With the postal rate increase looming, publishers and printers are looking to maximize efficiencies anywhere and everywhere they can. Some new technologies on the production front promise to save publishers time and money on their print process, while giving magazines a little more time to make money, like selling ads later into the cycle.

Virtual proofing seems to be the topic du jour, and the general direction in which the industry is heading. The technology enables publishers to view proofs digitally via a monitor from a remote location, instead of at the printing press or relying on a set of physical proofs.

It is loosely known in the industry as soft proofing, but a more precise term for the contract-quality proofing technology is color-accurate monitor proofing. To achieve the best color accuracy, it requires special software, LCD monitors that are calibrated and an appropriate viewing environment, one that does not distract from the colors on screen. (See sidebar, ‘Getting Started with Virtual Proofing,’ page 38.)

The benefits of such a technology and streamlined process seem obvious: Publishers save time and money on the print process while getting a consistent and better quality of color.

The process eliminates the need for hard-copy proofs, though many publishers still choose to do those. The color is instead displayed digitally on monitors, which provide a more accurate simulation of the end product than a paper version, says Bruce Jensen, vice president of sales for Saint-Laurent, Quebec-based Transcontinental Printing.

In the past, press-side proofing required that hard-copy proofs be sent back and forth from the printer, to the publisher and even on to advertisers. Ad agencies provided 20 to 30 hard copy ads, each different and difficult for the pressman to set the color. Low-end proofs could run from $15 to $20, which easily adds up on a thick book. Virtual proofing also eliminates overnight shipping charges and correction costs, which can also add up quickly and eat into printing time.

The process ensures color consistency. In more technical terms, virtual proofing allows for controlling the tint of the substrate. It also provides the ability to rotate to a new position, and it makes it easier to create a paper substrate without editing a profile.

The color quality provided by the technology also speeds up the make-ready process; lopping off a quarter of the time it takes to do a make-ready, according to some observers’ estimates. So, publishers have the opportunity to make last-minute changes and create multiple versions of magazines.

There are other benefits to virtual-proofing technology, too. The process eliminates the possibility of the wrong proof going to press. It is also more secure, because it is password-protected. Additionally, it offers the ability to embed metadata into a virtual proof, with such information as who built the page, where it comes from, and special instructions.

It also lets publishers sell ads much later into the process. And it opens the door to the full automation of the advertising content process, says Guy Gleysteen, vice president, paper and digital development, for Time Inc. The publisher has been a pioneer in the digital ad process, establishing an ad portal, where advertisers upload PDF files directly to the publisher that are automatically pre-flighted and directed to the correct title and issue date. The publisher’s weekly titles receive more than 95 percent of their advertising through the portal; its monthly magazines will follow suit.

"In the short term, the combinations of implementing virtual proofing and the active use of an ad portal for the transportation of the content over the Internet has reduced the labor associated with ad management by about 25 percent," Gleysteen says.

Getting advertisers on board with the technology has been one of the biggest hurdles to its adoption. "There’s no point in one part of the supply chain adopting digital technology if everyone else does not follow," said Fred Raimondo, director of marketing, magazine, direct and premedia, for Quebecor World. "It took us a long time to get customers up to computer-to-plate, but then it went quickly. It will happen with virtual proofing, too, but we’re not at the tipping point yet."

This technology was not available five years ago and five years from now, conventional proofing won’t look anything like it does now, Jensen says.

Yet for the moment, the field is dominated largely by the major players. It takes a capital investment for printers, and they need a base of business to support it. There’s some start-up cost for publishers as well. But any size publisher can get into virtual proofing, and different publishers can use it in different ways.

"It’s not absolutely necessary for everyone to be on board," Jensen says. "Some publishers only provide ads by color guidance, so we can at least provide some consistency, which saves them from having to proof hard-copies."

American Press LLC, a printer based in Gordonsville, Virginia, does virtual proofing using Kodak software. About 90 percent of its clients use the technology in some form or other, says Barry Long, digital systems coordinator for the printer. "Every client uses it in different ways," he says. "About half our clients use it only for file transfer, in lieu of FTP. It’s a very flexible system, and you can pick and choose which features to use according to your needs. About 10 percent use it to its full extent; the rest fall somewhere in between."

