Preflighting Print Documents

Postcard Printing, Digital postcard printing, offset postcard printing

September 2004

Up, Up and Away: Preflighting Your Documents

When you submit a document file to us, our first step is to examine it in a process we call preflight, a term borrowed from aeronautics. Before beginning a flight, aircraft pilots run through a standard checklist to be sure the plane is airworthy and ready for flight. Similarly, we inspect your file against specific criteria to qualify it as ready to enter the production workflow.

Before prepress became digital, "preflight" consisted of reviewing mechanicals - the artboards used to make film or photomechanical press plates - for quality and completeness. Preflighting a digital file amounts to the same thing: checking the file to be sure all required elements are present and that no mistakes have been made in file assembly. The checking can be done manually or with software tools.

Raster image processing
The ultimate goal of preflight is to ensure that the file can successfully complete raster image processing. This process turns a vector file into a high-resolution raster image. In other words, raster image processing translates the digital information about the appearance of the document page (the vector file) into pixels and a bit map (the raster image) that can be understood by the output device.

Raster image processing can fail in two ways. First, the file may not complete processing. This could be due to missing elements such as fonts or graphics; corrupt fonts, graphics or data; errors in the PostScript code; large file size; or other reasons. Secondly, the file may complete processing but the resulting output may not be correct. A font substitution may have occurred; line or page endings may have shifted; or too many press plates may be produced.

Overview of preflight
Whether preflighting is done manually or with software, it involves four basic steps: selecting the appropriate preflight criteria for the job; checking the file against the criteria; if necessary, fixing problems found in the file; and releasing the file into production.

Although the printing specifications of the job determine the exact set of preflight criteria we use, there are some things we check in all files. These include:
* a hard copy for comparison
* the presence of all required elements (fonts, graphics, vector and raster images)
* appropriate color space and number of ink colors
* resolution of raster images (images captured from scanners, digital cameras or files creates by paint programs) and presence and quality of clipping paths
* color space and fonts used in vector images
* size of document

If your file cannot pass this first level of preflight, we will return it to you with information identifying the problems and ask you to fix them before resubmitting the file.

When to preflight
According to the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF), the top ten problems in digital files are:
1. missing fonts
2. incorrect traps
3. incorrectly specified colors
4. scans made in the wrong mode
5. improper page settings
6. unlinked graphics
7. inadequate bleeds
8. lack of a laser proof
9. missing graphics
10. image resolution too low or too high

Most of these problems are incorporated into the file by its creator; the rest result from preparing the file to give to us. This suggests that files should undergo preflight at least twice before they are submitted to us - during file build to check the document creator's progress, and just prior to submitting the file for print. Preflighting while the file is being built will eliminate incorrect trapping, incorrectly specified colors, scans in the wrong mode, improper page settings, inadequate bleeds and incorrect image resolution. Preflighting just prior to file submission will eliminate missing fonts, unlinked or missing graphics and lack of a laser proof.

While it is possible to preflight manually, software tools for preflight are readily available and fairly simple to use. Some page layout programs have preflighting tools built in. For example, Adobe InDesign(tm) preflights documents and identifies problems with linked graphics, fonts, color profiles, and other key document information. The Collect for Output feature of Quark XPress gathers images, though it does not gather fonts or provide any information about the files. Adobe PageMaker(tm) 6.5 includes a plug-in called Save for Service Provider that copies the document, all linked image files, fonts, and other files required to print your document. It also prompts you to locate folders containing linked files, thereby helping you overcome the problem of missing links.

As important as preflight is just prior to file submission, it will not help with problems created during file build. For preflighting during this stage of document creation, dedicated preflight software is useful. Some programs use pre-programmed or user-defined parameters to check a file; others will automatically correct common file problems and identify errors that cannot be corrected automatically. Preflight software may be either a plug-in or a standalone program operating independently or in background mode.

The best-known name in preflight software is MarkZware's FlightCheck(tm). In its version for printers and service bureaus, the program can be set to check over 150 separate items that could potentially keep a file from successfully completing raster image processing. A Results screen lists all problems found as well as a possible remedy.

