In my twenty years of printing experience, I have worked at several printers and have noticed similarities between all of them. Prepress in the printing industry is the forefront of all successes and often the scapegoat of most failures [real or imagined]. Most of my experience has been involved in the prepress department and it was astounding just how many unique challenges and misunderstandings are faced with the daily operations. Often the best unforeseen challenges can be remedied before they become issues. Your prepress department might be suffering from issues that they did not create but have to labor to remedy, this loss of time and productivity could cost your company thousands of lost revenue and potentially damage profitability and damage the company’s reputation indefinitely. Most often prepress takes the blame for misrepresented notions and concepts that other departments will not take the time or energy to understand. Although it is easier to accept fault than find effective solutions- I felt it would be beneficial to point out the top ten things I understood to be the downfall of most printing companies.
#1: Your salespersons are killing productivity because of “feelings”
I have had many salespersons that had lots of feelings, costly time consuming feelings that once the printing was approved by the customer- the salesman [or woman] would watch the press until the first press proof sheet comes off the press. Upon looking at this first print, they would obsess with their personal and subjective thoughts on what they imagine that the customer might think. This is the costly stage – second guessing in which either the salesperson will stop the press to run out a press sheet to the client to get their opinion or ask the prepress department to make some “tweeks” to make the salesperson feel better. Most printers have their clients sign off on their proof before running product on the press; the cost incurred from salespeople rerunning products based on “maybes” is completely killing productivity, profitability, and undermines the salesperson’s confidence of the very team [or company] he or she is intending to promote.
#2: That Inkjet printer is ineffective as a color matching tool for press proofs
Often the “new” technology is not as effective as the “old” technology of match prints of yesterday. Inkjet technology cannot replicate certain colors to complete accuracy, take for example the Pantone color Reflex Blue. Spot colors will often emerge murkier and appear different on inkjet than in real life, most printers know this all too well. However, salespeople think that the inkjet printout is the actual representation of the final piece and this is how it is promoted to the client. I have had many discussions with salespeople, managers and the like who could not comprehend how the inkjet does not match the four color world. The concept is like matching apples to oranges since one output technology is completely different from the other [ink dots versus moiré]. Consider also the reality that RGB images will appear on the inkjet proof, but not on the CMYK proof of the four color press sheet. Although the current CTP technology does not allow for match print proofs- the differences in color and quality need to be understood fully before comparing to an actual press proof.
#3: Manual Cutters versus Digital Media
It is easy to understand that people do not want to work and will take any opportunity to take a break at another’s expense – including sitting in the prepress department to complain about trim marks. Often there has been some discrepancy between the cutters and their ideal way they would prefer the sheets to be set on the final run. Stepping and repeating of digital images is often misunderstood and unless you have spent hours to years on the process, it is difficult to describe that the digital world may not match the cutter’s reality. The numbers on the blade of the cutter may round to a fraction of an inch but the digital will go as far as the hundredths of an inch to step and repeat multiple impressions on a sheet [although some positioning programs work this better]. The difficulties enter when the program steps and repeats by rounding to the nearest hundredth of an inch. For example, if a typical business card [3.5″ x 2″] has a set gutter of an eighth of an inch or .125″, the program may potentially round the .125″ to .13″, therefore as the cutter sets his numbers on the keypad to .125″ on a program- he or she is left with an obvious discrepancy in the final cut of the images. The challenges that digital presents to the cutting machine’s tolerances is self-presenting and at the end of the day either prepress might need to know to adjust to those tolerances or the cutter may need to use the marks to visually match the sheet. Matching to the trim marks takes more time and effort, [often more than the cutter is willing to make] but in the long run it would be more effective than refusing to understand the limitations of the digital media.
#4: Your “Problem Solving” Team is causing more problems
Sometimes I would wait up to 45 minutes to an hour waiting on a manager, press operator, or a cutter to come up with a solution that I already was working on while they were “meeting” on the problem of the moment. These problems ranged from the tolerance issue, “feelings” about a color, or trapping issues. All simplistic problems that arise usually do not require a committee’s validation to resolve, especially when prepress was not invited to the impromptu meeting. The problem occurs when there are three people who stop production to discuss a small issue for up to an hour- which means three employees were away from their post for an hour- conceivably a loss of three hours of production time. Although I am aware that certain matters need resolving, the time and amount of employees used to solve an issue should be kept to a minimum or only one key member of management should look into matters rather than a group.
