For the last few years the prepress business has been caught up in a very peculiar drama, which has seen it change irrevocably, Laurel Brunner presents the definitive prepress world of today
Prepress is no longer a discrete industry sector for which people had to develop very specific skills. The digitisation of prepress processes has created all sorts of new opportunities for printers and service providers, as well as taking a wrecking ball to whole swathes of the industry. As the sector stumbles, too often blindly, towards its future. It is time to consider how to transition printing and publishing businesses to fully exploit those opportunities.
We are in the age of the web, where stand alone digital prepress is an anachronism. The advent of digital typesetting in the seventies, followed by desktop publishing in the eighties, marked the beginning of a gradual but irreversible series of process digitisations. Digital typesetting followed by PostScript rendered hot metal typesetting obsolete. Integrated text and graphics in a single digital output stream, followed by electronic page make-up and layout tools, undermined stripping and manual film cut and paste.
Direct to plate output removed the entire film bit of the workflow, and direct to press output, variable data and the on-demand short run model took the whole business of prepress to a new level of sophistication.
Preflight, colour management, and networked communications and file delivery continue to up our market’s quality expectations, capabilities and scope. And the internet brings distributed digital production to its logical conclusion, making data management an even more major consideration for process efficiency.
Where Are We Now?
So where does all this leave prepress today? What comes next? How can efficient prepress leverage other technology assets in the printer’s business model? Let’s be clear: any business is about investing into technologies and expertise that can be exploited to simultaneously earn and save money. This is what happened as prepress shifted from craft to automated process and previously isolated prepress tasks moved up and down the supply chain. Colour management, for instance, now begins when a designer creates a new document in XPress or Indesign, and doesn’t stop until the page comes off the press, such is the degree of process control we have over data and printing engines. It’s prepress, but not as we used to know it.
For a print buyer, this is great news because the time, error rates and cost of prepress, have all fallen dramatically over the last few years. This collapse has come as a dreadful shock for printers entrenched in traditional workflows, but it has created huge opportunities for printers willing to embrace digital production models to get out of the commodity business. Patrick Martell, top boss at big UK printer St Ives summed up matters perfectly when commenting recently on the group’s 2011 interim results: “We have continued to reposition the group by strengthening our position in marketing services, whilst successfully moving away from commoditised print markets.” Digital prepress drives this reality. We believe it is based on seven pillars of technology, which we’ve summarised here.
1. The Internet
The internet, of course, drives most change in the printing industry, and in pretty much all of its markets, which is everywhere and everyone. The accessibility of tools for content distribution via the internet seeds new markets for media, including print. Social media, like it or not, is a content and market resource that printers can exploit on behalf of their customers. From catalogues produced on demand according to peoples’ preferences and buying patterns, through to digital newsprint printed on a cruise ship, the internet delivers print. Clever exploitation of integrated media interests and content delivery mechanisms are a massive opportunity, but they depend on powerful information technology (IT).
2. The cloud
Cloud computing is the next stage in IT’s evolution and it can deliver the power print media creators, producers and users require. For years IT has played a major role in prepress and print, for instance, in the rise in rip power over the last few years. Scaleable server architectures for DFEs are the norm for high volume production. We no longer buy a single rip system, but rather an IT environment for data processing and rippng such as HP SmartStream or Xerox FreeFlow.
The internet uses a cloud-based model to deliver content and processes. It is ubiquitous and generalist, unlike the cloud. The cloud provides secure, dedicated services, often to private customers, and a foundation for bespoke media services. Think Apple’s iCloud or similar offerings from Google and Amazon to manage subscribers’ music, photos and documents. Cloud computing is an inexpensive, efficient, and powerful option for prepress services. It will help bring prepress capabilities to an ever wider market, a market in ever greater need of output.
3. Software as a service
As IT services move away from the desktop and into the cloud, the printing industry is slowly moving with it, for instance, on-demand corporate print delivered via branded websites. Software is also moving to an on-demand web-based model. Traditional delivery routes for media creation and development software, and for integrated web-to-print workflow software are gradually disappearing. Technologies such as the Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Office will soon be delivered exclusively via the cloud: consider the Acrobat or BBC iPlayer upgrade notices that regularly appear when you are online. Agfa has long delivered upgrades and support for its Apogee technology using the SaaS model to keep costs and upgrade procedures under control.
Software and services sold via the cloud create a new competitive marketplace for the prepress and printing community, because of the economies of scale and cost reductions they offer. And it means we are dealing with all sorts of new service providers. Our investment conversations can no longer begin and end with the traditional prepress developers. Cisco, Oracle, IBM, Accenture are not names most printers consider when planning new kit investment, but this is where the industry’s future lies.
Process automation and quality control depend absolutely on standards. Products such as Enfocus Switch, for example, rely on computing standards to manage software applications to turn them into automation modules. Process standards such as the ISO 12647 series, currently under review, instead establish the quality control parameters for different printing methods, such as sheetfed offset or gravure.
Standards compliance gives printers an added competitive advantage and provides them with a process control mechanism that helps keep the business tight. The PDF-X series, effectively implemented in the workflow, provides printers with a further mechanism for quality control by requiring supplied files to meet defined criteria for flawless output. And the excellent work of the ICC since its inception in 1993, has provided colour controls that have helped the industry transition to the digital, mass-market age.
5. Software & hardware rental models
Printers can invest in standards without too much cost or strife. But cost drives and constrains everything, so the C word is not one that printers, their suppliers or customers like very much. This is why we are starting to see new approaches to software and hardware sales, especially in the digital press market. The model extends up- and downstream, to further assist printers with cost control. Distributors such as Four Pees are working with their reseller customers to provide a software rental model. Instead of buying software outright the buyer pays a monthly fee to use it, including all upgrades and support. Encompass IT is another example, providing IT rental services to prepress and design companies.
6. Cross media drivers
The printer’s business model must incorporate complements and alternatives to hard copy media. Print buyers want to work with media service providers who understand where print fits in the marketing mix and how it can be used to improve investment returns for other media. Media campaigns that use multiple channels are more effective than single channel efforts, and provide a broader foundation for value added services revenue. Understanding how to exploit multiple delivery channels and to cross leverage them, is a huge opportunity for print.
7. Service mentality
But taking advantage of the digital media market, its noisiness, bluntness and general chaos, depends on a proactive rather than protectionist stance. The nature of print, traditionally shaped by high capital equipment costs and specialisation, has kept it relatively isolated from its markets. This must change. Printers are in the business of making media production convenient and easy, and media buyers are willing to pay for work that is well done and effective so printers must engage.
Seven pillars of progress
So there you have it, the seven pillars of prepress. They exist in a commercial milieu driven by process automation and integration, financial terrors and the universal need to manage carbon, about which we’ve much to say but no room in which to say it. As print customers and users grow in media sophistication, print’s role becomes more important, not least as a catalyst for buying decisions. Capturing the business requires a foundation that fully exploits digital prepress’s seven pillars. This demands acceptance of the digital reality, commitment to training and education, and proactive engagement with development.