A nostalgic look back at the ISO PDF/X standard

In this blog post, Martin Bailey recalls his days as the first chair of the ISO PDF/X task force and how the standard has developed over the last 20 years.

Over the last few years there has been quite an outpouring of nostalgia around PDF. That was first for PDF itself, but at the end of 2021 we reached two decades since the first publication of an ISO PDF/X standard.

I’d been involved with PDF/X in its original home of CGATS (the Committee for Graphic Arts Technical Standards, the body accredited by ANSI to develop US national standards for printing) for several years before it moved to ISO. And then I became the first chair of the PDF/X task force in ISO. So I thought I’d add a few words to the pile, and those have now been published on the PDF Association’s web site at https://www.pdfa.org/the-route-to-pdf-x-and-where-we-are-now-a-personal-history/.

I realised while I was writing it that it really was a personal history for me. PDF/X was one of the first standards that I was involved in developing, back when the very idea of software standards was quite novel. Since then, supported and encouraged by Harlequin and Global Graphics Software, I’ve also worked on standards and chaired committees in CIP3, CIP4, Ecma, the Ghent Working Group, ISO and the PDF Association (I apologise if I’ve missed any off that list!).

It would be easy to assume that working on all of those standards meant that I knew a lot about what we were standardising from day one. But the reality is that I’ve learned a huge amount of what I know about print from being involved, and from talking to a lot of people.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) only take into account your own use cases while writing a standard. Most of the time a standard that satisfies only a single company should just be proprietary working practice instead. It’s only valuable as a standard if it enables technologies, products and workflows in many different companies.

That sounds as if it should be obvious, but the second major lesson was something that has been very useful in environments outside of standards as well. An awful lot of people assume that everyone cares a lot about the things that they care about, and that everything else is unimportant. As an example, next time you’re at a trade show (assuming they ever come back in their historical form) take a look and see how many vendors claim to have product for “the whole workflow”. Trust me, for production printing, nobody has product for the whole workflow. Each one just means that they have product for the bits of the workflow that they think are important. The trouble is that you can’t actually print stuff effectively and profitably if all you have is those ‘important’ bits. To write a good standard you have to take off the blinkers and see beyond what your own products and workflows are doing. And in doing that I’ve found that it also teaches you more about what your own ‘important’ parts of the workflow need to do.

Along the way I’ve also met some wonderful people and made some good friends. Our conversations may have a tendency to dip in and out of print geek topics, but sometimes those are best covered over a beer or two!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey, Distinguished Technologist, Global Graphics Software, is currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a new guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

Further reading

  1. Compliance, compatibility, and why some tools are more forgiving of bad PDFs
  2. What the difference between PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4

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Introducing SmartQI – the quality inspection system for high-speed digital printing

This month WhatTheyThink’s third Technology Outlook takes place. It’s a series of webinars and interviews that highlight new innovations from industry analysts and thought leaders.

As part of the Thought Leadership Video series, David Zwang of WhatTheyThink chatted to Mako™ product manager David Stevenson, about how, by using our vast experience in RIPs and rendering, we’ve created a high-performance framework for print inspection systems.

David introduces Smart QI™, a quality inspection system available with SmartDFE™. Designed especially for print, SmartQI is a camera-based, real-time quality inspection system, offering the same real-time streaming of rasters. It is especially useful as the use of variable data increases, and press speeds and resolutions continue to grow, making it essential to inspect the print for defects before it comes off the press and goes into finishing and converting.

Watch it here:

Find out more:

  1. Global Graphics Smart QI: New Platform for On-the-Fly Inspection
  2. Connecting print to a smart factory.
  3. Project manager Jason Hook shows how we’ve implemented OPC UA into our solutions in this film: How to transform your inkjet business with Industry 4.0 and OPC UA. Jason demonstrates how we track performance metrics like pressure levels across an entire production line using our PC and Ink Delivery System, all while uploading it securely onto cloud servers using AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT.
  4. Short introduction to the OPC UA
  5. EyeC’s ProofText is 50% faster and more stable and reliable using Mako technology

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How to integrate print into the Smart Factory at the Industrial Print Integration conference

It’s my first time at the Industrial Print Integration Conference; I’ve packed my suitcase and my passport is raring to go, glad to be out of the drawer after two years of hibernation. I’m looking forward to meeting new people in the industry and learning about the new developments in technology.

