prepress thrives

13 October 2020

Prepress has been central to the printing industry for decades, yet has long suffered from a number of cost and efficiency problems. But with the rise of automation, the field may soon be entering a new era. Andrea Valentino talks to Rob Moore, a regional managing director at SGK, about how new technology is in the process of making prepress cheaper and faster, even as new technical challenges bubble over the horizon.

Nowadays, printing and prepress fit together as snugly as bread and butter, or a glass of crisp white wine on a summer night. It might be surprising to consider, then, that though printing began with Guttenberg or even earlier, prepress as we know it only arrived far more recently. Only with the arrival of Apple computers, in the 1980s, did the traditional vocabularies of dark rooms and light tables begin to be superseded—and even then only slowly. It was only by the early 2000s, after all, that the term ‘prepress’ finally became synonymous with new computerised technologies. 

From these uncertain beginnings, of course, digital prepress has exploded. If nothing else, this is reflected in the latest statistics. Though figures on prepress in particular are scarce, the global printing market is flourishing, with one study predicting that the global industry will reach $460 billion by 2025, up from $400 billion in 2019. And unlike so many other corners of the world economy, printing has actually done well out of the coronavirus pandemic—with millions of people locked down, and restaurants boarded shut, there has been incredible demand for packaging of all kinds.

All the same, if the packaging industry is going from strength to strength, prepress itself might be beginning a period of transition. With demand for faster results increasing all the time, to say nothing of pressures from online retailers, there’s huge pressure for prepress specialists to get their operations in order—even if that means embracing new technologies like automation. Not that this is always simple. Between worries about accuracy to the cost of upgrading, only the best-prepared firms can hope to be ready for what’s to come. Even so, the future of prepress, it seems clear, is centred around the new—with all the challenges that entails. 

Moore isn’t less

If anyone knows about prepress, it’s Rob Moore. For over 20 years, he worked at Schawk!, one of the most distinguished names in the industry, and is now a regional managing director at SGK (SGK acquired Schwak! In 2014). As Moore explains, his current role involves working some of the most famous brands around, from British giants like Sainsbury’s and Lidl to Nestle, Unilever, Coca Cola and other global conglomerates. In other words, Moore’s opinion is one to be taken seriously—and what he says about prepress is clear enough. Calling it a “critical component” of the printing process, he describes how he and his team occupy the spot between brand owners—retailers and the like—and print machines. 

“You’ve got products that need to get to market,” Moore explains, “and you have an agency that creates that design. And then the printers need to print the packaging, so we sit in the middle. And our job is to take the creative design and construct it into digital files, and then a set of printing plates that will result in packaging that will print on press in a very effective way.” Nor is the SGK executive alone in emphasising the importance of his field. In developing economies, indeed, the industry is booming. From colour management to digital proofing to consulting, the appetite for prepress in Vietnam and Thailand will soon overtake China. Nor, if you think about it, is this very surprising. From making sure that the nutritional information on a sandwich is correct to getting the white of a new iPhone box crisp and elegant, prepress is central to printing from Hanoi to Honolulu.

Despite its crucial role, though, prepress is far from perfect. For starters, there’s the question of speed. Over the last few years, industry insiders have begun grumbling about how fast the established prepress process can go, Moore noting that it’s “certainly the biggest demand that's placed on us.” Nor is that very surprising. With so much of the prepress market basically manual—dark rooms may have gone, but the industry often still relies on individuals to repeat how they completed a client’s task last year, or to organise a task workflow—there is plenty of room for improvement. 

A related difficulty is that of waste. Because much of the success of a prepress operation relies on the skill and attentiveness of fallible humans, a mistake can soon spell disaster. For instance, what if your company doesn’t have a dedicated computer-assisted design specialist? Bring on someone inexperienced and they risk getting the design wrong—ultimately forcing you to dump failed attempts, wasting time and money along the way. In a similar vein, relying on human personnel means there’s always a risk of not catching graphical errors in a design until it’s too late. That’s before even considering the time it takes to do the work anyway. According to work by Esko, a major Belgian prepress company, even flawless workers take about 25 minutes just to get a file ready. 

