Addressing real-world software challenges in the print industry

It’s always good to see our technology being used in the ‘real world’; it really helps us to understand our customers’ daily challenges so we can develop software to make their lives easier.

With this in mind, we recently visited Baker Labels, a leading UK trade label printer with over 45 years’ experience in the business. Bakers has three HP Indigo WS6900 presses, an HP Indigo 20000 press, a Truepress Jet L350 UV and L350 UV+LM inkjet press, as well as a Nilpeter FB3 flexographic press.

Managing director Justin Bailey reflects on our visit:

Baker Labels

Global Graphics Software’s technology is used by many thousands of printing companies around the world. We’re committed to innovation and to continue to innovate it’s important that our software developers understand the challenges faced by those companies in the printing industry. I wanted to take our team to an environment where the code they have written might be used.

I set out to find a printing company that shared our values in innovation and would be happy to show us around their facilities. My research led me to Baker Labels, a leading UK print provider for the label and packaging market, who embraced the idea of welcoming us and showing us round.

The thing that struck me immediately about Bakers, was the pride they had in their business and the culture they had built, which clearly radiated as soon as you walked through the door. It was also a bonus to learn that they use PACKZ® and CLOUDFLOW® from our sister company, HYBRID Software, to automate many of their processes.

Bakers also work very closely with HP Indigo in both their label printing business, and BakPac, their flexible packaging business. This meant that our Harlequin RIP® engineers could see presses working that used the technology they had developed deep inside the HP Indigo digital front end. This gave them a sense of real purpose and pride.

HP Indigo 6900 at Baker Labels
One of the HP Indigo 20000 presses at Baker Labels.
Baker’s BakPac digital flexible packaging business prints short to medium runs of stand-up pouches, pillow pouches and printed film for trade customers looking for a high-speed-to-market option for their customers.

Bakers’ domain expertise was clear for our team to see: Jamie Godson did an incredible job of explaining the application of technology and challenges that they face within the industry; Jamie Doogan provided important perspective on commercial considerations; and Simon Chandler shared his perspectives on technical infrastructure necessary to stay competitive in the market.

Feedback from my team was overwhelmingly positive and the energy that they got from the visit will be something that I am confident will continue to resonate within our engineering team, spurring on new ideas to solve challenging technical problems. Bakers’ willingness to engage in such conversations will no doubt help us all to do what we do better and facilitate solutions which may well have a broader market application. 

On behalf of the Global Graphics Software and Hybrid Software Group PLC, I would like to express my gratitude to Steve Baker and his team for their incredible hospitality and willingness to collaborate. It’s meeting people at companies like Bakers that makes getting out of bed in the morning exciting, and it’s no surprise to me that they are as successful as they are. Long may it continue.

Managing director, Justin Bailey, left, with the team from Global Graphics Software and Jamie Godson, Jamie Doogan and Simon Chandler from Baker Labels.

About the author

Justin Bailey, Managing Director, Global Graphics Software
Justin Bailey, Managing Director, Global Graphics Software

Justin Bailey has been managing director at Global Graphics Software since 2018. He has over 25 years’ experience in the document imaging and print markets.

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Keeping up to date – how the car analogy may no longer be relevant in the printing world

In his latest blog post, Martin Bailey, consultant at Global Graphics Software, takes a look at some of the reasons why his go-to car analogy to help his audience understand the world of print may no longer be as relevant as it once was:

Over the years I’ve used analogies in many of my blog posts, conference presentations and white papers; they’re a very effective way of sharing a high-level understanding of sometimes complex ideas. I’m not a car fanatic, so I’ve not had any specific motivation to compare print technologies to anything around cars, but for some reason it seems that car analogies have consistently just worked, so I’ve used them.

But I realized recently that I’m going to have to rework some of them in response to the growth of electric vehicles replacing internal combustion. I know that growth is very uneven across the world (wow, go Norway!), but it’s clearly the future of motoring for many of us. Much of what I write and report might be summarized as “this is the future and how we’ll get there”, so building on something that will become more and more outdated for many readers and listeners introduces an unwelcome distraction from the analogy. It also makes it less effective because analogies must be based on a common understanding or experience, otherwise they just don’t work.

On the other hand, internal combustion vehicles are not even close to the point yet where all readers and listeners will regard them as dinosaurs of historical interest only. So I can’t sensibly use them as a representation of what we were all doing in the past.

