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Commentary & Analysis

The Magic of PDF Workflow

By Chuck Gehman &

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: April 6, 2005

By Chuck Gehman “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke, ca. 1961 The Acrobat product line and PDF as a file format have achieved critical mass in web publishing and among creative staffers at ad agencies, graphic designers, and publishers. April 6, 2005 -- PDF was first introduced in the late summer of 1992, which (at least to me) seems like an incredibly long time ago. With the recent launch of Acrobat 7, the excitement for many in the printing industry around PDF has been reinvigorated. It’s gotten to the point where people widely anticipate new versions of this application, and the new capabilities and productivity enhancements it will bring. This article isn’t about Acrobat 7. Instead, it looks at the challenges and opportunities PDF offers for commercial print applications, on-demand and VDP. PDF and Acrobat have achieved widespread adoption in the corporate enterprise. This is the engine driving Adobe’s exceptional performance as a tech company. The Acrobat product line and PDF as a file format have achieved critical mass in web publishing and among creative staffers at ad agencies, graphic designers, and publishers. In the printing, industry early adopters and technologically sophisticated shops have adopted PDF as an internal format or one used by customers to submit jobs. Before I get to the advantages provided by the latest version of Acrobat as part of a PDF workflow, let me digress to give you a little background. PDF Workflow: The Deep Background PDF is not yet the solution to all of the industry’s challenges, but is certainly one of the most important weapons in the battle for interoperability, streamlined business and production process, and enhanced profitability. The introduction of Adobe Extreme in 1996 marked the introduction of the idea of “PDF workflow” in which PostScript files are interpreted (or normalized) and converted to individual PDF pages. These pages are then individually processed (e.g. trapped, color corrected, imposed, and rasterized), and multiple pages can be processed simultaneously. In a PDF workflow, data is maintained as a device-independent digital master. Device-dependent changes are delayed until later in the print production process. The workflow is page-based, which means that if there is a last-minute change in a document, only the changed page requires re-processing. In contrast, in “legacy” raster-based workflows, PostScript files are converted to rasterized pages at their entry into the workflow. Proponents claim this is an advantage, because “customer” data is locked in early in the process, preventing introduction of problems with fonts, color fidelity and other details when the further steps of the workflow are performed. In truth, PDF has significant advantages over working with raster data. Like PostScript, it is a specification developed by Adobe, but made public to encourage third-party development. The principal advantages of PDF include: The ubiquitous support of third-party developers Smaller file sizes (because the format includes compression) Object-oriented: where PostScript is a “stream” that basically references all of the pages in the job at once, PDF permits addressing (or imaging) individual pages. This allows “programmatic” access to perform operations on elements of a page, on pages themselves, or on collections of pages Cross-platform: PDF files work on any system, regardless of the platform on which they originated, and can include embedded fonts and images. Enter the Challenges At this point, one might say, “sounds great, sign me up.” And many have embraced PDF workflow, especially over the last few years. But there are still significant challenges with using PDF. Getting Good Customer Files Getting customers to create problem-free PDF files continues to be a challenge. Although PDF workflow solutions can be used with any type of input file format, substantial labor savings are gained by having customers deliver work as PDF files, eliminating the need for prepress operators to convert native application files (i.e., QuarkXpress, Microsoft Publisher or other formats) to PDF. However, getting customers to create these PDF files without problems (for example, missing fonts and images or incorrect resolution settings), and without requiring operator intervention, continues to be a challenge. Seeing opportunity, vendors have created solutions for this problem. EFI’s PrintMessenger, for example, allows users to “file-print” from within their favorite applications, delivering settings-correct PDF files to the print service provider via the Internet (the print provider actually controls the settings in a configuration file that is invisible to the user). This creates a seamless workflow from the user’s desktop computer to the print production environment with one PDF. Still other applications (most notably PitStop from Enfocus) provide means of identifying and correcting problems with PDF files after they have arrived at the shop but before they enter the workflow for output. Can the PDF be Printed? Another potential challenge with PDF workflow is the ability for RIPs (Raster Image Processors), the “brains” that drive output devices like CTP machines or digital printers, to keep up with the rapidly changing PDF specification--from a compatibility standpoint. If you are using the latest Adobe applications like Acrobat or InDesign--even if your RIP is up-to-date with the manufacturer’s latest software release--you may encounter problems processing customer files. Some things customers can create in PDF documents may require the printer to do considerable work to image the beautiful artwork or pages, basically “down-versioning,” or “re-engineering” work to be compatible with a particular workflow or RIP. Fortunately, some RIP vendors provide the ability to “live update” the RIP software, making it easier to stay current. Guaranteed Accuracy One of the biggest issues with PDF continues to be “trust.” As noted previously, “legacy” raster formats were once embraced by creatives, publishers and print service providers because they provided the greatest assurance that the file received and output by the printer was what was delivered by the customer. The idea is “digital film,” because color-separated film is the medium that agencies and magazine publishers had traditionally used to exchange materials. One of the biggest issues with PDF continues to be “trust.” Early attempts to switch to “digital film” for transmitting and processing job materials (most notably advertising) involved a legacy raster file format called TIFF/IT-P1, which had a number of limitations, such as extremely large file size and inability to automate processes. PDF/X The answer to many users became a newer format, a variant of PDF, called PDF/X, which is now an ISO (International Standards Organization) standard. PDF/X extends the use of PDF to file exchange (hence the X). The primary goal is to assure PDF file creators that the fidelity of their content will be maintained at the destination. This has many advantages for making job delivery reliable and robust. The primary goal of PDF/X is to ensure fidelity of content is maintained at the destination. Because it is a subset of the PDF specification, PDF/X-1a creates files that can be opened and displayed in any PDF viewer, and used with virtually any tool for making or preflighting PDF files, a huge advantage over the TIFF-IT/P1 format. What’s more, any PDF production workflow can process PDF/X-1a files. However, since PDF/X-1a ensures a file will be rendered in the same way by every system, a non-compliant workflow could compromise the integrity of the file and the output might not match the original. PDF and VDP As noted, two of the biggest advantages of PDF are its object-oriented nature, which allows operations to be performed on page elements, pages and jobs, and the interoperability provided by its open format and broad third-party software developer support. Nowhere are these advantages more important in print than in the world of VDP (Variable Data Printing), where there are potentially tens of thousands of unique pages in a single job. Nowhere are PDF's object-oriented nature and interoperability more important than in the world of variable data printing. PPML, an output specification created by the members of the Print On Demand initiative (PODi), is an open, XML-based language for variable data printing. It provides an optimized print option that is intended to create a universal output standard designed to result in a faster RIP time. The advantage of emitting and consuming PPML is interoperability, like PDF itself. With a shared output language, software and hardware developers alike should have a broader market and customers have more flexibility when creating a file for print. PDF and JDF For some jobs, the combination of PDF and JDF will make it possible for the job to flow directly into an output queue, untouched by human hands PDF contains the job content, but doesn’t explain to a printing company how to produce a job. That’s where JDF can help in a PDF world. Leading vendors are putting a lot of effort into the “intent” side of the JDF specification. The goal is that when a job is created in, say, InDesign, a user can fill out a simple job ticket, send the file over the Internet to the print shop and have the operator at the shop know exactly what to do with it-- because the ticket contains the embedded job information. Presumably this would happen without: opening job files to determine “what is in it” multiple telephone conversations to learn what the creator wants having to fix problems manually, such as missing graphical elements, or mistakes in application or Acrobat settings For some jobs, the combination of PDF and JDF will make it possible for the job to flow directly into an output queue, untouched by human (i.e., prepress operator) hands. Acrobat 7 and Commercial Print As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Acrobat 7 is a leap forward for professional print. It’s much faster loading, reason enough to upgrade from Acrobat 6. Prepress users will enjoy new preflight capabilities: correct inks, adjust color spaces and fix line weights, and more. Users can also flatten live transparencies, convert color spaces and create trap presets for PostScript printing. Microsoft Publisher support: MS Publisher has been a bane to commercial printers for various reasons, especially users’ lack of knowledge of commercial print processes. Now, users can create better PDF files from within the application. Microsoft Outlook support: Acrobat now provides integration with Outlook for organizing and publishing information in emails. Better security: it’s easier to configure document-level security settings. PDF Organizer: new search and history features help users find files more easily in the sea of documents on a hard drive or network. PDF in the Future PDF is not yet the solution to all of the industry’s challenges, but is certainly one of the most important weapons in the battle for interoperability, streamlined business and production process, and enhanced profitability. Higher quality input files, better information about job intent, automation and seamless integration with output devices all make PDF an essential tool for printing operations, regardless of printing technology or size of company. Don’t wait for Acrobat 8 or PDF 2.0 to begin to reap the advantages of PDF in your workflow-- you can start today!



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