Where time is wasted and costs are added in wide-format print production is often in the hand-over between the various discrete processes that constitute the job – file receipt and preparation, printing, finishing, collation, packing, shipping and installation – which in many cases are still being carried out as separate, manual operations. Planning and automation of the whole process from end to end can enable reduction of these manual ‘touch points’ and is a major factor in achieving an efficient large-format digital printing system.
Dedicated workflow and production management software is available for wide-format digital print shops. The capabilities of different vendors’ offerings vary but will ideally address all of the following categories.
Media optimisation: Screen print operators are familiar with step-and-repeat and job nesting to maximise the work that can be produced from a fixed area of media. In the digital world, workflow software can handle these tasks automatically, and also be able to calculate tiled output for the production of finished jobs that exceed the bed size or roll width. Systems with more sophisticated nesting capabilities can rotate and arrange jobs according to their cut-out paths rather than just butting up the bounding boxes of the artwork, which further reduces media wastage. Job scheduling capabilities make it possible for less urgent jobs that are destined for a specific printer and media combination to be queued and held until sufficient work is ready to fill a pre-determined area or roll length.
Communication with finishing equipment: Many large format jobs require further work once printed, such as cutting out of window, vehicle or floor decals, or cutting, creasing and folding of rigid POS or display products, for example. There is an additional productivity benefit if this information can be communicated directly to automated finishing equipment, particularly CNC cutters, so that complex cut-outs can be handled reliably with minimal additional manual set-up of the cutting table; often the necessary information is generated at the prepress stage as part of the artwork preparation process. Refinements in this area can include on-the-fly recalculation of cutting paths based on media distortion or mis-register during the printing process.
Production planning for distribution: Not only is installation an important part of most wide format jobs, but the collation, packing and shipping of multiple items can be a major bottleneck for the print service provider. Although it may intuitively seem quicker to print all items of a similar type at once, sorting and packing the finished products for a large retail chain order with a mix of several item types per store and multiple drop/installation points can easily take as long as the printing does, with the danger of large or fragile items being damaged while in storage or during collation.
Production planning systems can take the collation, packing and shipping requirements into account in order to provide the fastest overall fulfilment, even if that may mean printing and finishing items in an apparently less productive sequence. With correct colour management, load balancing across multiple printers – and even across multiple print sites – can also be implemented, enabling the most efficient use of a print provider’s resources to meet customer orders.
Versioning / variable data printing: Although most large format print is short-run and highly customised by its nature, there is a growing demand for ‘every version different’ variable data print (VDP) in which a master template is combined on-the-fly with variable text and/or image data from a database to generate automatically a sequence of customised pieces. This technology originates in high volume digital or hybrid offset/digital ‘transpromo’ print, but the applications in wide format work for serving franchise customers, such as restaurant chains, for example, are clear.
The adoption of emerging VDP output file standards such as PDF/VT is likely to drive demand for VDP in the large format sector, as is the increasing range of software tools that can generate this type of print data stream. While some of these are dedicated applications for producing high-volume personalised direct mail, others operate as plug-ins to standard page layout tools such as Adobe InDesign and so are relevant to the wide-format sector.
Not all RIP/workflow vendors support all of the production management features described here, and not all users will require all of them. However, an awareness of their existence will help large format print service providers to choose RIP and workflow solutions which recognise that putting ink on substrate is only one part of the larger chain of events that constitutes delivering a wide-format job and which provide the best combination of efficiency, productivity and cost-saving.