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Digital Pre-flight Realities

Navina Waterman
is an independent consultant for the reprographics industry. She welcomes feedback on her articles as well as ideas for future topics in Repro Depot. What’s important to you? Contact her at 541/572-0617 or mailto:Navina@earthlink.net

by Navina Waterman

Good Many reprographers are finding that the largest portion of their business no longer comes through the front door, but rather through digital connections. In an increasingly digital world, how you deal with digital file workflow obviously becomes more important. Digital Workflow, FTP, file compression, pre-flight—all con-cepts that didn’t have much meaning in most reprographic shops 15 years ago—are now ex-tremely important in terms of both productivity and profitability.

Many shops have struggled with how to deal with the pre-press issues involved with handling digital files, whether small- or large-format, color or black-and-white. Those who now have experience were initially surprised at the amount of time and effort allocated to prepping and processing files. Should this be a billable service or an overhead expense? As expected, different companies have subscribed to slightly different philosophies.

In Albuquerque, a large segment of Academy Reprographics’ business is in large-format black-and-white printing. President and owner, Kevin O’Hea believes that all aspects of his business need to be profitable, but he does not charge directly for pre-flight services. Academy avoids many file problems by only accepting plot files and also by using KIP’s software interface both in-house and for customer’s file submissions. This strategy works because the company has specialized in a particular niche market and catered to its needs – in this case, providing print-on-demand services for homebuilders and contractors. O’Hea recoups overhead costs of all types by charging much more for the first set of prints than for any subsequent printing, regardless of whether that printing occurs at the same time or three months down the road.

Copresco, in Chicago, also specializes in a niche market—small-format, on-demand printing of publications, books, and manuals—but takes a different tack. President Steve Johnson prefers to call preflight issues a challenge or even an opportunity, since how they are handled can be a way to distinguish his company from his competition. He stresses education of customers and the idea that in order to educate them, you must first know and understand their needs.

In general, a customer creates content and “it is our job to make his job printable,” Johnson says. Copresco accepts native files as well as PDF and Postscript. He compares this to a homeowner inviting contractors to make bids on a home renovation. If one contractor comes in and says, “You’re not ready for me. You must hire an architect and do this, that, and the other thing first,” while a second contractor comes in and says, “Yes, I can do that,” guess which one will get the job.

Copresco operators have a variety of tools to use depending on the type of file and job coming in. They use a pre-flight check list to make sure the job contains everything that is needed and also run Markzware preflight software when applicable. While Adobe’s PDF format has helped in some areas, Johnson says, “Doggy files continue to exist! A good tool still doesn’t replace a good operator.”

In terms of profitability, Johnson points out that it really doesn’t matter whether a particular aspect of your business is a profit center or billed as overhead so long as you are clear about which it is and include that calculation in the price you charge for the associated service. In Copresco’s case, pre-flight is distinguished from pre-press. Pre-flight is used to find out if the job is complete—what is missing and what needs to be done to a job. This is expensed as overhead. On the other hand, pre-press services are billable on an hourly basis and are used to fix files. If a problem is found in pre-flight, the customer is notified and given the option to fix it himself or pay for pre-press service.

David Hoskins, digital color printing manager, for Lynn Imaging in Lexington, KY also accepts many types of digital files. The majority of problems he sees involve missing files or fonts or proportional problems where a customer hasn’t considered that, for instance, a page set up at 6x12" cannot be proportionally blown up to 30x40". Lynn views preflight simply as a necessary part of outputting digital files and does not directly charge for the service. Hoskins says that a number of advances in the last few years have served to increase their productivity—including the PDF format, use of FTP file transfers, an on-line order form/file submission software, and an in-house job-tracking system.

Steve Barnes, graphics department manager for ABC Imaging in Washington, DC, concurs with Hoskins on several points. He adds that, “Pre-flight is done as much for ourselves as for our customers. It helps us to expedite jobs.” ABC techs use pre-flight software or native software to check for completeness. If a job takes longer than 20 minutes for an operator to pre-flight and generate black-and-white proofs, the job is returned to a CSR who contacts the customer about the problems. Like Copresco, ABC then offers customers the choice of fixing the problems themselves or of having ABC fix them at an hourly rate.

Each of these companies has found a way to successfully deal with pre-flighting digital files that works for them in their particular markets. While none of them directly charge for this service, other companies in the industry do use ‘set-up’ or ‘handling’ fees to cover expenses of this type.

One commonality they do share is the desire to educate customers—an attempt to eliminate problems before they begin rather than trying to fix them in the middle of their life cycle. This education is done by a variety of means—using web sites, technical bulletins, seminars, and even one-on-one walk-throughs or explanations—whatever mode can best reach that particular client. The key is in truly understanding your clients’ needs and finding the method that makes the most sense, in terms of productivity and profitability, for both of you.

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