Cutting Down Prepress File Errors

In the decade or so since computer-to-plate (CTP) technology was introduced to the catalog industry en masse, catalogers have gotten used to better, faster, and cheaper printing. But while open file and language standards enable a more-seamless communication between production and prepress systems, bottlenecks still occur during the prepress portion of the workflow.

Most of these delays are the result of file problems that can be traced all the way back to when the catalog page was created. In fact, some printers say that as many as 85% of the files they receive are problematic.

Indeed, “computer-to-plate has printers relying more heavily on the customer to prepare the files right,” suggests James Hipple, creative director, focused image team for AutomationDirect, a cataloger of industrial automation supplies based in Cumming, GA.

Many of the file errors are relatively simple. Perhaps the fonts weren’t embedded, or maybe a low-resolution RGB (red/green/blue) graphic was in place where a high-res CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black) image should have been. Printers can easily fix many such problems, but even the simplest errors can stall prepress and cost you time and money to repair and resubmit the files.

“Why is it important to catch errors as far away from press as possible? Time and money,” Hipple says. “Once you’ve submitted your files to the printer and they find problems, you’re going to have to sacrifice schedule time and money to have someone fix it on the printer’s end.” But if you take the time to educate yourself on how to create good files, he notes, “the job will run smoother, and you’ll find that your productivity goes way up.”


Before AutomationDirect changed printers a few years ago, Hipple says, producing digital files was “a major chore,” particularly for the company’s core catalogs, which run to 1,600 pages. When AutomationDirect took its print business to Banta Corp. approximately four years ago, it became Hipple’s immediate mission to ensure that the workflow was going to run smoother — not only for its larger catalogs but for its smaller editions as well.

Early in the relationship, Hipple initiated conversations with technical specialists at Banta Corp.’s plant, seeking guidance on how the cataloger could best create prepress-ready digital files for the printer’s workflow. Tom Clifford, Banta’s prepress production manager in Menasha, WI, says it’s part of the printer’s job to educate customers and enable them to assimilate to a workflow that’s based on best practices and proven digital technologies. In addition to providing its customers with detailed documentation on how to create Banta-preferred PDF documents, holding WebEx virtual meetings, and talking to the customers directly, Clifford says that his company mandates a trial run of the workflow before the first live job runs on the press.

Most printing companies are able to provide their catalog customers with simple instructions on how to create digital files for their prepress workflow, including specifications for file size, dimensions, resolution, color space and font inclusion.

“We insist on getting a trial — an eight- or a 16-page representation of what you’re going to be sending to us for the live job. We go through those files with a fine-tooth comb,” Clifford explains. “That’s where we flush out all the problems in the workflow. We work with the customer to smooth out the problems, run a second trial if needed, and then, it’s pretty much hands-off when the real job comes in.”


Preflighting — verifying that the application files have been prepared correctly, with all elements present and accounted for — is key to ensuring that the files you provide your printer are good to go. “All created files should be preflighted before reaching the printer,” says Adam Frey, digital aid/customer service, Cadmus Communications, a catalog printer based in Ephrata, PA. “The further down the line a mistake is caught, the more time and money it wastes.”

Preflighting can be done with an inexpensive stand-alone software tool, such as Markzware’s FlightCheck Professional, which verifies most types of native application, PostScript, and PDF files, or Enfocus’s PitStop Professional, a tool specific to PDF verification and editing.

Making sure that customers supply their printers with good digital files is crucial in print production workflow today, Clifford says. “You need to understand that a 30-second change in the design stage, on a master template, could become a 10-hour change after the pages have been supplied to the printer — or worse, a $100,000 change once the job has been printed.”

For a modest software investment, catalogers can avoid such dire situations. Desktop-based preflighting tools can cost less than $500.

Postflighting, conversely, is the process of verifying that the final prepress exchange format is ready for contract proofing or plate-setting. Here, printers often use solutions from developers such Apago, Enfocus, or Markzware to check the files.

