Five production technologies you should know about

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Gaining full control of the end product is what excites production executives when the subject of technology comes up. And with the increasing digitization of media production and products, they are counting on future savings in time and money through such technologies as high-quality soft proofing, more interactive digital editions and even "electronic paper." 

 When it comes to adopting new technologies, the most important thing to production executives is work flow improvement. The more kinks that can be ironed out, the more time that becomes available to sell ads and hone an effective design. 

 Here are five key technologies being embraced by production executives that publishers should know more about.

1. Digital work flow systems

The major technological change for magazine publishers will continue to be the evolution of digital work flow systems.

"These have totally streamlined the work process," said Nick Mlachak, director of operations for Pfingsten Publishing. "We’re not spending our days marking up boards to send to the printers anymore. We’re spending more time as a department making sure everything is ship shape."

Mlachak said he expects the streamlining to continue with the addition of high-quality soft proofing (see below) and more straight-to-digital advertisers.

Chris Allas, production manager at the Deal LLC, said the future of digital work flow systems can be found in the Adobe K4 Publishing System, which links Photoshop and InDesign. "This is going to cause real problems with Quark," he said, referring to a competing design program.

Publishing companies shifting to InDesign could be a trend in the near future, Allas said. "Any way you go, the more digital [processes] you can implement, the better off you are," he said.

Keith Hammerbeck, director of manufacturing services at Advanstar Communications and chairman of American Business Media’s production and manufacturing technology committee, said there is still a dearth of good and relatively inexpensive work flow-management systems that can serve both print and the Web. But he added he expects that to change in the coming years.

2. Closed-loop color

One component of a fully digital work flow is closed-loop color, which allows magazine production departments to remotely manage color while an issue is rolling through the presses. Users watch a live video of the magazines being printed, while computers double-check that each magazine has the proper levels of ink.

"We have found this to make a drastic improvement in reproduction and consistency," Hammerbeck said.

Karen Palmieri, VP-manufacturing and distribution at VNU Business Media, agreed. "[It] brings a critical level of consistency to the quality of our web press runs," she said. "The system allows for faster make-readies with technology that includes continuously monitoring color targets throughout the run. This reduces color variation, not only within a single form, but from one form to another-especially critical for cross-over images that may even print on different equipment."

Palmieri also pointed out that closed-loop color doesn’t just bring improved print quality; it saves money through an overall reduction in paper and ink consumption.

Bill Amstutz, senior VP-operations for CMP Media, said he sees closed-loop color as part of a larger development that has led to fewer color complaints: "Three other developments are just as critical: better paper quality, CTP [computer to plate] technology and customers being more forgiving because they see their creative in a variety of formats."

3. PDF creation

Glenn Filippone, director of manufacturing at ALM, said the biggest technological advancement in recent years has been the creation of simple means to publish files as PDFs. "To be able to create a PDF of a possible ad and send it right over so the salesperson in Chicago, or Boston or wherever, and make that ad seem like a reality rather than just a concept, is a huge thing," Filippone said.

Easy PDF creation has also aided in the spread of well-designed digital editions with attractive advertising. Kendra Chaplin, art director at MediaTec Publishing, said she can’t imagine what her work flow process would be like without the developments in creating PDFs. MediaTec sends out 90% of its jobs in PDF format.

Louise Morrin, production director at Haymarket Media USA, said PDFs are close to being as automated as they can be. "Where the current progress now is being made is perfecting the transmission to the printers, which can still be slow," she said. "It would be great to have an option in the PDF setting to go direct to the printer’s FTP [file transfer protocol] site."

John Blanchard, VP-manufacturing at Reed Business Information, said, "We’re looking to enhance PDF work flow to encompass more information and metadata." This way, as the PDF goes through the work flow, it will automatically pick up pieces of information such as where it should line up at the printers and which pocket it will need to sit in at the bindery. "That improvement, which is happening now, will be a huge savings," Blanchard said.

4. Electronic paper

Electronic paper, which is still in the development stage, may be the way of the future for magazines.

E Ink, based in Cambridge, Mass., is leading the way toward creating a foldable electronic paper that magazines could be "printed" on and updated continually.

Recently the company created a foldable digital clock that is as thin as paper. Challenges to the technology, though, include having enough resolution throughout the page to make it easily readable.

So far, E Ink has created a product that is rollable and bendable but is only the size of a business card and the thickness of three sheets of paper.

Still, it is an important technology to watch, because when the reality finally catches up fully to the idea-which could happen in the next year or so-it could create a major change in how magazine readers receive information.

5. Soft proofing

Soft proofing will likely be the last barrier to fall in the quest to have a fully digital work flow. While hard proofs have been systematically eliminated by publishers to save printing dollars, that can spell trouble without a solid soft proofing plan, as the logos of big-dollar advertisers might not come out in just the right shades.

The International Digital Electronics Alliance (IDEAlliance) is working toward standardizing soft proofs so such situations don’t occur.

The organization is focusing on two main issues: finding an agreed-upon "color space" and establishing methodologies for the industry.

Dave Steinhardt, president-CEO of IDEAlliance, said the solutions to those issues may not be far off, mostly because some industry leaders are going ahead with soft proofing and setting examples. For instance, Time Inc. plans to eliminate hard proofs in the next six months.

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