I have recently been discussing the pros and cons of PDF workflows with a lot of colleagues, and they seem to focus around issues that seem mundane, but that are essential to profit in the changing industry. We are moving back to the basics: verify, certify, automate, and profile are the issues today. It used to be okay to say “Hey, I actually got a PDF file to print to my platesetter perfectly”, and now, it is more “I need to print 80 press-forms a shift, without error.” Because however, users got involved in PDF from a myriad of different means and methods, the industry was fractured and a ‘PDF workflow’ was a pretty ambiguous term. In the days of film, we could say to our clients, “We want right-reading, emulsion-down, 150 line negatives”, and we pretty much knew what we were going to get. Now that we have converged upon PDF from a variety of paths and have given up that dependability, it is time to standardise.
This has facilitated a heavy movement towards the JDF (Job Definition Format, and XML-based file format for job ticket specifications) and automation implementation with another initiative, CIP4 (The International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress) (www.cip4.org). The CIP4 process automation strategy has ramifications that can tie into more acronyms than a military organisation, and ultimately can allow complete and total process automation. Many smaller shops are not ready or able to commit to the requirements that all of this entails, but the big boys love it, and are looking to make it happen for their benefit.
PDF itself has evolved into a more cohesive and specified format with great support from a group of professionals known as the ‘Ghent PDF Workgroup.’ (www.ghentpdfworkgroup.org/) These industry leaders have developed a series of specifications based upon PDF/X-1a and subsequently PDF/X-3 for use in graphic reproduction, and they are some very well thought out specifications.
It is groups like this who bring expertise to the prepress and separation side of the workflow, much as organisations such as SWOP (Specifications for Web Offset Publications) have done in the past for the downstream aspects of production as related to printing. The Ghent workgroup has been instrumental to bring the minds of nearly a dozen large graphic arts organisations and technical foundations together, and working to solve a common problem.
This is good for the industry because it means that people see the value of hands-off workflow and automation, with greatly reduced spoilage and errors.
Utilising the efforts of the Ghent workgroup, and developing workflows that your clients can easily use, will allow them to continue to supply a steady stream of hands-off documents. This is increasingly important in that the mere process of asking for a PDF file from your customer already limits what you will be able to do to modify that document if it has errors or modifications. The one thing that I feel I often have to reiterate is that PDF is not an edit format, it is a distribution and print format.
That said, it is often a sad reality in our business that the world is not a series of flawless and efficient file outputs. While an increasing number of submitted jobs are arriving in PDF format, an equally large percentage of submitted PDF files are created improperly. This again highlights the work of the Ghent workgroup as a starting point, but the bottom line is that your success in PDF will stem from your ability to teach your content creators to prevent problems before they become problems.
It is absolutely essential to establish an open and two-way communication with those whom supply you with documents. Once you begin asking them for PDF files, you are asking for a file that have inherent in them a lack of editability. I often joke that PDF files are indeed misnamed as ‘Portable Documents’, but I see them more as a ‘Portable Output’ where the print conditions are captured. So if you intend to embark on a PDF workflow, you owe it to yourself and your clients originating files, to teach them what you expect, prefer or just require.
A workflow starts before the job hits your shop, and ends when the customer gets their print. Many of my clients have found that their best success comes from a combination of customer training and development of good, descriptive read-me files and materials. If we are going to expect our clients to provide us with files that are as far down the production path as is possible, we must be prepared to deal with the consequences. There should only be consequences if you have not taken the preemptive steps to train your clients that create ‘Press Ready’ PDF files, and inform them of your needs. You have to be able to talk to you clients to tell them when a problem occurs in their files, and offer assistance in preventing it in the future.
Thanks to the efforts of these aforementioned organisations, it may soon be able to trust a PDF file as much as we once did film, at least until Acrobat 7.
Chris Heric is a US-based prepress consultant. He specialises in the area of PDF and is the track chairman for the PDF for print Conference at Seybold.
Contact Chris Heric via email: firstname.lastname@example.org