With the days of wondering whether or not files would ever make it to the printing engine (almost) behind us, RIP vendors are moving on to other challenges. At the On Demand show in New York, four of the major players -- Creo (née Scitex), EFI, T/R Systems, and Xerox -- all demonstrated their latest wares and participated in a seminar on the future of RIPs and DFEs. Notably absent at the show were AHT and IBM, though the former was represented in Konica’s booth.

Having conquered throughput with ever-faster hardware, now the focus is on raising quality so that laser printers and ink-jet engines can achieve quality levels on a par with offset printing. Thus we see more attention being paid to the thorny issue of color management, especially in terms of matching input color profiles to the color gamuts of the output engines. All the systems now offer a range of tools for the total novice on up to the color expert-and administrative utilities to make sure only the right people can access each.

Two other major trends are closely related: versatility and ease of use. Companies such as EFI, T/R and Xerox are all increasing the number of engines supported by a single front end to make it easier to shift jobs around the plant, perform load balancing and reduce training requirements. For example, EFI is leveraging its position as the dominant supplier-with more than 1 million controllers installed worldwide-as a means of reducing the learning curve as well as driving different systems. Similarly, Xerox just announced that its new DocuSP XC front end will support color devices such as the DocuColor and iGen3. In all, DocuSP XC drives 22 different Xerox systems. And T/R drives more than 30 engines from eight vendors.

Printing would be much easier if content creators didn’t make mistakes or change their minds. Since that is not about to change, the vendors have enabled printers to do post-RIP imposition /merging of pages. That way only the new pages need to be RIPed to expedite final processing and faster overall throughput. Depending on the system, you can add, delete, and move pages. Xerox and Creo both offer imposition tools on the level found in prepress environments for creating saddlestitched and perfect bound booklets.

Given that cost has been a major inhibitor in the adoption of digital color printing, vendors are also working to reduce the number of development cycles required for mixed documents. Here, Xerox’s VIPP has a color splitter feature that separates color and black-and-white pages prior to printing and sends each to the appropriate device; after the color pages are printed, Interposer manages the collation with the monochrome pages printed on a DocuTech to assemble the final mixed document. T/R Systems has a similar feature on its MicroPress front end that splits the job and merges pages on any system that supports collation after fusing/development. Related to this and to its focus on the education marketplace, T/R offers a special tab feature that inserts and, if desired, prints on the tab, to create course packs.

No discussion of front ends would be complete without mentioning variable data imaging, and all the vendors are continuing their efforts to make this more feasible for printers and their clients. This is one area that overlaps with RIPing in different ways depending on the content generating application and the RIP. For example, one can create personalized pages and then RIP each individually-acceptable for text overlays and limited numbers of pages. For more complex pages, vendors are moving to systems that cache static data (that appears on every page) and then RIPing and overlaying only the new/variable data. This approach has been adopted by Creo, EFI, T/R, and Xerox in different ways. Creo has a robust system that RIPs and caches each graphic element-not page-and then assembles the complete page from cached elements.

Also drawing on its heritage in prepress and commercial printing, Creo offers sophisticated trapping tools as well as anti-aliasing of RIPed images; both are designed to compensate for problems with incoming files or with the output engine.

Finally, each vendor has a range of offerings now designed to satisfy users requirements for speed, number of engines, functionality, and budget. We’re way beyond the days when choices were limited to one system from each vendor.

Who knows, maybe we’ll even get to a point in the future where we’ll tell stories about nightmarish variable-data jobs. It’s getting closer, but there’s still a ways to go. The good news is that the RIP is less likely to be the culprit and more likely to be the solution.