If you’re interested in integrating print into your smart factory, join me for my talk at 12.30pm on Wednesday, 18 May 2022. I’ll be explaining how you integrate inkjet into the Smart Factory with the help of fully automated software that connects to the rest of the production system via Industry 4.0 technologies like OPC UA, the open standard for exchanging information for industrial communication. I’ll also explain how you can build in capability so you can deliver everything from mass production to mass customization at the same cost as current print systems.

And if you want to know more, then come along to our booth A7. We’re going to be showing a demo of our SmartDFE™, which I think is pretty impressive. You can watch a snippet here:

SmartDFE is our smart software that drives an inkjet printing subsystem in a factory setting, including those printers used for ultra-high speeds and 300m per minute production rates! The demo shows what happens when you combine high-tech SCADA systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) with OPC UA to monitor and control virtual print subsystems via iPads. You can control them both inside and outside of your plant location so management always knows what’s happening without ever having be physically present.

If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time: https://ipi-conference.com/register/delegate

I hope to see you there!

About the author

Ian Bolton

Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct
Ian Bolton, Product Manager – SmartDFE™ and Direct™

Ian Bolton is the product manager for SmartDFE™ and Direct™. He works with printer OEMs to break down barriers that might be preventing them from reaching their digital printer’s full potential. A software engineer at heart, Ian has a masters in Advanced Computer Science from the University of Manchester, and over 15 years’ experience developing software for both start-ups and large corporations, such as Arm and Sony Ericsson. He draws on this technical background and his passion for problem-solving to define and drive features and requirements for innovative software solutions for digital print.

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From print to manufacturing – an introduction to industry terms in the smart factory for the printer operator

As print evolves to become more integrated with manufacturing and a key part of the smart factory, those of us in the printing world are discovering new industry terms and language. In this blog post, Ian Bolton, product manager at Global Graphics Software, defines some of those industry terms and includes examples of how they are implemented into Global Graphics Software’s solutions.

OPC UA
OPC stands for Open Platform Communications – UA stands for Unified Architecture. Together: OPC UA. It’s an open standard for exchanging information between industrial components (composers). First developed in 1994 as OPC, sometimes referred to as OPC Classic, the standard was redesigned in 2006 as OPC UA. It is used to communicate with the factory across the internet. It has full encryption and security standards built in.

OPC UA is supported by over 800 members in the OPC Foundation and has been deployed in over 50 million devices. It is supported by companies like Mitsubishi, Siemens, Rockwell Automation, Microsoft, Amazon, SAP and Cisco.

OPC UA Server and OPC UA Client
Two more industry terms are OPC UA Server and OPC UA Client. The OPC UA Client communicates data through the OPC UA Server. The Client communicates in both directions with the printer PLCs, both reading and writing, and it can display device-specific information, like the ink levels and inkjet head temperatures

The image below shows Global Graphics Software’s Smart Print Controller™ (SPC). The SPC is an operator user interface that connects to one or more of our Harlequin Direct™ RIPs. The SPC contains both an OPC UA Client and an OPC UA Server.

The OPC UA Server within the SPC allows the printer to appear as a single device to the Smart Factory OPC Clients. It can publish data to the smart factory and the outside world including industrial cloud services, like AWS IoT SiteWise and Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform (more about those in the next paragraph).

Industrial Cloud Services
Industrial cloud services, like AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT, offer a range of industry-specific cloud solutions, including sharing and storing data. By sharing and storing data in the Cloud, you can leverage opportunities to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze the data. This allows you to do predictive maintenance and optimize your industrial components based on the data in the analysis. No programming is required to make this connection because the work is done via a web browser, although some firewall and networking adjustments may need to be made.

You can visualize data collected in this way in graphs and charts via a web browser, like in this image below:

SCADA
Another industry term is SCADA, which stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. With SCADA, you can supervise, monitor and control industrial processes both locally and remotely. The dashboards created in the SCADA system can be viewed from a browser on any device.

Here we show an Ignition SCADA solution connected to our OPC UA servers, but there are many other vendors.

