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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APS Engineering joins Global Graphics Software Partner Network

A warm welcome to our new Global Graphics Software Partner Network member: APS Engineering.

APS Engineering creates cutting-edge ink delivery systems for all stages of production for inkjet printing, additive manufacturing, and microdispensing. The company has worked together with Global Graphics Software to create the first OPC UA-enabled ink delivery system for SmartDFE, a full software and hardware stack that adds print to the fully automated smart factory.

SmartDFE™ is designed to be the heart of a fully automated manufacturing system and transform the role of the digital press in the smart print factory of the future.

OPC UA is the interoperability standard for the secure and reliable exchange of data in the industrial automation space and in other industries. It is platform-independent and ensures the seamless flow of information among devices from multiple vendors.

The OPC UA-enabled ink delivery system developed together with APS Engineering can communicate with anything in the industrial inkjet ecosystem. This means that the press can be monitored remotely from an iPad or from a browser on the desktop, or that data can be stored from the ink delivery system in a historical archive database to enable other functions like predictive maintenance.

In addition to fluid delivery systems, APS Engineering also offers printbar design and consulting services for custom projects. We look forward to working together in the future.

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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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How to retain print quality with vector-based transparency flattening

This week, Mako™ product manager David Stevenson explains vector flattening:

When you print PDF content or save or export it to other formats that do not support transparency, it will need to undergo a process called flattening. Flattening usually involves rasterizing areas of the page that are subject to transparency effects, which could mean replacing sharp-edged vector content with a jagged-edged bitmap. Of course, increasing the resolution of the rasterization can mitigate that problem, but doing so takes longer and adds to file size.

The alternative is to retain vector geometry, including text, as vector objects. This requires dividing the artwork down into smaller parts that no longer overlap, then tracing the edges of the new shapes with a vector path. In the latest release, Global Graphics Software’s Mako Core SDK (v6.2.0) adds this capability to its raster-based transparency flattening API. Using existing APIs that apply De Casteljau’s algorithm to decompose Bézier curves and a new method to trace around shapes, flattened content can retain its device independence and printing quality.

In this example, two partially transparent shapes overlap, and set to use a multiply blend. The rectangle indicates the zoom area for the next two images.
In this example, two partially transparent shapes overlap, and set to use a multiply blend. The rectangle indicates the zoom area for the next two images.
The result of regular raster-based flattening. The shapes are rasterized (at somewhat low resolution for the purposes of illustration) and you can see the jagged edges that result.
The result of regular raster-based flattening. The shapes are rasterized (at somewhat low resolution for the purposes of illustration) and you can see the jagged edges that result.
The result of vector-based flattening. The edges are smooth.
The result of vector-based flattening. The edges are smooth.
This image shows how the vector flattener has created three new vector paths that no longer overlap (moved apart for the purposes of illustration), with the color of 2 representing the blend evident in the original artwork.
This image shows how the vector flattener has created three new vector paths that no longer overlap (moved apart for the purposes of illustration), with the color of 2 representing the blend evident in the original artwork.

I’ve included a short demo of the vector-based transparency flattening feature using Mako here:

Don’t hesitate to david.stevenson@globalgraphics.com for more information if you’d like to know more about the feature and Mako Core.

Further reading

  1. Carry out complex tasks for your print workflow easily with Mako
  2. Improving PDF accessibility with Structure Tagging

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