To move good file creation even further upstream, a Markzware product called FlightCheck Studio now allows for preflighting on the fly. This plug-in to QuarkXPress allows the designer to designate document parameters based on the printer’s specifications and instructions. For example, the designer may designate high-resolution CMYK images as the standard; if he mistakenly places a low-res graphic or an RGB image, the software would alert him immediately so that he could fix the error then and there.

Providing good files to the printer is more than just a courtesy. If a cataloger wants to stop the press to make a spelling change or type changes, that’s fine, Clifford says: “You realize that there’s a cost associated with that decision. Well, there’s also a cost to you when you submit a bad file. It’s going to cost you X number of dollars per hour to fix it, not to mention the cost to your schedule.”

Granted, ensuring that the prepress file is flawless has its own cost: a little more responsibility and effort on the art director’s end. “Once you’re done designing a product, it’s not done when it leaves your desktop,” Hipple says. “It’s done only when it’s come off the press. This is a production process, and you need to educate yourself on the total craft.”

Gretchen A. Peck is an Abington, PA-based freelance writer who covers the graphic arts and printing industries.

Nonkiller apps

Complicating the digital workflow — and increasing the chance of file errors — is the abundance of design applications and file formats available. Some printers have standardized the type of content they’ll accept — a PDF/X-1a file, for example, is the premier standardized format developed and adopted by the advertising-for-print community.

Other printers will gladly accept most file formats — whatever type the customer is best equipped to produce. “We receive PDF and PostScript files, as well as Quark, PageMaker, Illustrator, InDesign, Word, and sometimes, in rare instances, a CorelDraw file,” says Adam Frey, digital aid/customer service for Ephrata, PA-based printer Cadmus Communications. “We prefer our customers send high-res PDF files with all the fonts embedded, but we will work with application files too. If a customer sends us application files, we also need all the fonts — printer and screen — as well as all the linked images.”

Of the file types Cadmus receives from its customers, Frey estimates that about 75% are “good files,” or without flaws and prepared according to the printer’s prepress specifications. As for the other 25%, Frey says that about half require some major repair before plates can be made.

As in other catalog/printer relationships, Cadmus’s catalog customers have some incentive to submit well-created and well-produced digital content files. “We do charge an hourly rate for files that need to be fixed,” Frey says. “The rate for good PDFs is cheaper than application files, due to shorter process time.” — GAP


Enhance your printer-client relationship

Contract negotiation with your catalog printer should involve more than just the cost of printing the job. During the negotiation of the job contract, you and your printer should also discuss the workflow. This early-stage mapping of the workflow will ensure that both of you are on the proverbial same page before the live job kicks off. It should also enable you to negotiate incentives or discounts for abiding by the printer’s workflow requirements.

Determine what types of content file formats you’re able to produce. Do you have the capabilities and technologies to create good PDF files, for example? Do you deploy any tools that allow you to “collect for output,” enabling you to ensure all the file’s elements are in place before you send it off to the printer?

Consult with the printer beforehand. Ask what type of files the printer prefers, and why.

Request the technical file specifications from the printer, including how files should be sized, trim-and-bleed parameters, and resolution requirements.

Demand the support you need from the printer. A printer is often your best friend when it comes to education and workflow support. Ask about educational programs it may offer, or what support it can provide to you as you learn and implement the new workflow.

If the printer wants a type of file that you’re not equipped to provide, ask for recommendations on low-cost software that will allow you to create the files. Some printers even provide free file conversion and preflighting tools to customers.

Implement quality-control on the front end. There’s real incentive to making sure the files they release to their print partners are prepared correctly and according to the printer’s specification. You’ll save time and money by implementing best practices in file creation and adopting some simple-to-use file-verification tools.

Look back After the live job is run, have a meeting with the printer to discuss what went well and what could have gone better. Consider the new workflow a work in progress, and be committed to reevaluate how you exchange content until you and the printer are satisfied with the results. — GAP

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