When flipping through a brochure or any sort of packaging, you probably think that to get a design printed all you have to do is press the print button. The truth is there are plenty of steps in between before that design becomes ink on paper.
Pre-press and Reprographics are vital elements in any quality control process, and, like the packaging industry itself, they’re constantly changing and redefining the way we do our jobs. Over the years, companies’ demands for production have continued to increase to market their products. So, it’s no surprise the worldwide printing market has become a $5-billion industry. With such high stakes, quality work is critical, which means pre-press houses must stay in the loop with current technology.
With the advent of desktop computers decades ago, what we used to call pre-press and repro departments are now quickly transforming into completely different things.
The process has changed dramatically, from mechanical board systems, paste-ups, and conventional cameras to all-in-one automated workflows. Now, pre-press professionals have to be multi-talented; It’s no longer just about the plate.
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Historic Review of Pre-press Printing
Traditional pre-press methods consisted of several, time-consuming steps and were often prone to errors. The process began with the design of rough sketches that would then go to a typesetter for text inclusion. Typesetting was done on obsolete metal types or type composition machines, such as Linotype. Images were photographed and edited using conventional photographic procedures. Text and images then go to the paste-up person who adds everything on a paste-up board.
After all the text and ”For Position Only” boxes for images are placed, the paste-up board is photographed and negatives are created. The ”stripper” takes these negatives, checks them, and then brings everything together into flats or sheets. These flats are ”imposed” in the order set to be printed, according to how they’ll be cut, folded, or assembled.
Finally, the imposed pages are turned into plates for manual proofreading and later go in the printing press.
It was a long and highly technical process that involved a lot of manual operation, subsequently creating larger risk for error. Turnaround times were longer, and, even if humans are taken out of the equation, these types of printers usually dealt with image alignment and coloring issues, so predictability was out of the question too.
Modern Pre-Press Technology
The packaging industry is completely controlled by customers’ needs – that driving force of change whose expectations will always exceed reality.
If you offer pre-press solutions, you’re probably used to being given near- impossible tasks to be done in the smallest amount of time. Clients want their products to stand out from the crowd and it’s your job to deliver as soon as possible.
With that being said, how do we keep doing that in a world where needs and demands are always changing? We change the way we’re doing things.
We evolve in order to surpass our challenges and achieve the ultimate goal: getting the job done faster, better, and in the most cost-effective way, which leads to our main focus: How did pre-press evolve into the digital and automated world? Most importantly, how did this change influence the packaging industry?
With the advent of digital printing, market dynamics promptly shifted away from plates to more conventional printing technologies, such as offset and flexography.
Desktop publishing stopped being a trend and became a reality for businesses. However, it’s surprising to know that, even today, a considerable share of the global pre-press packaging market still uses tooling and plate manufacturing.
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Desktop Publishing Process
Modern desktop publishing begins at the designing stage, but this time designers make early digital sketches with which they have complete control over type, changing it on the fly, arranging it right on the page, adjusting leading, kerning, and tracking without needing a typesetter or a paste-up person. The same goes for images; They can be digitally cropped, scaled, and color-enhanced.
Designers then place everything on the publication and rearrange as necessary. In the event these files need imposition, this is also done completely within the software used for publication. Regarding proofreading and quality control, even manual proofreading is easier using desktop publishing compared to traditional methods – mainly because it gives you the chance of printing interim copies on regular printers, so lots of errors are caught before the publication reaches the negatives or plating stages.
Another benefit of digital prepress printing is that you can output directly to film, from the digital file or directly from digital file to plate. This shift from analogue to digital is making film-base engraving disappear from the market. Even big players like Fuji and Kodak have stopped fabricating film plotters, so it’s only a matter of time before the whole industry makes this switch.
Digital printing offers far better results when it comes to quality. Images are basically flawless, there are no alignment or registration issues, and the color turns out to be vibrant, making repeated images 100% predictable. These printers can also use the entire length of a printable item.
While it might seem too expensive to invest in, eventually you’ll end up cutting costs. Conventional printers rely on plates and films, which can be quite pricy. Digital printing doesn’t use these materials and they’re very easy to set up and operate.
Turnaround times are reduced drastically and digital printers can switch over to new labels almost immediately. You won’t waste time setting up plates or machinery parts, reaching job completion deadlines days or even weeks earlier.
By reducing manual operation, the possibility of human error, possibly leading to complete product recall, is reduced to a minimum. It also means personnel can be deployed to complete other productive tasks.
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Automated Pre-press Workflows
Workflow is the fairly generic term used to refer to the steps a job or project must go through in order to be completed. In the pre-press business though, a workflow doesn’t refer to the process, but to the software that automates all these steps of the process. Workflows integrate all the decisions and deliverables required from the early design stages all the way through to printing.
Workflow automation is a concept that is probably easier to understand than it is to define. It incorporates a wide set of tools (within each workflow segment) intended to help users boost their efficiency, lower costs, and minimize the impact of human error, resulting in a faster time to market.
Current pre-press workflows, like Esko’s Automation Engine, run through all the basic production steps, like trapping, screening, imposition, color management, proofreading, and platemaking. Yet Esko’s engine differs from conventional software because it’s tailored for the packaging industry. It features several functions that correspond to the complexity of the end product: folding cartons, corrugated boxes, bags, labels…
These types of automated workflows also reflect the wide array of inks, shapes, substrates, and finishes needed in the industry to increase shelf appeal, proving automation is a valuable asset for businesses.
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Color Management Software
Color management is a key step of the printing process, especially when it comes to packaging. Since inks are not completely opaque, the color, texture, and density of the packaging material is going to show underneath the ink being printed, resulting in color variation that can be substantial. That’s why pre-press professionals must take all these factors into account to create the best possible outcome for clients.
The best way to control color is to measure it using a spectro densitometer, but that would mean an extra load of work for pre-pressers. What we are seeing in today’s market is that clients are transmitting color specifications digitally, by spectral values, so current color management software, like Esko’s Color Engine, can run those values against digital color libraries.
One of the most successful libraries is PantoneLIVE. It’s a centralized cloud-based spectral database that allows brand-owners, designers, pre-press professionals, and really anyone in the supply chain to meet color specifications and tolerances while also ensuring all files sent to the press room will print with minimal color issues.
All-in-One Quality Controls
New technology is geared towards all-in-one services. For example, GlobalVision and Esko recently joined forces to develop the first, fully automated, all-in-one quality control tool that allows packaging companies to streamline the entire proofreading process and catch every error in the workflow, from missing periods to color changes.
Now, Esko’s Automation Engine Suite 16 comes with GlobalVision’s text, graphic, Braille, barcode, and spelling inspection tools, allowing the user to create custom workflows and program automated inspections in every step of the process.
The role of pre-press has drastically changed over the last decade. With the degree of integration that’s been achieved, not just in pre-press, but across all departments in the printing business, pre-press has become the game-changer for a print service provider to deliver the highest level of satisfaction for their customers, all while also maintaining high profitability.
Top-performing printers are the ones who made the investment towards full integration, and now understand that benefits will come almost immediately. Pre-press technology is radically changing the landscape for packaging companies. Automated workflows are the simpler and most-effective way to protect your work through every step of the process. If companies don’t start crossing over and embracing new technologies, there might come a time where they won’t be able to compete against other fully-automated enterprises.