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Sorting Out Software RIPs: Questions to Ask and What to Look For In Selecting Large Format Digital Printing Workflow Software
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If you're a lab owner or retailer that has added digital printing to your lineup, you know the key to profitability is productive workflow. After investing in a digital printer, software and consumables, the last thing you want to see is idle equipment. Keeping your equipment and skilled operators productive is a requirement that directly affects your bottom-line.

Large format print speeds are getting faster each year, and in order to keep the print pipeline filled, the software needs to keep up. Some may look to raw RIP (raster image processing) speed as an indication of which software RIP is best, but there is more to RIP speed than just how fast it processes a job. Successful labs know that it's not just about RIP speed, it's about total throughput: the efficiency of the workflow to move the job from pre-production through print and finishing in the least amount of time with a minimum of consumable waste. RIP speed by itself is not the only value of the RIP software. The successful production labs understand this, and look at other very important aspects when choosing the best RIP software.

While there are likely more than 50 companies worldwide that sell third-party large-format software RIPs, only three companies—Global Graphics, Adobe, and Artifex—provide the core engine used by most of these large format software RIPs. Comparing these engines purely on speed can be difficult because some files RIP faster on one engine over another. On average, when comparing dozens of jobs, these engines perform at about the same speeds.

Be wary of comparisons published by RIP vendors. All will show its own RIP is faster than the competition. These are never completely apples-to-apples comparisons because a RIP vendor will typically use just one or two files optimized for its particular RIP to do the speed comparison. The competitive RIP labeled as slow may have features and functions turned on that make the software seem slower (think of your car with the air conditioning turned on—going up a hill will be slower because the engine must divide its power between forward motion and cooling). Functions such as image interpolation, anti-aliasing, higher resolutions, multiple ICC profiles and using more complex dot patterns may affect raw RIP speed.

It's All About the Workflow

Several years ago, labs that were just starting out with digital printing were attracted by the "all-in-one" printers with on-board RIPs. These machines offered convenience and the escape from having to buy and maintain a separate front-end computer. But this approach has limitations, and the savvy labs have learned their lessons. Installing a software RIP on a front-end computer provides an upgrade path not available with an on-board RIP. Labs can upgrade computer hardware to gain more processing speed, and software can be upgraded to add functionality and gain more productivity out of the printer.

Flatbed Workflow: If you're considering adding one of the next-generation flatbed printers to your lab, a software RIP is a must. The most productive RIP software automates as much of the production process as possible. For flatbed printing, the software should include a quick and easy workflow that lets users nest images to reduce substrate waste, offers an integrated cut path generator, and provides a high degree of control over cut marks. This workflow model enables the printed board to be placed directly on a cutter for immediate job completion.

Variable Data Printing (VDP): Productivity, not just RIP speed, is also critical for large-format VDP applications. VDP lets users add variable text, images and barcodes to mass-customized batch print jobs for creating point-of-purchase signs, promotional items, advertisements and full-color labels. Some RIPs will treat each print job in the batch as a separate item, and RIP each print individually. Some RIPs offer a true production VDP workflow that processes the background image only once, so a batch run of 10 or 1,000 different prints will start printing almost immediately. This true VDP process saves time and increases productivity (and profitability) in the long run by keeping the pipeline full of jobs to print.

Color, the Critical Element

The most important role of a RIP is to produce predictable, consistent color. This is especially important when using solvent, eco-solvent, and UV curable inks. Print buyers define how good the color has to be, and this group is particular about color quality. Printer hardware barely keeps up with consumer demand for better print quality, so the gains in color quality must come from the RIP software and from the ink/media configurations.

There are companies that provide third party color management engines used in RIP software including X-Rite (Monaco and Logo) and proprietary color management engines developed directly by the RIP vendor. The second option is less common because it takes a great investment in time and requires encyclopedic knowledge of color theory and management by the RIP vendor. These color management engines are crucial to generating ICC profiles that are necessary to achieving target color. Most ICC profiles are built using the engines developed by X-Rite/Monaco. The select few RIP vendors that have developed proprietary ICC profile generation software have done so because the X-Rite color engines were designed primarily for the prepress industry. The large-format digital inkjet industry has more complex color reproduction challenges such as light inks, extreme ink colors, media metamorism issues (the apparent shifting of color under different lights), ink limiting, and ink curing. Building ICC profiles with an engine designed for prepress limits the color reproduction capabilities of the software RIP. This means solvent, eco-solvent and UV curable printers can produce more and better color but the RIP software can't handle inks that large format inkjet printers use. Ink manufacturers are constantly trying to push the color gamut and the environmental friendliness further out with new formulations.

There are many more elements yet to be developed in order to get more accurate and vibrant colors from inkjet printers. Print providers are demanding an easier way to generate ICC profiles. Is there a direct Pantone match for spot colors? Is the interface of the profile generation easy to understand? Is there enough color and feature control to work with hard-to-profile inks and media? The RIP software should give you a choice between easy, quick ICC profile generation and dialed-in control of ICC profile generation. Most operators want to build a quick profile that suffices for most applications, but there is that 5% of users who inherently understand color and how it should be applied on a substrate. For those users, tweaking is a critical part of the profiling process in getting the profile close to perfection.

RIP calibration and media profiles are also a critical element in color output. The RIP software controls the quality of color output more than any other variable. Many printers and media are judged by the media profiles that are used on them rather than the device itself or material used. A good ICC profile can compensate for the flaws of a printer and a bad ICC profile can make a good printer look substandard. Knowledgeable production managers will select a software RIP that has many profiles available on the RIP software manufacturer's website because when media, printers, inks or print applications change, a quick download of a new profile enables them to continue working.

Printer Drivers

When choosing a RIP, make sure it is not just compatible but actually fine-tuned to drive the printer you have and the printers you will buy in the future. Just because a RIP can talk to the printer does not mean the RIP gets the best use out of the printer. Even RIPs that come directly with a printer are not necessarily always the best solution. Some things a good RIP with driver can do for a printer include custom dot patterns, support of all available resolutions, better color control because of half-toning, control over print modes, passes, and media control settings. For instance, if your RIP has the ability of printing 4 colors (CMYK) on a 6 color printer, you can save up to 30% in ink costs. If the RIP has smart nesting features, you can save 20% or more in media costs.

Other Considerations

Other considerations when choosing a RIP include: How good is the support from the software vendor such as the on-line knowledge base, the telephone hold times, the software documentation? Is telephone support free? How long has the company been in business and been supporting the latest drivers? How many printer partner relationships—not simply how many printers does the RIP drive—does the vendor have? What languages are supported? How does the local dealer support the vendor's product? How much software engineering goes into each version of software? Does the company have a two- to three-year plan to continue to make the best product?

Also, using more than one RIP brand in a production environment is very expensive in labor costs and lost efficiencies. Using multiple RIP brands can result in needing to cross train employees, inconsistent quality from one printer to the next, a fragmented workflow in the lab, and having to deal with all types of software companies to support the production environment.

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