Look ma, no hands

Look ma, no hands

David L. Zwang

automating repetitive tasks can optimize your productivity–and enhance communication with clients

Technological change usually happens in three stages: the creation and introduction of new tools, optimization of those tools and, finally, redesign of the complete process. These stages don’t necessarily occur sequentially, but rather, they often overlap. Once the technology is introduced, however, further development and changing user needs feed off one another.

In the prepress and printing industry, computer technology has replaced many of the tools that we had come to understand in our daily routine. In many cases, however, this evolution did nothing more than replace conventional tools with electronic tools.

We are now well into the second stage of technological change in which we look for ways to optimize our production by utilizing those new tools. As computers become more powerful and communication options increase, our ability to optimize production through automation becomes feasible.

While process automation is frequently discussed, it often is difficult to translate its concepts into practical solutions. In this article, for your convenience, we have broken the types of solutions into two distinct categories–automating individual tasks and automating complete systems. The solutions available usually fall into two categories–self-contained (turnkey) or tools that allow users to create their own solutions. All of these solutions have distinct advantages and disadvantages, yet they each offer significant time and cost benefits to almost any production operation.

When considering workflow automation, we tend to look for solutions that eliminate large blocks of time. However, eliminating many small time blocks can deliver the same end result–and be easier and less expensive to implement.

Process automation is most beneficial when working with repeatable tasks. These tasks can be simple or complex, but ultimately are the same or very similar. Take, for example, something as simple as turning on your computer in the morning. You turn it on, wait for it to launch all of the system software, and then launch your e-mail program and other production applications. This simple process occurs everyday, and prevents you from starting your work until it is complete.

To save time, you could use a built-in energy-saving application to automatically start the machine before your planned arrival. You can then use the system startup folders to launch any application, including e-mail (which can usually be set to get all messages on launch). This makes your computer wait for you, not the other way around. This simple application of automation can save minutes to hours each week, depending on your individual use.

Automation of this simple daily task is just the beginning. Utilities such as QuickKeys can automate everything from keystrokes to multi-application interaction. Now in its 12th year of release, this utility, which is available for both the Mac and Windows platforms, has grown significantly. It allows users to automate simple one-step tasks with a user-definable keystroke and to automate more complex tasks.

For example, you can create a shortcut that backs up your hard drive at a specific time or frequency. QuickKeys can be used in conjunction with AppleScript to devise extensive workflows, which we will discuss later. It even comes with specific plugins that add new automation capabilities and integration with certain applications. More information is available at www.cesoft.com.

There are other Mac utilities, such as Cruise Control from Walnut Systems, that allow users to schedule unattended tasks. With a calendar interface, you can record specific actions or define specific tasks that can be performed on most schedules. It works with many finder tasks and specific application tasks. In addition, Cruise Control works with AppleScript to extend its capabilities into very robust workflows. More information can be found at www.walnutsys.com.

AppleScript is probably one of the most robust tools for automating tasks on the Mac. While AppleScript support has been available for many years, in the past two years Apple has supported it more. As a result, better support in the operating system has increased the performance. In addition, support in operating system extensions such as ColorSync and Quicktime also has been increased dramatically.

AppleScript ships as a part of the OS in form of an extension and a Script Editor that can be used for creating or editing scripts. Scripts to automate certain tasks are included on the OS disk. AppleScript can automatically perform almost anything that can be done manually with the Finder–and a whole complement of supported applications.

Simple tasks, such as converting the ICC profiles in images from one color space to another, or processing images with profiles using a scripted hot folder, can be automated using pre-written scripts included with ColorSync. With these and the other supplied scripts, you can combine, edit and write new scripts to automate a large portion of a color managed workflow. For the more daring, you can actually script everything from document template creation to fully designed and produced catalogs with all of the text and images in place.

In fact, at the introduction of OS9 for the Mac, Apple showed completely automated catalog production. It included creating the pages in Quark on the West Coast, getting images from a server on the East Coast, making adjustments in PhotoShop, populating the catalog with the text and images, and creating a final print-ready file–all using AppleScript. Just one click started the entire process. While this may not work for all catalogs, it does point to the robust flexibility and scope of this application.

