As told by Michael Musgrave, COO, Bay Cities
In part one of this blog, I explained my start in digital printing on corrugated. You can review that blog here.
In truth, figuring out the first equipment to buy and market segment to serve with that equipment was far easier than figuring out how to reliably get files to the printer. My company back then was printing flexo at 55-65 line screen, multi-color, no process print. We also did not do any lithography or lithographic mounting of any kind in-house.
So, when we were told about having to rip the files to the printer, we pretty much saw it as very similar to how we would send files to our sample plotter or even to the CAD tables. Simplified: digital file goes to a location on the server, output device looks there, output device produces what’s there. Sounds simple, right?
First, we tried to have our flexo prepress person handle the art files for the digital printer. She was the only resource we had in that area, and she was competent enough to learn it. She picked up the mechanics of the file movement pretty quickly, and as we ramped up our press in 2008, we realized just how much time she was spending on digital. Most of the time was going into color matching. With flexo, we had always matched color through a specific ink callout, for which we could produce a formula, a drawdown, and ultimately a specific ink for that color, that customer.
Digital, however, humbled us quickly. We were quite literally spending days with prepress and the press operator to hit a single color on a graphic. We were adjusting the color within the AI file. We would manipulate the color by looking at the print through a loop. This was endless. It wasn’t scalable.
Obviously, we needed help. We sought to find someone who understood digital color management, and even though we recruited as best we could, we ended up hiring and firing a couple of very talented graphics people who just didn’t quite get it in a short amount of time. I went back to the well and asked our printer OEM for advice. “You guys said you had prepress,” the salesman responded. “They probably just need more training. I’ll set it up.”
A month later, with retraining complete, the results were only marginally better. Truth is that we had a massive gap in our approach. We knew nothing of digital color management, and the answer did not reside in taking our multi-color flexo understanding and applying it to digital. A litho or process print approach of “separating” colors didn’t work either, even though digital is process print. We needed to deal with jetting ink simultaneously across many colors. For our solution, we turned to another very old industry.
At the urging of our OEM and other competitive equipment manufacturers, we decided to attend a signage and graphics convention. However, our CEO did not like the idea of us going to a signage convention. He was a very pragmatic man and hated seeing money wasted on conventions that never led to any sales, improvements, etc. But he has one very important quality that helped us in the moment – humility. He saw we were scaling our sales, but not our prepress function. So, he signed off on the trip and off we went.
At the convention, my first thought was that most of it had nothing to do with what we produced. We were able to focus in on the tools they were using for prepress, though. Once we understood how deep and wide the signage industry knowledge went in terms of prepress, all the odd materials and applications we saw at the show became irrelevant. What was relevant is that they knew how to reliably and predictably get the same color across multiple devices and substrates, and they were doing so somewhat effortlessly.
They spoke about their rip software as if it was a machine. They knew what it could do, what it did better than other rip software, and why it was the right one for them. They knew about developments in rip software that were pending, and they tried to have very high-level color management conversations with us. I think I am being overly kind when I say that our knowledge was “lacking” at the time.
Fast forward a year or so and you’ll see that our organization invested in some very capable software to automate the workflow. Most importantly, we found someone with a graphics background and a keen mind for process to run that software. The structure that person built scaled with us all the way through installing one of the first single-pass digital presses. We would have needed 20 people, at least, to keep up with our initial approach. Once our prepress function had the tools it needed, and was guided by the right person, it began to serve the machine(s) and the department the way it needed to, with our speed and profitability quickly skyrocketing.
Digital prepress is its own industry, and we were now a part of it.
Stay tuned for part 3! “Digital doesn’t cut it!”