PRODUCTION TRENDS: Saying goodbye to analog

To save money, reduce turnaround time, and minimize frustration in today’s fast-paced world of catalog production, you’ve got to keep up with the latest developments. The same will hold true in the 21st century. In fact, staying apace with technology may become even more important, as digital asset management systems and digital printing will become all but unavoidable. To give you a jump-start on the technology of 2001, we’ve asked industry professionals for their predictions on the hot production issues.

Jim Whittington and Dr. Joseph Webb are founders of and partners in San Francisco-based TrendWatch, a graphic arts and publishing consultancy and market research firm.

Watch for developments that help you version/customize/personalize better. The catalog business is headed toward personalization based on purchase patterns and preferences from extensive data mining of customer or prospect databases. Digital printing will make this concept possible, as a print run of one catalog can be managed using digital technology.

On the prepress side, we’ll see color management systems that will allow for more accurate and predictable digital proofing. Both color management systems and digital proofing will continue to fall in price. Portable document files (PDFs) [which can be opened and read by virtually all computer systems] will also be a big part of catalog production in the future.

Digital cameras will continue to improve, especially for studio shots; the jury may still be out on outdoor fashion shots. We’re already seeing service bureaus installing digital studios onsite and renting them to photographers. We expect to see more of this as digital photography becomes more accepted.

Overall, we’ll see more electronic publishing poke its way into existing workflows as publishers try to do more with less. And as archiving becomes necessary, with increasing file sizes, we’ll see more attention paid to solving network speed and storage issues.

Miriam Frawley is vice president of operations at AGA, a New York-based catalog marketing and creative agency.

Catalogers will increase their use of PDFs to send pages to printers and service bureaus. And digital photography will be more accepted. Although the digital cameras available today work for studio and still photos, fashion catalogers and marketers that use models are still hesitant to use the technology. The next generation of cameras, however, should alleviate their concerns.

Along those lines, catalogers will continue to work in a fully digital workflow environment, as the competitive advantage of managing information will become clearer. Digital workflows reduce the potential for error and can organize and manage data such as page position, color and size variables, prices, text, and images.

Digital proofing is getting better and more accepted as well, as catalogers become comfortable with the process of remote proofing.

Computer-to-plate printing will grow significantly by 2001, as costs will come down due to a maturing of the business. But direct-to-press (DTP) printing will still struggle to find a market. It’s a case of technology being ahead of the marketplace; DTP hasn’t found its niche yet. The problem also stems from catalogers still trying to gather and make sense of their databases.

John Sisson is general manager of Banta Corp.’s Integrated Media Division.

It’s safe to say that by 2001, catalogers will be working in a completely digital workflow. Now catalogers build pages from a digital database. Once an image and its text are in a database, production cycles are reduced because it’s quicker and easier to access the information for repurposing, whether it’s for Internet or customized print catalogs.

We’ll see the development of more software that allows companies to create their own catalogs. In addition, catalogers will “spray pages,” a technique that allows catalogers to tell the database to arrange products in X order with Y design. The result is a digital page file that can be modified to build customized catalogs.

Remote proofing and PDF proofing will become more common as well. They’re ideal methods of sending and approving catalog pages because they’re faster and cheaper in the long run.

But most of all, digital printing will come of age, as will true variable printing, which actually tailors a catalog based on an individual profile. The trend right now is focusing on targeted groups of customers rather than producing individualized catalogs. That will change as catalogers learn more about their databases.

Peter Broadwell is manufacturing manager and Craig McCarthy is manager of customer service at R.R. Donnelley and Sons’ Lancaster-West catalog division.

Consistency in product quality will continue to be a key issue. Given that, we’ll see more focus on color engineering, with manufacturers creating machines that track and audit print results. Increased use of on-press densometric scanning devices will allow press operators to use virtual information based on scanning color bars of signatures to manage and evaluate equipment performance. It also allows printers to evaluate and monitor catalog print results such as paper and ink quality. Reducing color variation gives catalogers the confidence that the final approval matches the final product. And it can preset ink keys, further reducing make-ready time.

We’ll also see more catalogers switching to a fully digital workflow, especially as they transition from film proofs to digital proofs. This also ties into the increased use of computer-to-plate printing by catalogers. All of the systems will eventually be integrated, minimizing waste and reducing cycle times.

As for digital proofing, each machine operates differently, so there will be a real need for a digital proofing standard. We need to understand the degree of variation among systems, and we need to drive one standard over time to achieve superior results.

The technology for personalization exists now, but many catalogers haven’t fully used the technology that exists today. They’re still learning how to leverage database information to improve response rates through increased personalization. But as postal and paper prices climb, we’ll see more personalization of catalogs.