Meredith Corp., which publishes Ladies’ Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens, among other titles, uses virtual proofing, but only for the upfront color management process, says John Francesconi, director, prepress print quality for the Des Moines, Iowa-based publisher. "We find it very helpful for fast color correction on critical pieces, but for large volumes of color, we find it a bit time-consuming," he says. "What works best for us is a hybrid workflow of conventional and virtual proofing." Francesconi adds that there are no immediate plans for Meredith to use virtual proofing on press and for the foreseeable future, it will continue to send conventional proofs for color guidance on both ad and edit pages.

Meredith is looking into using automatic page processing direct from its art department, without the conventional full-service prepress, Francesconi says, which will cut down significantly on operator time. It is already using digital blueline proofs, which are prepared from electronic files and can be output to a color laser or ink-jet printer, to approve the final pages for content only.

Automated Workflow
Virtual proofing is just one more step in a digital workflow. More and more publishers and printers are using integrated digital workflow solutions to streamline the entire production process.

One printer that has fully embraced the digital workflow is Freeport Press, based in Freeport, Ohio. The company;like many other printers;did a total conversion to a 100 percent PDF workflow over the last few years, says David G. Pilcher, president and owner of the company. "We do absolutely no creative work and don’t even have a camera or scanner on the premises," Pilcher says. "We worked to help educate our customers and took such a pure approach that we actually have walked away from customers who decided not to conform to the digital requirements." The print shop uses the Rampage ripping system and the AGFA Excalibur VLF plate setter. It also purchased the full Adobe PDF package and gave it to a number of clients that did not own the software, adds Pilcher.

Many printers are doing things behind the scenes to improve the production process. Freeport Press put over $1 million dollars into its prepress department and has been focusing on improving the overall plant workflow with the investment and implementation of an entire software suite from EFI. Those solutions included Prograph, a job planning tool, Hagen, which is an MIS and accounting package, AutoCount, a component balance system and PrintFlow, a real-time scheduling solution.

It’s now formulating plans to add closed-loop color control to the presses and won’t add press equipment in the future that does not use that technology, Pilcher says. Closed-loop color technology has been around for a while, but it’s still top of mind for many printers. With a closed-loop system, color variation is reduced and it cuts down on human error at the press, while also improving a printers’ productivity. It also can save ink and waste.

Quebecor World has invested about $300 million over the last three years on printing technologies to make its platform more efficient, Raimondo says. The company is among the wide-format, high-speed leaders. It has presses that run large-format forms, such as 48-page, 64-page and 96-page forms.

Many publishers and printers agree that these presses have likely had the biggest impact on printing efficiencies, because of the ability to get up and running on color faster and because shorter make-readies are a big benefit.

"Publishers save on press make-ready costs, and typically see improved running rates on this latest generation of press equipment," Time Inc.’s Gleysteen says. "Spoilage performance is also better on this generation of equipment, so there are paper savings as well."

New Tech Challenges
Adopting any new technology can be a challenge for publishers, who have to not only equip themselves with the necessary software and hardware, but also have to train staff. "Implementing new technology becomes an enterprise effort, with IT, manufacturing, distribution, circulation, sales and even accounting, so it’s important to continually communicate our goals," says Elaine Fry, group director of manufacturing and production for Forbes Inc. "Training the staff is always a big issue when something changes."

Forbes is using AdSync and Impoze, two software systems developed by a company now owned by Quad/Graphics, to move deeper into the workflow process. "The goal is to track our regional buys and split runs as well and to generate a pass-along file to circulation for print-order purposes," Fry says.