So, I thought I’d look through some of the car-based analogies I’ve used to see which need updating, and which are fine as they are:

I’ve often compared a digital press and its associated digital front end (DFE) to the components of a car:

  • The supplied job file, probably in PDF, is the fuel
  • The steering wheel and dashboard are the DFE control systems and user interface
  • The engine is the RIP (clearly the most important part of the entire system, but then I may be biased!)
  • The gearbox and transmission are the electronics and drivers, like those from our friends at Meteor inkjet
  • The wheels are the inkjet heads, actually putting the rubber/ink on the road/substrate

Well, some of those parts still make sense, but I’m not sure that I can equate submitting a PDF file to charging a battery. Somehow the motors in an electric vehicle never seem to have the prominence that I’d personally give to a RIP. And the motors are often linked direct to the wheels, with less of the gearbox and transmission infrastructure than you’d use for internal combustion. This one needs some serious fixing.

Next up is a statement that we used, for example, in Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press: that making a PDF file constructed for efficiency is like using better fuel in a car. There can be a clear step-up from regular to super for gasoline/petrol, but electricity is electricity, at least once it’s in the car battery.

I guess you could argue that charging points with different power capabilities, from 7kW up to 350kW, will significantly affect how long it will take to recharge the car, and therefore on how far you can get in a day, but it’s not really the same discussion. That’s another analogy that I’m going to have to work on.

And finally, for now, I’ve described companies who build digital presses without thinking about software to process job files and proper user interfaces as being like people thinking they can sell rolling chassis: cars with no bodywork, no seats and not even a cup-holder. You may get a few sales for that in specialist markets, but it’s not exactly a mass market.

Of the three analogies I’ve listed here, I think this is the only one that might survive unscathed, although it probably has less value without being able to equate the other bits of the car to digital press and DFE components.

As I said to start with, I had no reason to pick cars as the base for analogies that I use other than that they seemed to work well. I have a feeling that may not be as true in the future. I guess there did have to be one advantage to big oil!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey, consultant at Global Graphics Software, is a former CTO of the company and currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT. He is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a 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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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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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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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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Using the Mako Core SDK to modify documents in Microsoft’s Universal Print

Over the past year, Microsoft has been working hard to bring its new Cloud printing service, Universal Print, to general availability.

As a part of Universal Print, developers get access to a set of Graph APIs that allows analysis and modification of print job payload data. This feature enables a few different scenarios, including adding security (e.g. redactions or watermarks) to a Universal Print-based workflow.

As a curious engineer, I wanted to see how different it would be for an independent software vendor (ISV) to use our Mako™ Core SDK to modify a print job flowing through Universal Print, instead of using a more traditional route of using a virtual printer driver.

Thinking about the workflow a little more, I came up with the following design:

Using the Mako SDK to modify documents in Universal Print.
Using the Mako SDK to modify documents in Universal Print.

In the design above, we can see the end-user’s Word document gets printed to a virtual printer. This allows the ISV to be notified of the job, and modify it accordingly using Mako. Once modified, the ISV then redirects the job on to the physical printer for printing.

There’s a couple of nice things about this design:

Firstly, it uses the Graph API to access Universal Print, which is an easy-to-use and well documented REST API. Secondly, since the functionality is accessed via a REST API, it allows our ISV service to be written in whichever Mako supported language we like.

I chose C# to make best use of the C# Graph API SDK.

Developing the service

There are five main steps to developing the service:

  1. Handle print job notifications
  2. Download the print job payload
  3. Modify the payload
  4. Upload the payload
  5. Redirect to the target printer

Handle print job notifications

To be notified of print jobs in Universal print, you can use the Graph’s change notifications. These will allow you to sign up to a notification, which will call a provided webhook.

Download the print job payload

Once we have notification that a print job has been sent to our virtual printer, we can start downloading its payload.

Here we use the appropriate Graph APIs, along with standard Graph authentication to access the print job’s document. We then simply save it to disk.

Modify the payload

Once we have the document on disk (although Mako can also modify streams too!), we can open the document and modify it using Mako’s document object model (DOM).

Alternatively, Mako can also convert from one page description language (PDL) to another. This is useful in situations where your destination printer doesn’t support the input PDL.

Upload the payload

Uploading the modified document is straightforward. This time we use the Graph API to create an upload session, and use the WebClient class to put the document back into the original print job.

Redirect to the target printer

And finally, after the print job has been updated, we can redirect it onto another printer. This redirection also automatically completes the print job and task.

Alternatively, if we want to be a little more green, we could always send the document to OneDrive, Sharepoint, or another document management system. After doing so, you then complete the print job and its associated task.

See it in action

We actually coded this demo live in our last Mako webinar, showing an implementation where an ISV wants to automatically redact content.

Access the code directly at our GitHub repository or watch the webinar recording below:

Try it out

We’re keen to talk to you about your Universal Print project and see how we can help. Contact us here.

For more information about Mako, visit globalgraphics.com/mako.