Smart Factory
The smart factory autonomously runs the entire production process. Smart factories self-optimize, self-adapt and learn from new conditions in real-time allowing them to keep running. Print will become a subsystem of the smart factory and print operators will move from overseeing a single component to having the capability to oversee the whole factory.

Adding print to smart factories requires a rethink in the software and hardware stack. The Digital Front End (DFE) will also need to become smart:

The SmartDFE™ from Global Graphics Software is a full software and hardware stack that does everything from job creation through to printhead electronics. It includes the OPC UA-enabled SPC. The diagram below shows the SPC on the left, which controls a number of distributed Harlequin Direct RIPs. There is a very fast, single-pass system with one Harlequin Direct PC per print bar. The SPC distributes the PDF out to the Harlequin Directs and they then RIP, screen and stream the data to the printhead driver electronics in real-time. The Harlequin Direct PC at the bottom is streaming the same print data to a Quality Inspection Vision System.

To keep up with the fastest presses, our Harlequin Direct PCs must be running at the optimum level for every job. We can use an OPC UA Server to monitor each of the Harlequin Direct PCs. Shown on the right of each print bar is the Ink Delivery System for each ink color. Its job is to pump the ink around to the inkjet heads and keep it at the ideal temperature.

The above industry terms are just a few to get you started. Let me know if there are any others you’d like me to cover in future posts.

Find out more:

1. Connecting print to a smart factory.

2. Project manager Jason Hook shows how we’ve implemented OPC UA into our solutions in this film: How to transform your inkjet business with Industry 4.0 and OPC UA. Jason demonstrates how we track performance metrics like pressure levels across an entire production line using our PC and Ink Delivery System, all while uploading it securely onto cloud servers using AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT.

3. Short introduction to the OPC UA

About the author

Ian Bolton

Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct
Ian Bolton, Product Manager – SmartDFE™ and Direct™

Ian Bolton is the product manager for SmartDFE™ and Direct™. He works with printer OEMs to break down barriers that might be preventing them from reaching their digital printer’s full potential. A software engineer at heart, Ian has a masters in Advanced Computer Science from the University of Manchester, and over 15 years’ experience developing software for both start-ups and large corporations, such as Arm and Sony Ericsson. He draws on this technical background and his passion for problem-solving to define and drive features and requirements for innovative software solutions for digital print.

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Smarter software – the role of software in the smart factories of the future

At the InPrint Munich 2022 exhibition, our VP of products and services, Eric Worrall, sat down for a chat with Marcus Timson of FuturePrint. They discussed the future role that software will play in connecting print to the fully automated smart factory and how, as the print subsystem becomes an integral part of the smart factory, the press will self-monitor, ensuring color is right, checking ink levels and even predicting when printheads need replacing.

Watch it here:

Find out more about connecting print to the smart factory: SmartDFE™ is a full software and hardware stack that adds print to the fully automated smart factory.

Further reading:

Connecting print to the smart factory

AI – Man vs Machine – a new way of thinking?

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Connecting the present to the past

I finally made time for a very overdue tidy of my filing cabinet yesterday. In between wondering why I still had receipts from travel in 2003, I tripped over a piece of history: it’s a Harlequin Harpoon board, a hardware accelerator for halftone screening and part of the technology that allowed Harlequin to become the first to RIP the Seybold Musicians’ speed test page in under 60 seconds.

A Harlequin Harpoon board, a hardware accelerator for halftone screening and part of the technology that allowed Harlequin to become the first to RIP the Seybold Musicians' speed test page.
A Harlequin Harpoon board, a hardware accelerator for halftone screening.

Speed is still a key focus for Global Graphics Software, but the Harpoon was designed for screening for offset plates, and developments in chips and compilers by Intel, AMD, Microsoft and others, together with further optimizations to Global Graphics Software code, removed the need for custom hardware for that use case fairly soon afterwards.

Today’s challenge is much more for digital presses, and especially for inkjet. Current press speeds make the idea of celebrating RIPping and screening a single page in less than a minute seem quaint and even slightly bizarre; very last millennium! The fastest digital presses now print well over the equivalent of 10,000 pages per minute, often with every page different, which means that at least something on every page must be RIPped and screened, at full engine speed.

