Separate and conquer

Simon Eccles looks at the measures reprographic houses are taking to keep up with designers’ needs

Having survived the desktop publishing revolution more or less unscathed, repro houses are now having to rethink their services in the face of Desktop Threat II – studio scanners. The latest, more expensive (8000-12 000) desktop scanners produce excellent quality – good enough for most magazines and a lot of other mid-range print work – and crucially have smart software that handles the repro functions reliably. While many designers still say scanning is a complex task they’d rather leave to outside experts, chances are that many will change their minds as the time and cost benefits of intelligent scanners grow more obvious.

This will inevitably have an impact on repro houses, which have depended for 30 years on their ability to afford expensive scanners, and to develop the skills to operate them. A new threat is more subtle. Printing companies are getting interested in CTP (computer-to-plate) technology, which uses lasers to write images from computers directly on to offset litho printing plates. At present, plates are imaged by exposure through film masks which are supplied by repro companies. CTP will allow printers to take digital files from clients directly, potentially shutting out the repro companies.

Another significant new development is digital presses, close relatives of the laser printer but much faster and with a near offset quality. Price is anything from 200 000-450 000. Most digital presses are made by Indigo in Israel, or Xeikon in Belgium (also sold by Agfa, IBM, Nilpeter and Xerox).

Digital presses can print directly from digital data, so every image can be different. Most Indigos are sheet-fed A3 machines, but the Indigo Omnius models plus all Xeikons are reel-fed, which, thanks to their variable imaging, allows pages of practically any length to be printed.

As no films or plates are needed, digital presses are economical for either a handful of copies, or long runs of work where parts of each copy are personalised or zoned to suit a different individual or narrow market group. The presses can even produce single copies as proofs. Print costs are generally higher than long-run offset, but with unprecedented turnround times and format flexibility.

Martin Warner, managing director of Shere Arts near Guildford, has run Xeikon based digital presses for three years – he’s currently got two IBMs with a third planned. He says his design clients are starting to realise the potential of variable content, plus the flexibility afforded by a page length/width that can be anything between 0 and 8m. “I’m now being dragged in by agencies to tell them about the possibilities. Variable content gives the designers a completely new area that they’ve never been able to dabble with before. There’s a lot of lateral thinking going on.”

CTP, digital presses and the newly intelligent desktop scanners are in their infancy and aren’t affecting repro companies yet, but many can see the writing on the wall, and are diversifying and developing new services that desktop systems can’t yet match.

The core strengths of repro houses can now be thought of as the ability to capture, store and manipulate very large digital files and transform them for several media, of which print is just one. Many repro houses are forming alliances with photographic studios to offer digital studio camera work (high-end cameras are horribly expensive and closely related to scanners). Another move open to repro houses is into printing itself, either in alliance with an established printer or by buying a digital press.

London-based Adplates Group has done both. Branching out from a specialist typesetting and scanning company ten years ago, it now offers a digital camera studio, 3D modelling and rendering, multimedia, Web design, digital and conventional printing. “My view, and that of a lot of other companies, is that we are losing ‘viewers’ to TV and Internet,” says director Murray Stroud. “We have to do something to brighten our side of things up so what you see on the page is as lively as on the screen.”

One way he cites is so-called “HiFi colour”. Excellent image quality is a route open for repro houses to distinguish themselves from the desktop world. The familiar four-colour print process, based on CMYK inks, can only reproduce a fraction of the colour range detectable to the human eye.

Two years ago Pantone introduced Hexachrome, a six-colour process (the six colours are CMYK plus orange and green). Pantone says that only about 40 per cent of its familiar Colour Matching System swatch book contents can be reproduced accurately by CMYK, but Hexachrome can reproduce 90 per cent.

Inevitably, it costs more to print, as it uses more materials, and not many proofing systems cater for it as yet. The separation stage is tricky, despite Hexachrome being included in PageMaker, Illustrator and an imminent update to QuarkXPress 4.0, so it’s a good idea to leave it to a repro house that has some experience.

Mike Austin, marketing manager of Fulmar Group, a repro and printing group in south London which has done a lot of Hexachrome development work, says that achieving consistency between different print materials is still hard.

“We run Hexachrome about once a week on our presses,” he says, including trials for interested customers as much as real commercial work.

Conventional halftone dot screens give moiré patterns with more than four colours, so Hexachrome needs the new moiré-proof stochastic screens, which press operators complain are harder to print.

Pantone reckons that there are about 35 to 40 printers in the UK which are using Hexachrome, but many are in packaging, where six colours seem cheap after the eight, ten or more that are the normal number in that industry. Hexachrome is also starting to see use for poster and prestige corporate work, and is expected to spread into home furnishing and cosmetics catalogue work where accurate colour matching is vital.

In reacting to the threat of market shrinkage, repro companies are helping to define new product directions for boring old print. The challenge for designers is to learn when and how to take advantage.

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