Change management and creating a supporting business are usually the biggest hurdles for publishers embracing new technologies, Gleysteen says. "It’s always the case that people don’t want to use something because it represents something different and therefore presents risk," he says. "Until you can overcome the change-management hurdle, building the business case can be difficult. The business case can be particularly vexing in technology applications such as virtual proofing. Viewed as a stand-alone technology, it has benefits, but the key lies in understanding how that tool facilitates the automation of a manually intensive component of the overall publishing process. The narrow view won’t create much of a business case, but it’s tough to get people to think broadly unless you have convinced them first that the underlying technology will in fact work."

Gleysteen estimates that the effort probably represents about one half of a person’s full-time responsibilities.

Meanwhile, some emerging bindery technology is also helping publishers with efficiency in different ways. There’s a new technology that Quebecor World is watching that enables publishers to publish to multiple platforms from the same file, it goes to ink-on-paper, online and to mobile delivery, Raimondo says.

And with the looming postal rate hike, publishers are mulling paper grade changes again. Some of the new high-speed stitchers can run lighter weight paper, Raimondo says.

Printers are also relying on new technology to ensure color accuracy as some publishers migrate to lighter weight papers. American Press recently installed a Canon imagePRESS C1 printer to expand its proofing options. Paper grade changes can affect the quality of the color reproduction, Long says. "Dot gain values go up and color clarity and contrast goes down," he adds. "The C1 allows us to proof on a publisher’s actual stock, if it is a common one, or color manage it on a comparable stock, if it’s not readily available."

On the other end of the spectrum, some publishers are looking for new print technologies to help grow their business and distinguish their products, despite the additional cost and production efforts. Quebecor World sees more clients asking for gimmicks with their books and inserts as a way to break through the clutter with readers. "It’s case by case, but there are some interesting things you can do to help publishers differentiate themselves with gimmicks," Raimondo says.

Magazines have been using these sorts of gimmicks for a while to increase newsstand sales, but with new technology comes new opportunity. National Geographic put a hologram on its cover in 1984. Last year, Rolling Stone upped the ante by using a lenticular cover with a 3D collage of music icons to mark its 1,000th issue.

Getting Started with Virtual Proofing
Adopting a virtual proofing system does not require a hefty amount of upfront costs. Working with a printer that uses the technology, publishers will need the following to get started:

  • Qualified LCD Monitor: Today’s LCDs are said to deliver about twice the brightness, sharpness and contrast to CRT displays.
  • Software: There are a few companies providing virtual proofing software and in many cases, it can be customized to a user’s specifications. The calibration software can run between $1,000 and $3,500, ballpark. Some printers provide it to their customers.
  • Calibrating Device: This is a specially calibrated and certified colormeter device. It runs about $1,000.
  • Dimmable Light Box: If companies plan to proof to transparency or hard-copy printing, they’ll need a dimmable light box to simulate the monitor view.

Publishers also should pay close attention to the ambient conditions. The appropriate viewing environment is one that does not distract from the color on the monitor, and some suggest using a viewing booth. The right setting would be a neutral or gray environment with no windows and furniture. Surroundings should be neutral as well. This doesn’t have to be a big undertaking. The viewing environment could be a small office or a corner of a room that has been screened off. One publisher used a gray screen in the office to section off the area, says Bruce Jensen, vice president of U.S. sales at Transcontinental.

The other step in the process is training. "It does not involve a great deal of training, it largely follows the same industry standards for viewing principles, the lighting and viewing environment are more critical," Jensen says.

Five Ways to Cut Your Printing Costs

  1. Choose the Right Printer. Most printers today are specialized. Some specialize in short runs, others in long runs. Interview three to five printers, get samples, estimates and references.
  2. Print Only What You Need. Approximately 30 percent of every print job goes to waste. Take the time to determine accurate quantities.
  3. Choose Your Paper Wisely. Paper can account for as much as 50 percent of your final print bill.
  4. Cost-Effective Trim Sizes. In order to maximize efficiency, ask your printer what trim size is most cost-effective for its operation.
  5. Ask Your Printer About Its House Sheets. House sheets are already in stock and do not need to be special-ordered for your job, they typically cost less.

Source: These tips come from a white paper from Dartmouth Printing Co. which is part of Sheridan Magazine Services.