How far should you take digital production?

Better, faster, cheaper.” We’ve all heard such promises about what technological advances can do for us-especially in catalog production. And in the race to produce high-quality catalogs faster and at lower costs, more mailers are taking advantage of technology and moving toward a fully digital workflow. But is fully digital for you?

A fully digital workflow means that all elements of catalog production, including design, photography, scanning, and proofing, are handled using digital equipment. Recent developments, such as the introduction of digitally imposed film a few years ago, provided the impetus for digital production workflow, which led to the development of computer-to-plate (CTP) technology-and the elimination of film. (For a comparison of standard and digital production processes, see the sidebars on page 154.)

The upside of going digital Eliminating film by using a fully digital system provides catalogers with several advantages. More specifically, digital production can

* shorten prepress cycle times up to 60%;

* improve registration and reduce press gain (the expansion of image dots on press) with CTP;

* lower proofing and alteration costs;

* enable mailers to adopt remote proofing;

* allow for changes to be made closer to the press date and files to be sent to the printer round the clock; and

* reduce costs by eliminating film and minimizing paper waste.

Digital workflow has other important benefits, such as enabling you to reuse digitally stored catalog copy and art rather than having to reinvent the wheel every time you want to create new print and online catalogs. And not only is repurposing the files efficient, but it’s also more economical.

The downside of going digital As with most things in life, digital production has its downside, too. Because catalogers going digital often end up performing more prepress functions, such as color separations and proofing, inhouse, they must assume the corresponding responsibilities. For instance, if you decide to install a digital proofing device on premises, you’ll have to invest in the equipment and maintain it; you’ll also need someone on staff to run it. And you don’t have the safety net of your printer rep sitting next to you helping you proof, which can be scary for those new to digital production and not accustomed to picking up errors such as missing fonts or trapping problems. Just ask any mailer that has had to stop a multimillion-dollar web press due to an undetected digital file problem.

And the CTP technology necessary for a fully digital workflow isn’t cheap. The equipment needed to go fully digital includes a scanner, workstations, a digital camera, high-speed transmission lines, and a digital proofer. The numbers vary considerably, but a digital proofing device alone costs from $10,000 for a lower-end system to $185,000 for an advanced system. In addition to fixed costs, a high-end proofer will cost you about $12 per page, based on consumables such as toners, although a low-end system could cost less than $2 per page. So far, only the largest companies have been able to justify the costs of fully digital systems.

Also, many catalogers are reluctant to make the leap from hard copy to digital proofs. There’s a perceived security in contact proofs, which provide a comfortable checkpoint for catalogers and printers to make corrections and negotiate acceptable quality. Some mailers are still skeptical about the accuracy of digital proofs compared to ink on paper. But the barriers are coming down as digital proofing systems improve, user confidence increases, and equipment prices start to fall.

The options If you’re considering adopting a fully digital workflow, keep in mind that the primary advantage is improved production speed rather than higher quality or lower costs. For example, you may find that the quality of digital images is the same-at best-or lower than that of conventional photographs, depending on the sophistication of your system. And while you’ll probably realize some cost savings in the long run, in the short run switching to digital is likely to boost your costs. Any major transition to a new system comes with start-up costs and problems; production technology also poses a learning curve for both the printers and catalogers.

So if you’re producing only one catalog a year, it’s probably not worth going to fully digital production-unless you need to turn around the catalog quickly or make last-minute changes before press time. For certain, you will be able to reduce your cycle time in a digital environment, which means you can get your book to market faster, as well as add or delete products and change prices much closer to the press date.

Before you make a push to go digital, consider the cost of the equipment, your available resources, and your print volumes. You should also be realistic about your quality demands from a digital system, and what you’re willing to accept as you and the digital system get up to speed.

Also, consider how developed your digital system is right now before going totally digital. Have you been working in a digital format inhouse for a while, and do you have a vendor or partner that’s willing to help you through the transition? Your success and comfort level with digital production right now maybe the best indicator of how you’ll fare with a fully digital workflow.

The best approach for many catalogers may be combining the best of both traditional and digital worlds. For example, you could adopt a partially digital workflow by using some aspects, such as digital photography and proofing, even if you don’t use CTP.

On the other hand, you can adopt fully digital production without taking on all the responsibility inhouse. For instance, you might have digital prepress production done inhouse, and then send your files to your printer on disk via overnight courier, rather than sending them digitally over high-speed transmission lines.

Some catalogers, after struggling with scanning separations inhouse, have opted to let a vendor scan in low-resolution images in the early stages and replace them later with high-res images. And some catalogers decide not to perform remote proofing from their facilities, instead using their printers’ systems and expertise until they’re comfortable with the process. They’re still producing catalogs with 100% digital workflow, but without taking on more than they can handle at the moment.

It takes time to get up to speed with new technology, so don’t rush. What’s more important than how involved you are in digital production is finding what works best for you, and how and where you’re most likely to save time and money.

* digital typesetting

* desktop design

* digital proofing

* digital photography

* electronic imposition

* high-speed digital telecommunications

* computer-to-plate printing

* digital content management

Catalog copy is input into computer typesetting systems.

Type galleys are printed out on photo paper, photocopied, and sent back and forth among catalog departments and the typesetter for proofreading and correction.

Designers create dummy page layouts to show where type, photos, and graphics will go.

Photo prints and transparencies are sent for separations or conversion to black-and-white halftones.

Mechanicals or keylines-graphs/charts made of art boards, acetate overlays, bits of type, stick-on lines, and rubylith-are sent to be converted to line art and screens.

Production artists make page art boards incorporating all type, black-and-white photos, line art, and screens, and then give photocopies to the catalog team members for their review.

The separator sends matchprint proofs to the designer for approval of color photo separations.

After every page and photo proof is approved, page mechanicals are photographed (using a giant prepress camera) to create page films, and photo and graphic films are stripped in with the type, then composited into single-piece negatives or positives.

The finished page films are combined into print format, then used to make a blueline or matchprint for final approval. If there are any changes, the prepress process has to start over for those pages affected.

Final films are produced and printing plates are made.

Digital content archives are scanned for any text, images, or graphics that will be reused to create additional print or electronic catalogs.

Writers-who could be in the next cubicle or on the other side of the world-electronically transmit new copy.

A photographer takes still shots with a digital camera and incorporates the images directly into a digital design file.

Conventional photographs are scanned into low-resolution format for the design file and later swapped for high-resolution versions via open press interface (OPI) or automatic picture replacement (APR).

The designer creates pages on high-powered desktop systems that can set and flow type, create illustrations and graphics, and manipulate images. The designer also generates initial proofs on low-cost inkjet printers, unless computer soft proofs (electronic files viewed on the screen) are used. These proofs are sent to the catalog team members for review.

Huge, color-laden digital files of the layouts are sent in a matter of minutes to a prepress service bureau or printer, which readies the files for film or direct-to-plate output; the files are sent back via the same high-speed telecommunication lines and output on a high-resolution digital proofing system for final approval.

The production manager sends the approved files to the printer, where they are imaged directly onto plates.

After printing, the files are returned to the digital repository, where they are archived and stored for future use.

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