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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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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Working with spot colors in Harlequin Core

Whenever we start working with a company who’s interested in using Harlequin Core™ for their Digital Front End (DFE), there are always three technical topics under discussion: speed, quality and capabilities. Speed and quality are often very quick discussions; much of the time they’ve approached us because they’re already convinced that Harlequin can do what they need. In the remaining cases we tend to jointly agree that the best way for them to be convinced is for them to take a copy of Harlequin Core and to run their own tests. There’s nothing quite like trying something on your own systems to give yourself confidence in the results.

So that leaves capabilities.

If the company already sells a DFE using a different core RIP they will almost always want to at least match, and usually to extend, the functionality of their existing solution when they switch to Harlequin. And if they’re building their first DFE they usually have a clear idea of what their target market will need.

At that stage we start by ensuring that we all understand that Harlequin Core can deliver rasters in whatever format is required (color channels, interleaving, resolution, bit depth, halftoning) and then cover color management pretty quickly (yes, Harlequin uses ICC profiles, including v4 and DeviceLink; yes, you can chain multiple profiles in arbitrary sequences, etc).

Then we usually come on to a series of questions that boil down to handling spot colors:

  • Most spot separations in jobs will be emulated on my digital press; can I adjust that emulation?
  • Can I make sure that the emulation works well with ICC profiles for different substrates?
  • Can I include special device colorants, such as White and Silver inks in that emulation?
  • Can I alias one spot separation name to another?
  • Can I make technical separations, like cut and fold lines, completely disappear, without knocking out if somebody upstream didn’t set them to overprint?
  • Alternatively, can I extract technical separations as vector graphics to drive a cutter/plotter with?

Since the answer to all of those is ‘yes’ we can then move on to areas where the vendor is looking for a unique capability …

But I’ve always been slightly disappointed that we don’t get to talk more about some of the interesting corners of spot handling in Harlequin. So I created a video to walk through some examples. Take a look, and I’d welcome your comments and questions!

Further reading:

  1. Channelling how many spot colors?!!
  2. Shade and color variation in textile printing
  3. Harlequin Core – the heart of your digital press
  4. What is a raster image processor 

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Head, inks, substrates – don’t forget the software!

Martin Bailey, distinguished technologist at Global Graphics Software, chats to Marcus Timson of FuturePrint in this episode of the FuturePrint podcast. They discuss Martin’s role in making standards work better for print so businesses can compete on the attributes that matter, and software’s role in solving complex problems and reducing manual touchpoints in workflows.

They also discuss the evolution of software in line with hardware developments over the last few years, managing the increasing amounts of data needed to meet the demands of today’s print quality, the role of Global Graphics Software in key market segments and more.

Listen in here:

Head, ink and substrates, don't forget the software. A FuturePrint podcast with Martin Bailey

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Digital press data rates – and why they matter

Following his post last week about the speed and scalability of your raster image processor, in this film, Martin Bailey, distinguished technologist at Global Graphics Software, explains how to determine how much raster image processor (RIP) power you need to drive a digital press by calculating the press data rate. It’s the best way of calculating how much RIP power you need in the Digital Front End (DFE) to drive it at engine speed and to ensure profitable printing.

Further reading:

  1. Harlequin Core – the heart of your digital press
  2. What is a raster image processor 
  3. Ditch the disk: a new generation of RIPs to drive your digital press
  4. Is your printer software up to the job?
  5. Where is screening performed in the workflow
  6. What is halftone screening?
  7. Unlocking document potential

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Speed and Scalability: two things to consider when choosing a RIP for your digital inkjet press

If you’re building a digital press, or a digital front end (DFE) to drive a digital press, you want it to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible. As the trend towards printing short runs and personalization grows, especially in combination with increasing resolutions, more colorants and faster presses, the speed and scalability of the raster image processor (RIP) inside that DFE are key factors in determining profitability.

For your digital press to print at speed you’ll need to understand the amount of data that it requires, i.e. its data rate. In this film, Martin Bailey, distinguished technologist at Global Graphics Software, explains how different stages in data handling will need different data rates and how to integrate the appropriate number of RIP cores to generate that much data without inflating the bill of materials and DFE hardware.

Martin also explains that your next press may have a much higher data rate requirement than your current one.

For more information about the Harlequin Core visit: www.globalgraphics.com/harlequin

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HP PageWide Industrial raises the bar with the Harlequin RIP

The HP T1190 digital inkjet press
The HP T1190 digital inkjet press

In this latest case study, Tom Bouman, worldwide workflow product marketing manager at HP PageWide Industrial, explains why the Harlequin RIP®, with its track record for high quality and speed and its ability to scale, was the obvious choice to use at the heart of its digital front end when the division was set up to develop presses for the industrial inkjet market back in 2008.

Today, the Harlequin RIP Core is at the heart of all the PageWide T-series presses, driving the HP Production Elite Print Server digital front end. Presses range from 20-inch for commercial printing, through to the large 110-inch (T1100 series) printers for high-volume corrugated pre-print, offering a truly scalable solution that sets the standard in performance and quality.

Read the full story here.