For that kind of performance, or even a more common 100 m/min for a narrow-web label press, it’s now normal to use multiple RIPs in parallel and to share the pages out between them. This makes it tricky to use custom hardware unless that is tied to specific ink channel delivery, because otherwise it must be load-balanced in a way that complements the load-balancing across the RIPs. We still see some custom hardware associated with raster delivery to the heads in the press, but nowhere else in current systems.

For the same reason, increasing the raw speed of a single RIP is no longer a target; scheduling pages to each RIP in a cluster and managing the rasters delivered by each one, together with managing the interactions between those multiple RIPs, are far more important. System engineering is now a key part of being able to drive inkjet presses at full speed without an unfeasibly high bill of materials for the Digital Front End, almost as much as the core technologies themselves.

In other words Global Graphics’ Direct™ and SmartDFE™ technologies are the logical successors of the Harpoon board, bringing affordable and reliable speed to a new generation of printing technology. But there’s still something rather nice in being able to hold a physical piece of history in my hands!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey, Distinguished Technologist, Global Graphics Software, is currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a new guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

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Calling all software developers!

The UK Careers Fair

Looking for a new role as a software developer? We’ll be attending the Cambridge Careers Fair on Friday, 4th March. Come and meet our team and find out more about what Global Graphics Software has to offer and two roles we currently have available:

Software Development Team Lead (C#)

SmartDFE Software Developer in Test

If you’re a graduate, perfect! We’re also looking for recent mathematics or computer science graduates or those who have a year or two of real software development experience to join our graduate program.

Whilst primarily aimed at graduates, we are also keen to hear from candidates without a degree who have strong demonstrable skills in software development. We’re also interested in giving opportunities to veterans and service leavers. 

Our graduate program will kick-start your career as a software engineer and give you valuable skills and insights into our industry.  

We’re looking forward to seeing you at the careers fair next week. In the meantime, read about what our software developers get up to here at Global Graphics Software:

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Meet Software Test Engineer Lavanya Sarikonda

Meet Lavanya, one of our software test engineers. Lavanya joined our print team in 2014.

What is your background?

I was born in India and moved to the UK in 2007. I am from an electronics and communications engineering background and my love towards artificial intelligence, mathematics, automation and electronics has helped me progress academically and pursue an MSc and a PhD.

I enjoyed singing back in India, performing at various shows since childhood and finally managed to sing in a professional capacity for a couple of albums in our regional language. I now enjoy working with my boys making pet electronic projects in the spare time.

What were you doing before and how did you come to work at Global Graphics Software?

I worked as a senior integration engineer for Vix Technology Limited in Cambridge for seven years before joining Global Graphics in 2014. Although I had no experience of the printing industry, I had a great interest and curiosity in it, and I felt there would be a lot to learn with Global Graphics’ technology and software.

What is the best thing about working at Global Graphics Software?

I have never had a boring day in the past eight years; there is no limitation on how much I can learn and grow personally and professionally here at Global Graphics. I have been given opportunities to enhance my skills, knowledge and capabilities throughout my past eight years with the industry’s most experienced and helpful colleagues. I also love the Cambourne-based office and its location – it’s great and peaceful for my lunch time walks.

What has been your career path since joining the company?

I joined the print team, working in automation, and I have since developed skills in color management.

What is the most exciting thing about your work?

I love the fact that I can explore and learn any area, and you are welcomed to do so. I always got great support from my colleagues and my line managers, which makes it exciting to move forward.

What keeps you here?

There’s always more to learn here and my colleagues are very experienced and helpful. I also always get the support I need to do my continuous professional development.

If you’re interested in joining Global Graphics Software visit our web page to find the latest vacancies: www.globalgraphics.com/careers

XAML-icious graphics in Mako Core

Creating discrete graphics in Mako Core™ with XAML

It’s not often that one is inspired by the introduction of a new feature in an SDK, but that has happened with Mako 6.3.0 and support for something rather drily known as Abbreviated Geometry Syntax. The inspiration arises because this way of describing geometry – curved and straight lines that form a shape, sometimes filled, sometimes not, that can be added to a page – derives from Microsoft’s XPS (XML Print Specification). But crucially it also appears in XAML, the language used by Windows to describe user interface (UI) designs. 