About the author

Andy Cardy, Principal Engineer at Global Graphics Software
Andy Cardy, Principal Engineer at Global Graphics Software

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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Second edition now available: Full Speed Ahead: How to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press

At the beginning of 2020, in what we thought was the run-up to drupa, Global Graphics published a new guide called “Full Speed Ahead: How to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press”. It was designed to complement the recommendations available for how to maximize sales from direct mail campaigns, with technical recommendations as to how you can make sure that you don’t make a PDF file for a variable data job that will bring a digital press to its knees. It also carried those lessons into additional print sectors that are rapidly adopting variable data, such as labels, packaging, product decoration and industrial print, with hints around using variable data in unusual ways for premium jobs at premium margins.

Well, as they say, a lot has happened since then.

And some of that has been positive. At the end of 2020 several new International Standards were published, including a “dated revision” (a 2nd edition) of the PDF 2.0 standard, a new standard for submission of PDF files for production printing: PDF/X-6, and a new standard for submission of variable data PDF files for printing: PDF/VT-3.

We’ve therefore updated Full Speed Ahead to cover the new standards. And at the same time we’ve taken the opportunity to extend and clarify some of the rest of the text in response to feedback on the first edition.

So now you can keep up to date, just by downloading the new edition!

DOWNLOAD THE GUIDE

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?

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Shade and color variation in textile printing – why it’s important and what you can do about it

Printing soft furnishings

With fewer design limitations, a faster turnaround, no minimum run length and higher margins (not to mention reduced use of power and water, and of pollution), it’s not surprising that the digitally printed textile market is growing.1 Inkjet has certainly made textile design and printing much more flexible than screen printing – and that goes for everybody involved, from the designer through the printing company, to the buyer.

But printing textiles on inkjet doesn’t come without its challenges: as a software provider focusing on print quality issues, we often hear from print service providers who can only digitally print two thirds of the jobs they receive because they would not be paid for the quality they could achieve on the others.

Shade or color variation is a common problem. It’s not new in digital printing (it’s always been an issue for screen-printed and dyed textiles as well) and is usually managed by providing a shade band, which printer operators refer to, to check allowable color variations between pieces.

But, unlike screen-printing or dyeing, the color variation on an inkjet press can be visible over a small distance, just a few centimeters, and this results in visible bands across the output. Banding describes features that tend to be 1 – 10 cm across and they’re often caused by variation of inkjet pressure or voltage differences within the head, which typically results in a frown or smile shape. We also see a certain amount of manufacturing variation between heads so that one may print lighter or darker than the head next to it in a print bar. Some types of heads can also wear in use, which can result in less regular banding that can change over time. This means that large areas which should be flat color may not be.

When such a variation occurs it can greatly complicate a lot of post-print steps, especially if you need to put more than one piece of textile together, either in sewing or use (such as a pair of curtains). If that’s the case, then a significant difference may be unacceptable and your printing rejected by your buyer. Ultimately this leads to print service providers rejecting jobs, because they know their digital press can’t handle printing those tricky flat tints or smooth tones.

What can you do about it?

The first thing many companies do to try to overcome this banding is to adjust the voltage to the inkjet head, but this is often time-consuming and expensive because it requires an expert technician. A better alternative is to make the correction in software, which is a more cost-effective and faster solution. It means it can be automated and can act at a much finer granularity, so printing is more accurate. There’s no need to mess with controls that could damage the press, and printing companies themselves can make corrections without the vendor sending a technician on-site.

Our solution at Global Graphics Software for improving banding is PrintFlat™. It corrects tonality to hide banding based on measurements from the press. It adjusts every nozzle separately and doesn’t need a specialist engineer to make press adjustments. PrintFlat can be integrated into different digital front ends, using a variety of RIPs, including Caldera and Colorgate and, not to mention, our own Harlequin RIP®.

Over the years of working with many press manufacturers we’ve discovered that many technical issues and solutions are common across different sectors, including transactional, wide-format, commercial, labels and packaging, and industrial, including ceramics, wall coverings, flooring and of course textiles. That means that we already have years of experience in correcting for banding. Using PrintFlat in your press means print service providers can now take on those jobs they would normally reject.

To learn more about how to eliminate shade and color variation when printing on an inkjet press, listen to Global Graphics Software’s CTO Martin Bailey’s talk for FESPA 2020:

“New techniques to eliminate in-lot shade variation when printing textiles with inkjet.”

Or visit the PrintFlat website: https://www.printflat.com/

Further reading:

  1. What causes banding in inkjet? (And the smart software solution to fix it.)
  2. Streaks and Banding: Measuring macro uniformity in the context of optimization processes for inkjet printing

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  1. Digitally printed textiles are estimated to be between 2% – 5% of the total printed textiles market. Estimated at $146.5 billion in 2018 by Grand View Research