Further reading:

  1. Harlequin Core – the heart of your digital press
  2. What is a raster image processor 
  3. Where is screening performed in the workflow
  4. What is halftone screening?
  5. Unlocking document potential


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Harlequin Core – the heart of your digital press

Product manager Paul Dormer gives an insight into why the Harlequin Core is the leading print OEMs’ first choice to power digital inkjet presses in this new film.

A raster image processor (RIP), Harlequin Core converts text, object and image data from file formats such as PDF, TIFF™ or JPEG, into a raster that a printing device can understand. It’s at the heart of the digital front end that drives the press.

Proven in the field for decades, Harlequin Core is known for its incredible speed and is the fastest RIP engine available. It is used in every print sector, from industrial inkjet such as textiles and flooring, to labels and packaging, commercial, transactional, and newspapers.

As presses become wider, faster, and higher resolution, handling vast amounts of data, the Harlequin Core remains the RIP of choice for many leading brands including HP, Mimaki, Mutoh, Roland, Durst, Agfa and Delphax.

Watch it here:

Further reading:

  1. What is a raster image processor 
  2. Where is screening performed in the workflow
  3. What is halftone screening?
  4. Unlocking document potential


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Farewell “Harlequin Host Renderer”, hello “Harlequin Core”

We’ve now been shipping the Harlequin Host Renderer™ (HHR) to OEMs and partners for over a decade, driving digital printers and presses. Back then Harlequin was our only substantial software component for use in digital front ends (DFEs), and we just came up with a name that seemed to describe what it did.

Since then our technology set includes a component that can be used upstream of the RIP, for creating, modifying, analyzing, visualizing, etc page description languages like PDF: that’s Mako™. And we’ve also added a high-performance halftone screening engine: ScreenPro™.

We’ve positioned these components as a “Core” range and their names reflect this: “Mako Core” and “ScreenPro Core”. We also added higher level components in our Direct™ range, for printer OEMs who don’t want to dig into the complexities of system engineering, or who want to get to market faster.

Harlequin is already part of Harlequin Direct™, and we’re now amending the name of the SDK to bring it into line with our other “Core” component technologies. The diagram below shows how those various offerings fit together for a wide range of digital printer and press vendors (please click on it for a better view).

So, farewell “Harlequin Host Renderer”, hello “Harlequin Core”.

Global Graphics Software product entry point diagram

Further reading:

1. What is a Raster Image Processor (RIP)

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Compliance, compatibility, and why some tools are more forgiving of bad PDFs

Compliant and compatible PDF documents and the Harlequin RIP

We added support for native processing of PDF files to the Harlequin RIP® way back in 1997. When we started working on that support we somewhat naïvely assumed that we should implement the written specification and that all would be well. But it was obvious from the very first tests that we performed that we would need to do something a bit more intelligent because a large proportion of PDF files that had been supplied as suitable for production printing did not actually comply with the specification.

Launching a product that would reject many PDF files that could be accepted by other RIPs would be commercial suicide. The fact that, at the time, those other RIPs needed the PDF to be transformed into PostScript first didn’t change the business case.

Unfortunately a lot of PDF files are still being made that don’t comply with the standard, so over the almost a quarter of a century since first launching PDF support we’ve developed our own rules around what Harlequin should do with non-compliant files, and invested many decades of effort in test and development to accept non-compliant files from major applications.

The first rule that we put in place is that Harlequin is not a validation tool. A Harlequin RIP user will have PDF files to be printed, and Harlequin should render those files as long as we can have a high level of confidence that the pages will be rendered as expected.

In other words, we treat both compliance with the PDF standard and compatibility with major PDF creation tools as equally important … and supporting Harlequin RIP users in running profitable businesses as even more so!

The second rule is that silently rendering something incorrectly can be very bad, increasing costs if a reprint is required and causing a print buyer/brand to lose faith in a print service provider/converter. So Harlequin is written to require a reasonably high level of confidence that it can render the file as expected. If a developer opening up the internals of a PDF file couldn’t be sure how it was intended to be rendered then Harlequin should not be rendering it.

We’d expect most other vendors of PDF readers to apply similar logic in their products, and the evidence we’ve seen supports that expectation. The differences between how each product treats invalid PDF are the result of differences in the primary goal of each product, and therefore to the cost of output that is viewed as incorrect.

Consider a PDF viewer for general office or home use, running on a mobile device or PC. The business case for that viewer implies that the most important thing it has to do is to show as much of the information from a PDF file as possible, preferably without worrying the user with warnings or errors. It’s not usually going to be hugely important or costly if the formatting is slightly wrong. You could think of this as being at the opposite end of the scale from a RIP for production printing. In other words, the required level of confidence in accurately rendering the appearance of the page is much lower for the on-screen viewer.

You may have noticed that my description of a viewer could easily be applied to Adobe Reader or Acrobat Pro. Acrobat is also not written primarily as a validation tool, and it’s definitely not appropriate to assume that a PDF file complies with the standard just because it opens in Acrobat. Remember the Acrobat business case, and imagine what the average office user’s response would be if it would not open a significant proportion of PDF files because it flagged them as invalid!

For further reading about PDF documents and standards:

  1. Full Speed Ahead: How to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press
  2. PDF Processing Steps – the next evolution in handling technical marks

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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