What to Ask for in your Inkjet Digital Front End

By Pat McGrew / Published:

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

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About the Author

Pat McGrew

Comments

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking article, as usual, Pat. At Global Graphics we supply technology components to inkjet press vendors, and when that includes elements of the user interface we obviously take guidance from those vendors as to what knobs and buttons should appear. We do see very different requests from different print sectors (transactional, to commercial, to labels & packaging, to industrial etc) and for devices expected to be used in different sizes of companies or with different skill levels of operators.

    So I’d be interested to hear more about why you think that should change?

    I definitely agree that some DFEs include far more knobs and levers than is wise; I like your steampunk designation! And I can also see a big advantage in some level of alignment between presses that are likely to be used in the same environment, to make moving staff from one press to another a bit like moving from one car to another, with brakes, gears and steering that is similar enough to pick up the new system quickly and reliably.

    And finally, I also agree that “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.” The market is now mature enough in at least some print sectors for buyers to have multiple presses in action already, often from a mix of vendors. And that means that those buyers have the experience to know what they need on the DFE and should be able to provide very useful input to the press vendors (and therefore, indirectly, to us).

  2. Author

    Hi Martin! Apologies for the delay in engaging!

    First things first – why do I think that should change? Because everything about how we print is changing. Customer expectations on turnaround times, expectations around what substrates can be printed digitally on what types of devices, as well as the education levels of designers are changing. One thing that is not changing is the challenge of finding skilled operators, skilled prepress people, and even skilled customers.

    I think that if hardware vendors do not start moving to more automation, including tools they have available but may not integrate or expose to their customers, my fear is that the quality levels achieved, versus what is possible, will decline.

    On any press there are dial, knobs, levers, checkboxes, file mappings, profile settings, on press adjustments, settings in files, and a host of other factors to be considered to get the best print product. How should the dryers be set for this substrate? Did I set the speed to get optimum quality?

    I am not sure that buyers of this equipment know what is truly possible with software and automation. I’d like to elevate that conversation!

    Thanks, Martin!

  3. I would have to agree, Pat. Most buyers don’t know what is possible. Some are entrenched in old processes, others are understaffed and don’t have time to learn new tricks, while still more are using tools that were designed for a different environment and just aren’t aware of new possibilities. Let’s all work together to raise awareness on those new possibilities.

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