How a Wide-Format Workflow Can Speed Production and Ensure Quality While Cutting Costs

As in other parts of the printing industry, the wide-format sector is seeing a general increase in the number of jobs handled each day, while individual runs become shorter. This is a result of the ongoing trend towards increased customisation and more tightly targeted print and also because of the increasing productivity of large-format print devices. This means that the printing time decreases as a proportion of the total time that a job takes, while the job set-up and pre-flighting, finishing, shipping and installation become more important in determining the job’s overall costs.

The majority of these tasks are still handled manually, which makes them increasingly expensive compared to the printing itself. Automation of manual job-preparation and production processes via a dedicated workflow offers a way to improve productivity in these areas and so improve profitability on each job.

At the simplest production level, a basic RIP offers benefits compared to a print driver, such as the ability to print in the background while the next job is being prepared and job queuing and management tools for output to more than one printer, for example. However, a relatively new category of wide-format workflow solutions has emerged in recent years. These systems are intended to support and automate the related tasks that come before and after the printing stage as well as to manage print production more efficiently.

There’s no hard-and-fast distinction between large format RIPs and workflow systems, as different vendors implement their workflow features in different ways, but capabilities in this category include the following:

Application-specific artwork preparation: Preparing printed output for installation is a critical part of any wide-format job. Rigid media may have to be cut or scored and folded; banners or flags usually require eyelets; textiles may need hems or pockets to be formed to permit attachment to frames. Support for the calculation and placement of these features directly within artwork and direct communication with digital cutters and other finishing equipment saves time, both in production and during installation, reducing the chance of of errors and material wastage. Correct calculation of image file size related to output size, application and viewing distance can reduce RIP processing times for faster output, or flag potential problems with images of insufficient resolution before anything is printed;

Pre-flighting of artwork: A number of common faults can prevent output from appearing as the designer intended. These include missing fonts, incorrectly or inconsistently-defined colours, particularly where layers and ‘live’ transparency effects are used, missing linked graphics, and embedded EPS or other graphic files which may also have any of the same problems. As a minimum, the ability to detect and flag issues of this type will prevent wasted output time and materials. Ideally it will be possible to directly fix these problems within the workflow, without returning to the originating design or graphics application;

Previewing and soft-proofing: A preview based on RIP-processed data is a useful tool for identifying content or construction errors in a file before any media is wasted, as well as providing a double-check on any finishing-specific elements that have been added to the original artwork. For client approval and internal quality control purposes it may also be advantageous to have a fully colour-managed soft-proofing capability to ensure that colour will print as expected. Remote soft-proofing via an online portal is an added-value feature that consumer customers would expect in a web-to-print service. Though it’s impractical to implement display colour management in a business-to-consumer setting, it is feasible when working with regular business customers where the necessary controls and procedures for remote display calibration can be implemented;

Colour management: Basic colour management capabilities include the ability to linearise printer output and apply standard ICC profile-based colour transformations to maintain colour matching between different media and printers, and to keep colour consistent over time for any given printer, ink and media combination. Matching spot colours via conversion to their process equivalents is frequently a requirement in large format work; most RIPs support this. More advanced features include the ability to create custom profiles for new ink and media combinations and to match colours to standards used in other types of print, such as the Fogra or SWOP sets used in offset litho printing, so that products printed on a variety of media using different imaging technologies can be made to match acceptably.

A workflow solution for wide format print should not only help maintain quality, detect errors in advance of printing and increase efficiency in review and approval but should also provide production management tools and integrate with business systems such as MIS and ERP. These capabilities are discussed in detail in separate articles.