AppleScript can be applied to most of the key applications that are used in print and Web publishing workflows. These include Quark, In Design, PageMaker, FrameMaker, Acrobat, Word, Excel and many more. PhotoShop, which is internally scriptable, doesn’t offer robust AppleScript support, but combining the built-in scripting with the application PhotoScripter gives the program robust AppleScript capabilities.

While developers such as Quark have added extensive AppleScript support, Adobe has added native scriptability to most of its applications to automate an assortment of functions. Adobe PhotoShop is an excellent example. By recording and saving actions performed on an image, users can reproduce those same actions on the same or different images at a later time. These actions can be as simple as global color corrections, scaling and file translations to more complex image compositing.

There are many books and classes available on AppleScript. For very little money, therefore, you can automate a large part of your workflow. While it does rake time to learn AppleScript, once you start writing scripts the learning curve becomes shorter. For more information, go to the AppleScript home page at www.applescript.com.

There is a new class of recently introduced products that automate and address many prepress-specific production tasks. One of these is Markzscout, an application developed by Markzware, the company that developed FlightCheck. This application allows users to set up a workflow template that will check incoming files for predetermined internal file attributes. Once the files are checked, users can configure the software to perform actions on those files to stop production or even correct certain errors.

Using some of the same technology developed for FlightCheck, users can identify variations in color space, resolution, even the quality settings on a saved JPEG image. In addition, Markzscout supports most of the other checking capabilities of FlightCheck, including size, fonts and colors. It also develops actions that will work with some applications to correct problems.

This is a significant step beyond standard preflighting. You can now find and automatically correct problems, allowing production to continue. More information about Markzware’s Markzscout is available at www.markzware.com.

Another application that has these capabilities, as well as others, is Enfocus PitStop 4.0. The Adobe Acrobat plug-in includes a tool set for manually checking and fixing PDF files, PitStop 4.0 and a complement of editing tools for fixing text, color, images and layout of PDF files. It also contains some new functionality first shown in Enfocus’ DoubleCheck server application.

The software allows users to create a “settings” file that is specific to their production requirements so customers can check PDF files prior to sending them for output. DoubleCheck also corrects files that aren’t created to the predetermined specifications. Because of the object-based structure of PDF, these correction capabilities can be extensive, allowing for specific adjustments to geometry, text, fonts, images, color, etc. The file creator can incorporate automated rule-based preflight checking “and” correction into their process. More information can be found at www.enfocus.com.

As you can see, there are many ways to automate and streamline daily tasks. If you are looking for automated output production systems, some prepress systems have begun to introduce varying levels of process automation into their solutions. The degree of automation varies by vendor and specific product. The solutions available fall into two basic categories–output server solutions and full RIP production systems.

In the category of automated output server solutions, the most popular products are Xinet FullPress, ScenicSoft Color Central (formerly from Imation) and the Helios server offerings. Each of these products is positioned in front of any RIP to automate numerous production functions, including OPI, ICC Color Management support, print spooling, job logging, etc. Ultimately use of these systems can streamline repeatable production tasks taking extra operator or machine time to complete.

Xinet FullPress version 10 includes enhanced image scaling and increased functionality with Quark 4.04, to add to its already powerful Quark tools such as Picture Wrangler. This XTension provides a fast and efficient OPI picture-processing workflow. Xinet also added support for Adobe InDesign and WebNative.

With Xinet’s WebNative, output production services can offer a Web interface to their customers. It enables creators to pull low-resolution production files over the Web and place them into documents for later OPI replacement. In addition, the software has provisions such as watermarking to ensure that any images pulled can be identified to protect them from non-intended use.

ColorCentral, one of the original output production server solutions, is currently in version 3.6. It has been upgraded to support InDesign, the Agfa Apogee system and PDF 1.3. ScenicSoft has also added operator-level security, and other fixes and updates. Color Central supports TrapWise (the automated trapping application) and PressWise (an imposition application). ScenicSoft is transitioning those using PressWise to Preps, the award-winning imposition software application. More information can be found at www.scenicsoft.com.

