-based prepress software automates the handling of PDF, Extreme PostScript or CT/LW files, by utilizing Adobe's Portable Job Ticket Format (PJTF). The result is a scalable system standardized on a file type and platform that plays well with others.
According to Electronic Prepress Manager Steve Weissman, Wilcox chose Prinergy because publishers are sold on the attributes of the PDF workflow, which include on-screen proofing, smaller file size than with PostScript and reliability. "Obviously, Wilcox wanted to select the best integrated solution for handling PDF files, and Prinergy was the right solution for us," he states.
"Prinergy has integrated trapping and color management," Weissman explains. "And, it's a single-page workflow, which is very important during the proofing process: any corrections can be made to a single page without affecting other pages in the form."
Many Wilcox Press customers have embraced CTP by standardizing on the PDF workflow. Now, the installation of Prinergy brings a well-rounded solution to this Gold Ink Award-winning, web offset printer.
Taking It to the Internet
The trend toward increased automation has also led many people to e-commerce solutions. These take many guises and involve different sets of players. A printer can offer Internet-based file exchanges or job ticket information to its client base.
A printer can offer customers a more robust workflow management solution, which is facilitated by a third-party vendor. Or a printer and print client may leave the brokering of print jobs to a third-party vendor. Whatever the approach, the phone lines are rockin', and pundits have found a whole new area of debate.
"A couple of years ago, printers on the WOA board were worried about the Internet and what it was going to do to their businesses. (Now they see) that it has actually increased the demand for printing," Basore explains. "Someone buys something (online), the box arrives with catalogs, forms, stickers, the packaging—a myriad of printed items.
"When television was introduced, we thought movies would disappear. There are 10 times more theaters now than even before the advent of VCRs. The printing industry is trending the same way," he concludes.
The forecast for the industry labor pool, however, does not include much rain. The positive side of any drought is how technology developers rally to compensate for such a resource drain. While working to retain current employees, take a look at new automation solutions and at strategies for streamlining prepress. Basore recommends that while shopping, keep a few things in mind. "When eveluating new technology, it will have to meet a few criteria: it has to meet or exceed the current level of quality; it has to be cost-effective; and it has to be user-friendly. Those three criteria are basic, good business practices."
A DRUPA year is the perfect time to do a systems overhaul, as every major technology developer will be pulling out all the stops to address web pressroom problems. Even if a new workflow or automated technology does not solve all problems, it could at least ease the burden of the current labor shortage.