#5: Untapped Creative Potential of Prepress Department
Many of those in prepress are ambitious and talented individuals who have entered into computer graphics to expand on their creativity. I always wanted to be a designer and was not 100% fulfilled in setting up templates, resolving tolerance issues, adjusting trap, and redesigning badly designed pamphlets for customers. Most designers, like me, did not think that they would be spending years setting up coordinates for imposition programs for bookwork, or ganging lots on a page. I was good at what I did, but I wanted to show the print world what a terrific designer I was. Most prepress technicians are excellent designers- but never truly get the opportunity to prove their merit as creative individuals. We always welcome the opportunity to try something different and are willing to even take classes to learn web design if our company was willing to attempt to invest in us.
#6: Stop Buying Unnecessary equipment or software
Many owners of print companies get swept away into the “latest thing” that promises instant profitability, only to learn that the equipment or software did not work as well as advertised. In the twenty years I have been in this industry – there have been many claims that seduced my employers into purchasing nonsense like variable data programs, four color copiers that print sheet fed on 10 mil, mail merge programs, and Flight Check to name a few. There will always be a bigger mousetrap that will be invented to promise unlimited potential, however common sense needs to be practiced on any purchase and most likely it would be best to ask those right under your roof if the “latest thing” is practical for your business needs.
#7: Think Profitability | Could old equipment be used more effectively for profit
Many printers consider their inkjet printer as only a proofing tool for their larger four color press, but that piece of equipment has so many other practical uses: banner printing, large format posters, sign work, and even vehicle wraps can be printed on the same equipment by just switching out the stock and inks. The same printer can also produce Giclée prints or fine art prints which are highly priced and valued in the art industry.
#8: Prepress techs would prefer time for management to observe issues
Many prepress people have a great difficulty communicating the intricate details of their craft, but would like for the “big cheese” to take the time to sit in while they are setting up templates, resolving issues, or setting trap for the press. I have personally invited my employers to sit with me and learn how I worked for them; in my opinion it was the only way to show full transparency. Unfortunately, that audience always had something “better” to do, but I never wanted my work to be a mystery to my employer. Chances are that if an employer or management expresses a genuine desire to better understand prepress and their issues as much as being interested in bindery and finishing- that there will be a more consistent approach to better problem solving.
#9: Prepress is at war with bindery
Often there exists a common misconception that bindery or finishing are “background” employees while others are more in favor with management or with the owner of the company. I have worked as both customer service and as a computer artist and regardless of what function that I served in the company, I always worked to establish positive working relationships with my colleagues in finishing. However, the misconceptions arrive when “front office people” like myself are in constant contact with the customer and have to track down jobs that are currently in the finishing department. In printing, frequent requests from customers often prompt representatives to check the delivery date, which also causes one employee to ask another employee to assist in the job. In a perfect world, all departments would work together to make the customer satisfied with the finished product. However, often those who do not directly address the customer can feel detached and may even react derogatory towards others. The morale and negative attitudes of colleagues will often display in inappropriate language towards each other, poor work performance, or even result in costly mistakes in the final stages of the printed product. There have been many times that I have witnessed poor finishing, mis-registered printing, or book work that was not collated properly to my original setup and all of this could be attributed to lack of moral of my colleagues.
#10: We work too hard to make compensation for others who don’t want to
The popular statement is work smarter, not harder. However this adage cannot be adapted to fit the printing industry- at least not from the digital perspective. Prepress has to resolve issues to accommodate those who feel it is “not their job” to do. Cutters often reject printed jobs because they do not want to work with the trim marks, the press operator needs a flood coat of trap so they don’t have to work on targets for registration, or the sales person refuses to communicate to their client that the digital file will not print correctly. Whatever the issue, your prepress does a great deal more to accommodate others- even at the risk of working long hours and weekends as our colleagues are at home.
Although there are more issues that could be addressed with printing, these are among the top most problematic concerns that I have with the industry today. Many say print is dying, some say that it is evolving – but as for today we are still thriving in a slowing economy. If printing does what it has always done before, then it will never evolve into a profitable enterprise or lose significantly to another print company who demonstrates themselves to be more innovative. Personally I have witnessed three once thriving companies close their doors forever because they practiced the old “business as usual” view towards things. Perhaps they deserved to become extinct but I think we can learn from these mistakes of my former predecessors and become something more just some “ordinary” printer.