The Helios EtherShare product also is a complete output production server solution. Currently in version 2.5, it offers most of the core output production server tasks including OPI. Helios also offers extension applications to EtherShare that handle PC connectivity, color management and PDF support. Full details are available at www.helios.com.

Once upon a time, RIPs would sit in front of an output device and do only what they were required to do to image the file. Over time RIPs have evolved to handle much more of the output production process. Tasks such as spooling, preflight, trapping, proofing, image swapping and even imposition have become standard fare on many of the output systems today. The addition of these task processes to the RIP solution instead of as a third-party add-on have enabled many developers to find better ways to automate and control a large portion of the output production process.

Today, while there are quite a few of these enhanced solutions available, many sophisticated output production systems are based on the Adobe Extreme Architecture. According to Adobe, “an Extreme system provides the component building blocks for a robust, scalable, PDF-based production solution.” Although the Extreme architecture is continuing to evolve and improve, the following five characteristics define Adobe PostScript Extreme today:

1/ Accepts both PostScript and PDF as input to the system but uses PDF as the internal format.

2/ Creates PDF within the system with the use of the Adobe Normalizer.

3/ The PDF files are viewable and editable within the system so that imposition assignments can be made or late stage changes can be made.

4/ Use of Adobe PJTF (Portable Job Ticket Format) for controlling workflow parameters and process parameters.

5/ Renders with Adobe PostScript 3 or the new Printer Job Ticket Processor, which combines job ticket control with the Adobe renderer.

The Extreme system is designed to handle workflow automation. Currently there are three companies that have Extreme output production systems–Agfa’s Apogee; Creo/Heidelberg Prinergy; and Scitex Brisque Extreme. Each of the firms has implemented its unique version of an Extreme system, but all offer an “extremely” automated workflow solution.

In addition to the Extreme solutions, there are a number of other vendors who have developed automated solutions that offer similar functionality. Harris Publishing System has developed a product, MaxWorkFlow, that uses templates (Job Tickets) to configure each of the task modules, in a fashion to the Extreme systems. Harris recently signed an agreement with Harlequin to add support for ScriptWorks RIP into its system.

Barco has announced PressTige, a standalone automated workflow solution. Using Adobe core technology, it enables input of PostScript and PDF files. The workflow includes Barco trapping and the new PressTige Impose. This new module is wizard driven and allows users to work with full, high-resolution previews. It runs on Windows NT and uses Java-based clients to submit and monitor tasks.

The Dalim Twist product line has been offering enhanced workflow automation solutions for a few years. Using a basic tool set, operators can build templates with configurable processing task icons. In addition, the Manager allows users to control the queues, view current status and resume processes after validation. Dalim also offers an option that enables dynamic load balancing across multiple servers on the network.

Fuji recently introduced the CelebraNT RIP that is designed in a similar fashion. Using an Adobe PostScript3 CPSI (Configurable PostScript Software Interpreter), Fuji has built a complete system that is controlled by Job Tickets. It includes in-RIP trapping, queue management, and job monitoring with an easy-to-use graphical user interface.

While most of the RIP vendors offer features such as spooling, OPI, and other task processing in their basic RIP solutions, this new breed of solutions will continue to develop ways to fully automate production. We can expect to see the broader based integration of many of these systems into other areas of the business process too.

The amount of automation you require will depend on your type of work and your budget. The benefits, however, are far reaching. All workflow automation requires defining process specifications and operations. This can benefit you by reducing many of the operator errors that occur during production, by ensuring that the production setups used are consistent from job to job and operator to operator. In addition, it usually decreases the total production time of a job, since you are not required to interact with each of the production steps. Ultimately, it will also allow you to interact more closely with your customers and support vendors, to offer a more seamless and cost effective process.

In closing, money you spend on workflow automation can and will be returned many fold over the time it is used. Once you begin to reap the benefits, you will most likely look for new ways to increase the level of automation in your processes.

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