MarkZware also offers a version for graphic designers and document creators called FlightCheck Designer. It is a lighter version of FlightCheck Professional that inspects documents for colors, fonts and images. You set the preflight parameters by using Ground Controls. For transmitting the file to us for output, FlightCheck Designer collects the document, images and extensions; screen and printer fonts; compresses the file; and includes the Ground Control settings.

If you would like to try a demonstration of FlightCheck Designer, we have a limited number of CDs with a trial version of the program available at no charge to you. Just call <here insert the name of your CSRs and sales staff> at <here insert your phone number> to reserve your CD. We will be happy to mail it or deliver it to you.

Bleed - the placement of lines or images so they extend beyond the edges of a page. Pages are trimmed to the bleed, so the ink must extend past the trim marks on the printed sheet.
Cropping - defines the precise area of an image that is to appear when it is reproduced. A simple analogy is using scissors to cut the edges of a photograph, leaving only the desired area.
Crop Marks - lines that define the area of an image that is to be cropped. May also be used in place of "trim marks" that show where the sheets will trim after the document is printed.
PICT - a file format for defining bitmapped object-oriented images on the Macintosh; often used as a preview for EPS files. PICT format is not recommended for use in files intended for separation.
Preflight - The examination, verification and attestation of a document prior to going to print.
RGB - Red, Green and Blue, the standard color model used for monitors and televisions. This color model should never be used when creating documents for print.
Spot Color - a color printed in an ink of a specific color, rather than creating the color by combing CMYK inks.
Vector - the mathematical description used to create lines by defining the start and end points as well as the formula for the line between the two points. Vectors are used to create graphic elements. Vector images can be scaled to any size without image degradation.

Idea Corner
When you are creating document files, it is important that they be error free - in structure as well as content. The following is a list of suggestions for creating problem-free document files.

Before you begin:
* Select the color palette and fonts for the job.
* Collect the images you will be using.
* Select the color space (either CMYK or spot color).
* Select the page layout software to use.

As you are building the file:
* Set the page dimensions.
* Save the job to a folder designated for it.
* If using FlightCheck Designer for preflight, set the Ground Control to be appropriate for this job.
* Preflight the file several times during file creation.
* Correct errors as FlightCheck finds them.

To prepare for file submission:
* Preflight the document again.
* Print a hard copy from the file. If the job prints in more than one color, print a composite and color separations.
* If using FlightCheck Designer, use the Collect Job function to collect and package the file for transfer to us.
* Make a backup copy of the file for yourself.
* If using media (CD or diskette) to submit the file, remove everything on the media that does not pertain to the job. Label the media with your name, the file name and the date.

Tips & Tricks
Here are some things to remember during file creation that will promote the successful printing of your file.

Document mechanical specifications
* Document size equals the finished (trim) size exactly.
* Color space is set at either process (CMYK) or spot.
* Spot colors have been specified by PMS number, not selected from a chart.
* Unused colors and style sheets have been deleted.
* Unused elements have been removed from the pasteboard.
* Bleeds have been extended by 1/8th inch beyond trim line.
* Hairline rules are at least 0.2 point

* Fonts of different weights and styles have been selected instead of assigned attributes from the style menu.
* The document contains all PostScript or all TrueType fonts.
* If custom kerning or tracking was applied, the tables are available.

Raster images:
* Color space is CMYK, grayscale or duotone.
* Effective resolution is 300-400 dpi for photographs.
* Effective resolution is minimum 1200 dpi for line art.
* Images are positioned correctly in their picture boxes.
* File formats do not include PICT, GIF, JPEG or other low-resolution or compressed images.

* Files have been output to laser and proofed for typographical errors, correct color separation, line endings and page breaks.

Q. I submitted a file that passed the first level of preflight. Why are you now telling me it needs to be fixed?
A. During the first level of preflight we check for errors in the file that we consider "fatal flaws" - problems that we either aren't equipped to fix (such as missing fonts) or are too risky to fix (such as altering a color space). A file that doesn't pass the first level of preflight does not meet our file submission standards and consequently is returned to you for repair and resubmission.

If the file passes the first level of preflight, it still might not be ready to enter production, but the problem can be fixed by us. An example of such a problem is a color that is not trapped correctly, or a page layout that hasn't allowed for bindery (folding, drilling or coil binding, for example).

Before we undertake any file repair, we will notify you of any extra charges and time delays and get your authorization to proceed.

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