The digital front end (DFE) to your inkjet press is where the magic happens.
The DFE takes in and renders the print file so that the inkjet print heads can do their job. While the Raster Image Processor (RIP) is a key element of the DFE, it also does much more. It is the focal point for capturing data about the job and also houses the dryer and print speed settings. Some DFEs function as prepress devices where adjustments can be made to color, ink load, image handling. These capabilities are often combined with closed-loop color management, defect detection, or print quality alerts. There are also DFEs that offer the option to create print files or print file templates
The development of digital front ends occurs in an ecosystem of hardware manufacturers and their in-house programming teams as well as independent vendors of DFE components that include RIPS, and other tools, designed to enable the inkjet press. Historically, DFEs for inkjet presses have been defined for the market by the hardware providers. While some seek out the guidance of their customers, most DFEs are built from the press back to the user interface – the screen where the operator interacts with the press. Some are tightly locked down so that the operator can do little more than start a job, while others take an almost steampunk approach to dials and knobs and levers that would baffle most production teams.
The result is that there is no industry standard for what should be included in a digital front end, and there is no universal template that guides how much control the DFE should expose to an operator to permit changes in how a job will be processed. As we enter the 2020s, this is something that should change. It’s time for the buyers of inkjet presses to identify their expectations, list the features that make a difference to their operation, and categorize the challenges they may have with their current DFE.
Where is the Automation?
Currently, most inkjet presses are in production environments where the DFE should be the heart of an efficient, automated workflow. As you look at the DFE driving your inkjet press, does it have these features?
- Automatic paper profiling: The ability to either read a barcode or label from a roll or pallet of paper and set a baseline profile for that paper.
- Smart job profiling: The ability to read in a print file, or a segment of a print file, and adjust inkjet and drying profiles for that job printing on the loaded paper. Is it smart enough to understand priming and coating required for a job?
- Automatic closed-loop quality management: This may take on several forms, but it comes down to understanding the intent of the print file in the context of the paper and finishing defined for the job, and signaling the operator if there is an event that the system cannot handle that would impact the quality of the print. This might be a jet out on a print head, or even a low ink signal or an impending end of paper roll or near-empty paper bin.
- Integration with Production Dashboards: No DFE lives in a vacuum. It is part of a system of processes that move a job from print file creation to final delivery. Does your DFE participate actively in the production workflow, or is it a passive participant? Will it alert you if you have a file that is not appropriate for the selected finishing, for example? Is the DFE aware of the production schedule and can it send an alert if the schedule is at risk?
These should be the baseline questions because inkjet presses will only become more robustly featured. More colors, more substrate capabilities, more priming and coating options, and more granularity in color and dryer management are coming. Automation that does not require a unique setup for every job and job setups that do not require dozens of settings to ensure appropriate ink levels, color, and drying will be the only way for a printing company to thrive in production.
This overview has been focused on the needs of high-speed production inkjet devices, but they are not the only inkjet devices in our market. There are a host of highly capable machines making their way to market that also have DFEs with features targeted to a different type of production inkjet environment. The features to ask for in those environments are coming up in the next installment!