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

What is a Raster Image Processor (RIP)?

Ever wondered what a raster image processor or RIP does? And what does RIPping a file mean? Read on to learn more about the phases of a RIP, the engine at the heart of your Digital Front End (DFE).

The RIP converts text and image data from many file formats including PDF, TIFF™ or JPEG into a format that a printing device such as an inkjet printhead, toner marking engine or laser platesetter can understand. The process of RIPping a job requires several steps to be performed in order, regardless of the page description language (such as PDF) that it’s submitted in. Even image file formats such as TIFF, JPEG or PNG usually need to be RIPped, to convert them into the correct color space, at the right resolution and with the right halftone screening for the press.

Interpreting: The file to be RIPped is read and decoded into an internal database of graphical elements that must be placed on the output. Each may be an image, a character of text (including font, size, color etc), a fill or stroke etc. This database is referred to as a display list.

Compositing: The display list is pre-processed to apply any live transparency that may be in the job. This phase is only required for any graphics in formats that support live transparency, such as PDF; it’s not required for PostScript language jobs or for TIFF and JPEG images because those cannot include live transparency.

Rendering: The display list is processed to convert every graphical element into the appropriate pattern of pixels to form the output raster. The term ‘rendering’ is sometimes used specifically for this part of the overall processing, and sometimes to describe the whole of the RIPing process.

Output: The raster produced by the rendering process is sent to the marking engine in the output device, whether it’s exposing a plate, a drum for marking with toner, an inkjet head or any other technology.

Sometimes this step is completely decoupled from the RIP, perhaps because plate images are stored as TIFF files and then sent to a CTP platesetter later, or because a near-line or off-line RIP is used for a digital press. In other environments the output stage is tightly coupled with rendering, and the output raster is kept in memory instead of writing it to disk to increase speed.

RIPping often includes a number of additional processes; in the Harlequin RIP® for example:

  • In-RIP imposition is performed during interpretation
  • Color management (Harlequin ColorPro®) and calibration are applied during interpretation or compositing, depending on configuration and job content
  • Screening can be applied during rendering. Alternatively it can be done after the Harlequin RIP has delivered unscreened raster data; this is valuable if screening is being applied using Global Graphics’ ScreenPro™ and PrintFlat™ technologies, for example.

A DFE for a high-speed press will typically be using multiple RIPs running in parallel to ensure that they can deliver data fast enough. File formats that can hold multiple pages in a single file, such as PDF, are split so that some pages go to each RIP, load-balancing to ensure that all RIPs are kept busy. For very large presses huge single pages or images may also be split into multiple tiles and those tiles sent to different RIPs to maximize throughput.

The raster image processor pipeline. The Harlequin RIP includes native interpretation of PostScript, EPS, DCS, TIFF, JPEG, PNG and BMP as well as PDF, PDF/X and PDF/VT, so whatever workflows your target market uses, it gives accurate and predictable image output time after time.
The raster image processor pipeline. The Harlequin RIP includes native interpretation of PostScript, EPS, DCS, TIFF, JPEG, PNG and BMP as well as PDF, PDF/X and PDF/VT, so whatever workflows your target market uses, it gives accurate and predictable image output time after time.

Harlequin Host Renderer brochure

 

To find out more about the Harlequin RIP, download the latest brochure here.

 

This post was first published in June 2019.

Further reading:

1. Where is screening performed in the workflow

2. What is halftone screening?

3. Unlocking document potential


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What’s the difference between PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4?

PDFX-1 PDFX-4

Which PDF/X should I use?

Somebody asked me recently what the difference is between PDF/X-1a (first published in 2001) and PDF/X-4 (published in 2010). I thought this might also be interesting to a wider audience.

Both are ISO standards that deliberately restrict some aspects of what you can put into a PDF file in order to make them more reliable for delivery of jobs for professional print. But the two standards address different needs/desires:

PDF/X-1a content must all have been transformed into CMYK (optionally plus spots) already, so it puts all of the responsibility for correct separation and transparency handling onto the creation side. When it hits Harlequin, all the RIP can do is to lock in the correct overprint settings and (optionally) pre-flight the intended print output condition, as encapsulated in the output intent.

On the other hand, PDF/X-4 supports quite a few things that PDF/X-1a does not, including:

  • Device-independent color spaces
  • Live PDF transparency
  • Optional content (layers)

That moves a lot more of the responsibility downstream into the RIP, because it can carry unseparated colors and transparency.

Back when the earlier PDF/X standards were designed transparency handling was a bit inconsistent between RIPs, and color management was an inaccessible black art to many print service providers, which is why PDF/X-1a was popular with many printers. That’s not been the case for a decade now, so PDF/X-4 will work just fine.

In other words, the choice is more down to where the participants in the exchange want the responsibility to sit than to anything technical any more.

In addition, PDF/X-4 is much more easily transitioned between different presses, and even between completely different print technologies, such as moving a job from offset or flexo to a digital press. And it can also be used much more easily for digital delivery alongside using it for print. For many people that’s enough to push the balance firmly in favour of PDF/X-4.

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
  3. Compliance, compatibility, and why some tools are more forgiving of bad pdfs

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software
Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey is Global Graphics’ Chief Technology Officer. He’s 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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