Q&A with Prepress Provider Agfa

Integration, standardization… What's this all about? And you thought you had enough worries with your web site and e-business! In an effort to make prepress integration easier to understand, PFFC posed some questions to Agfa Corp.

Change. It's everywhere, yet it remains one of the most difficult things to embrace. In the beginning, we usually buck it; ultimately we accept it and try to make it work for us, and often we find ourselves touting it. The Internet is a great example of this.

Like the Internet, press (printing) technology is moving at such an incredible pace these days, we hardly have time to accept a change before the next one comes along. That alone can be reason enough to maintain a Luddite-like attitude. But, as many of you know, sticking to status quo can affect your bottom line and dull your competitive edge.

One of the key changes making news in our industry is the continued push for prepress, press, and post-press integration. There's even an organization whose sole mission is to facilitate this change — CIP4 (see Digital Solutions News section for more information). Though we're not there yet, it seems that this integration — like the continued growth of the Internet — is inevitable.

To help facilitate this change, PFFC sat down for a Q&A with Sheila Nysko, marketing manager, Packaging Segment, at Agfa. Keep in mind this is just one perspective. But having all the information you can before you implement this integration certainly can't hurt.

PFFC: There seems to be some reluctance to bring prepress in-house. Why do you think that might be true?

Sheila Nysko: I believe the industry has run very successfully for many years with trade shops [that have] very high expertise in color and in prepress being responsible for the color and the digital prepress. They also take on the liabilities that go with that. And there are more digital prepress solutions at different price ranges in the industry than ever before. So, it's faster and easier to do prepress than it's ever been. Yet at the same time, the skill and expertise and understanding of color are still of the utmost importance. So it's not just about equipment and consumables; it's definitely a training and skill level. And those training and skill issues are as important as the equipment, if not more important, to make those investments successful.

PFFC: Is it a worry that the technology — if an operation does invest in prepress equipment — will become obsolete, due to its rapid evolution?

SN:I do believe for everybody, right now, ROI [return on investment] is very important. And, with the way technology is moving, there's always a risk in making a major investment. But investing is the cost of being in business, and I think, no matter who they are investing with, one of the key questions they have to ask all the manufacturers is how they handle technology change. For example: Are there programs for upgrades? That's more crucial than ever now, with the speed of technology change.

PFFC: What would be the advantage of bringing prepress in-house in, say, a mid- to large-size converting operation?

SN: I think, in order to be more competitive, fast turnaround is becoming more prevalent. If you can manage your prepress and do your own remote proofing, back and forth, with a customer, you can get the job to wherever it needs to go more quickly. So, it definitely can get the selling cycle going.

Another reason why people like to bring prepress in-house — I would just use the word “control.” They may feel they have more control when they are working directly with their own customers. It may also help them manage their businesses — determining which jobs go where and when, instead of servicing somebody else.

PFFC: What types of converters — tags and labels, flexible, or folding carton — are doing their own prepress currently? Is there one type that's utilizing in-house prepress more than the others?

SN: Many of the label accounts that we've been involved with have had their own prepress for many years, and, of course, the trade shops always have handled prepress. For many of the label companies, I'd say, it's not new to them; they've been doing a lot of it over time. And flexible packaging converters, as well, have done quite a bit of prepress.

What we're seeing that's very new is folding cartons; I'm seeing that technology is really pushing prepress in a lot of folding carton accounts. The ability to go to CTP [computer-to-plate] has now pushed prepress into their environment. I'm not so sure they said, ‘I want to go into prepress.’ It's more that the industry and their customers are requesting CTP solutions. And once you're involved in making the plates, it makes sense to bring the platesetter into the converter.

But at the same time, there are very close partnerships with the trade shops. In certain situations, the digital integrity of files is still transmitted from the trade shop. So, even though prepress is moving into converters' shops, the trade shops still are being used widely in the industry.

PFFC: Do you see some bigger converters bringing prepress in-house more so than smaller converting operations?

SN: At Agfa we use the term “prepress” as any part of the process, from making the file to outputting the file on plate. And what I'm seeing is that many of the converters aren't doing all of the prepress — they're doing aspects. The files might be made in the trade shops, and they are just outputting plates. Or some are doing it all themselves.

As far as the operations' sizes, it appears that the largest conglomerates or national accounts were the first in the folding carton industry to make the investment into CTP. I believe it was driven by the customer, by the buyer [the end-user]. And, as more and more of the national accounts have invested in CTP, we're now beginning to see the interpendents also make the investment. That's definitely become a very clear trend that began about three years ago, and I think will continue for the next three to five years.

PFFC: How do US converting operations and European converting operations compare when it comes to utilizing in-house prepress equipment and technology?

SN: I would say we're seeing similar trends in both Europe and in the US. Converters are moving into prepress, and it's been driven by the technology — computer to flexo devices, computer to offset plate devices, and digital proofing.

PFFC: What do you think of recent moves in the industry to establish prepress and workflow standards?

SN: I think there must be standards in any aspect of the printing industry. Publishing set up standards many years ago, and I think most of the industry is moving more and more into standards.

Color and color management is such an important part of packaging; it's one of its greatest challenges. With flexography, there are additional challenges. More and more, I think, everyone is looking toward standards to help us be more efficient. Absolutely. It's key.

PFFC: In terms of prepress and the converting/package printing industry, what are we going to see and continue to see?

SN: We believe CTP is where it's going to be — before it becomes computer-to-press in the industry. And to support the CTP technology, digital proofing for packaging is very important. Also [we'd like] to bring proofing products down to the same economical price as you find in the commercial market. That's been a big difference.

And you mentioned standards — we think the trend of manufacturers being more “open” (open-architecture technologies) is going to continue. Some companies have their own workflow, but we're finding there are more and more open solutions on the market to get into packaging.

PFFC: You just said something really interesting: “…there are more and more open solutions to get into packaging.” Is that something that is happening? Are commercial printing operations diversifying?

SN: We do believe the Internet has impacted the commercial printing industry somewhat; its growth rate in the last couple of years has slowed. As a result, many of our current commercial customers have expressed a desire to bring in some label business, etc., without bringing in expensive proprietary workflows. And with off-the-shelf products, it's very easy for them to diversify and pick up additional business in different kinds of applications. So, yes, I do see that as a trend.

PFFC: What will happen to prepress providers, the “trade shops,” if printers and converters bring prepress in-house?

SN: I always have some trouble with [those that think the] trade shops aren't [going to be an important part of this process]. I mean, they're not just the companies that supply the separations; they're becoming digital asset managers, managing the data. So as prepress is moving into the converting operations, the trade shop also is moving into new businesses and roles. They are diversifying as well. Everyone is changing roles a bit.

But as for the trends that will affect the converters and package printers overall, CTP and digital proofing are prepress areas in which we've seen significant growth.

I also think color management is quite important; it's still a hurdle the industry has to clear. Between flexo and specialized packaging colors — well, there's such a uniqueness to the package printing process. The current standards don't seem to address the needs of package printers. It's a very diversified industry with so many unique specialties that it's the most challenging to standardize. But at least there's momentum to get there.

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