If you run light production equipment, you may not have given much thought to the Digital Front End (DFE)of your printing device. Light production is that class of equipment found small print shops, in large print shops that use them for quick turnaround, populating an in-plant, in niche print shop markets where the volumes vary widely so does the ability to use networked devices for load balancing is a common architecture, and even in some office environments where volumes or the type of printing demand something more robust than a multi-function printer-scanner-copier. These environments are less likely to have dedicated prepress departments. The print file generally comes to them in a print-ready format.
Light production devices are often built using a design language targeted to operators who may be handling multiple devices. Their duties may involve some scheduling and releasing jobs from queues, some load balancing, some physical management of input and output bins, and tasks related to ensuring that the machines are maintained as required by the vendor. Most light production operators are not color management specialists, print file format experts or workflow experts. To make the printing technology as efficient as possible, producing the highest possible quality, demands a DFE that can anticipate the needs of the environment.
As noted in the last installment, there is no industry standard for what a DFE should encompass, or even a widely agreed set of guidelines. And, while you may have a choice of features and even vendors for the DFE, there hasn’t been much discussion of what should come next. What should you be asking for and when should you expect it?
What Do We Want? More Automation!
Regardless of the size or configuration of your inkjet device, you should expect as much automation as possible. And, if automation is offered on the DFE you have, you should be using it! In addition to core Raster Image Processing (RIP), modern light production DFEs often include automation for items not found in the most common high-speed, heavy production inkjet presses:
- Job Automation
- Color Management
- Soft Proof
- Media Management
- Integration to inline finishing control
Some include options to create templates/forms for data merging and file editing for last-minute fixes. There may also be options to connect to other devices, dashboards, or a larger workflow environment. The goal is to enable as close to lights-out, almost operator-less production as possible. It is possible today to build a workflow that takes work specified in the Web-to-Print front end, with all of the appropriate specification verification, and route it directly to a job queue and through to a DFE for print production without a person being involved until the material needs to be picked up from the output bin and routed for delivery to the customer.
But remember, we are talking about inkjet devices, so you should be asking for as much automation as possible when it comes to the common inkjet challenges – paper, ink limits and drying. Consider these automation features as essential for light production:
- Automatic paper profiling: Light production devices that can read a barcode or label from paper packaging and invoke a known paper profile or warn the operator that there is a need to build a new profile should be the baseline. One that can offer a paper profile based on calibrating based on a blank sheet makes it more automated and does the best job of ensuring consistency across like devices sitting side-by-side.
- Automated job profiling: For Light Production this means automating the assignment of a profile that will ensure that the inbound print file is interpreted and rasterized in a manner that optimizes print quality while ensuring that the machine ink limits and dryer settings are also optimized.
Today’s light production inkjet devices are typically monochrome or CYMK devices. In coming years, they may expand into more colors, more substrate options, more inline finishing options, and generally more connectivity. It will be essential that the DFEs keep up with the capabilities while not requiring the addition of more highly skilled operators. The more automated the DFE is, the faster these devices can be onboarded and made productive.
Ask your vendors how they are addressing DFE automation! Ask what their options are today, but also what they are planning on their roadmap. Are they looking at cloud-based DFEs that allow devices to share settings? Do they have plans to make it easy for you to add features from a DFE store? What about pay-as-you use features for those jobs you do only at certain times of the year? It is always worth asking!