Why is this significant? Some time ago I wrote a Mako sample that would take a regular PDF page, expand it then adorn it with printers’ marks. You know the sort of thing – tick marks that indicate the trimmed size of the page, or the edge of the bleed, and colour bars or gray scales that enable a printer to see a patch of 100% of an ink color, or the gradation from white to black. It also included small targets printed with all inks to help spot registration problems. The graphic itself was simple, but how to generate it with code? The APIs in Mako were somewhat unwieldy when it came to drawing on the page, so much so that I found it easier to copy content from another document. 

Having created many discrete graphics in XAML to be used in a Windows application, such as a button or an indicator of some sort, I thought then it would be great to be able to convert a XAML snippet into Mako DOM objects that I could add to a PDF page. At the time, that was too much work. But with this new feature, it’s very straightforward, particularly in C# as there is great support for parsing XML. I began experimenting. 

Draw a sample 
The first step was to create a graphic to test with that wouldn’t be too challenging but at the same time cover the principal elements found on a XAML canvas – the <Canvas> element itself then paths, rectangles and text blocks with their attendant properties for fill, stroke, color, font etc. Thus was born Funny Robot that you can see here in a screengrab from Visual Studio (VS). . 

Figure 1: My funny robot and the XAML that draws him

I often use VS for creating XAML graphics graphically; as you do so, the XAML is written for you. Plus, you can edit the code and immediately see the result in the preview window. Besides Visual Studio and its sibling Blend for Visual Studio, there’s Microsoft’s Expression Design 4. Unfortunately, Microsoft now consider it defunct, but there are those that think as I do that it is a very useful tool and have made it available for download. You will find it easily with a web search for “Expression Design 4”. This tool can import an Adobe Illustrator graphic which is an incredibly valuable feature, one not found in Visual Studio

Coding the solution 
The C# that I wrote for this first loads the XAML code as a .NET XmlDocument, then creates Mako DOM object(s) for each XAML element it finds, which are added to a Mako IDOMGroup. Once parsing is complete, that group of objects can then be added to a page, positioned and scaled as required. For the purposes of the example, I simply add the group to a new blank page and save it as a PDF. 

The complete code can be found on the MakoSDK GitHub page, alongside the Funny Robot XAML. 

Further reading:

  1. How to retain print quality with vector-based transparency flattening
  2. Carry out complex tasks for your print workflow easily with Mako SDK
  3. Improving PDF accessibility with Structure Tagging

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What you need to build a press that must handle variable data jobs at high speed

I’ve spoken to a lot of people about variable data printing and about what that means when a vendor builds a press or printing unit that must be able to handle variable data jobs at high speed. Over the years I’ve mentally defined several categories that such people fall into, based on the first question they ask: 

  1. “Variable data; what’s that?” 
  2. “Why should I care about variable data, nobody uses that in my industry?” 
  3. “I’ve heard of variable data and I think I need it, but what does that actually mean?” 
  4. “How do I turn on variable data optimization in Harlequin?” 

If you’re in the first two categories, I recommend that you read through the introductory chapters of our guide: “Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press”, available on our website. 

And yes, unless you’re in a very specialised industry, people probably are using variable data. As an example, five years ago pundits in the label printing industry were saying that nobody was using variable data on those. Now it’s a rapidly growing area as brands realize how useful it can be and as the convergence of coding and marking with primary consumer graphics continues. If you’re a vendor designing and building a digital press your users will expect you to support variable data when you bring it to market; don’t get stuck with a DFE (digital front end) that can’t drive your shiny new press at engine speed when they try to print a variable job. 

If you’re in category 3 then you’re in luck, we’ve just published a video to explain how variable data jobs are typically put together, and then how the DFE for a digital press deconstructs the pages again in order to optimize processing speed. It also talks about why that’s so important, especially as presses get faster every year. Watch it here:
 

And if you’re in category 4, drop us a line at info@globalgraphics.com, or, if you’re already a Harlequin OEM partner, our support team are ready and waiting for your questions.

Further reading:

  1. What’s the best effective photographic image resolution for your variable data print jobs?
  2. Why does optimization of VDP jobs matter?
  3. There really are two different kinds of variable data submission!

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