Taking the print

Look at the webpage for HubX and it’s hard not to be impressed. Promising a “collaborative digital network that frees your data from siloed systems,” it claims to open up onto a world where technology can do the work “while you do the thinking.” Of course, you’ve probably heard it all before—but this new platform by SGK really does feel like the start of something new. Unlike older systems, it automates the prepress workflow, cutting the risk of costly mistakes. Reporting is streamlined too, allowing staff to approve artwork and proofs at the press of a button. 

No wonder, then, that Rob Moore is so enthusiastic about the project, especially once you factor in HubX’s reporting capabilities. Apart from getting proofs from the office to the printer’s faster, after all, it also allows him to examine the “performance statistics” of everyone in the supply chain. “How efficient was the information that came in to see the production file?,” he asks. “How efficient was the production prepress production process? How efficient was the approval and commenting process by those who were involved?” Of course, Moore notes, that helps sharpen the process next time, adding that altogether HubX is one of the most exciting projects on his radar.

Nor, it should be emphasised, is SGK alone here. If the Illinois-based firm boasts the swankiest website, many other prepress firms are moving down the path of automation too. Also in the Midwest, Aleyant’s tFlow seamlessly deals with cut paths, bleeds, fold lines and other prepress tasks. Across the Atlantic at Esko, moreover, its Automation Engine promises “perfect” workflows, and boasts many of the same features as HubX. All this is reflected at an industry-wide level too. According to a survey of European printing companies by InfoTrend, for instance, a full 41.9% of companies that have seen increased revenue over the last five years put their success down to investment in automation software. As Moore himself puts it: “I really do think automation will be one of the driving forces for the industry,” describing how previously cumbersome processes like getting nutritional information on packaging can now be finished smoothly.

Yet if this shiny automated universe offers considerable cost and time benefits for prepressers everywhere, it’s far from a done deal. One problem, explains Moore, is that some clients are still reluctant to make the plunge. “They're a little nervous that their own systems are accurate enough to be able to guarantee, with no human intervention at all, that information can flow straight through to the printing press,” he says. “Most have kept some human involvement in the process somewhere to approve changes that are made, despite the fact that we're at the point of being able to automate the process in a pretty comprehensive way.” 

This makes sense. Every new technology comes with dangers, and a period of feet-dragging is often mandatory—how else to explain the slow ascent of digital prepress over the period of several decades? Even so, Moore is convinced that companies that embrace change now will be in good stead for the future. That’s true, not least, of his own company. “We’re very fortunate that we have strong technology tools, and now a global dedicated technology team inside our business,” he says of SGK. “It’s specifically geared to improving speed and cost efficiency at all points of our internal supply chain.”

Colour blind?

What, then, for the future of prepressing? Already, automation has taken the industry by storm, nor does that seem likely to change. And though the pandemic has actually helped the printing industry, Moore wonders if related the shift to online retail might not cause new challenges going forward. As he explains, now that so many consumers are buying everything from pasta to iPhones over the internet, the photos they browse on Amazon have to correspond exactly to the packages they open a few days later in the post. As anyone who got lumped with a garish pink shirt they didn’t want will know, that’s unfortunately not always possible. Not that the situation is hopeless. As Moore says, there’s plenty prepressers can do to help, from understanding specific packaging materials to comparing results across different computers and phones. 

There are other questions stumbling over the horizon too. How, for example, do prepress files interact with printers? And how, for that matter, will digital printing change the industry? Yet based on previous form, there’s no reason to believe that, here again, prepress can overcome the hurdles once again. With the economic winds in its sails, indeed, it seems likely that the industry might use the next few years to fundamentally transform itself, just as it did after the advent of computers back in the 1980s. Just as dark rooms and light tables gradually got consigned to the dustbin, then, we may have to start crossing a few more words out of the prepress dictionary soon.


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