Prepress Technology Scores Big for The Marek Group

Slammed with work, The Marek Group, a  Waukesha, WI-based sheetfed commercial printer,  faced a challenge many in the industry would welcome: how to ramp up its relatively small prepress department, which feeds up to 2,000 pages daily to seven offset presses and up to 1,000 pages to four digital presses.

Finding the solution was given to Lance Johnson, a 30-year trade veteran who started on a light table and, similar to The Marek Group itself, jumped headfirst into the digital age. Hired in 1999 to bring prep in-house, Johnson explored several options, using his familiarity with six CTP workflows as a starting point for what was critical in a system.

Ease of Use

His decision to go with Rampage was due to the system’s ease of use, explains Johnson. “Some other systems have comparable functionality,” he notes. “The question is, how quickly can you get them to do what you want? If you’re spending hours programming the system, all you've done is traded one bottleneck for another, introduced more chance for error, and lost the flexibility needed to turn on a dime.”

According to Johnson, there is nothing flashy or eye-catching about the Rampage interface; something he views as a strength. “Some of the systems we evaluated looked like video games,” he asserts. “And when you peel back the onion and see what’s involved when setting up automated workflows, it’s dizzying. We have talented people, but what’s the sense of making their workday more difficult than necessary?”

Technology Leaders

 The Marek Group started on version 7.2 of Rampage. Staying current with major version upgrades and point releases, the company installed Version 12.0 just weeks after it was first released in the fall of 2010. “We are aggressive here," states Johnson. "We really believe in technology. It’s how you get ahead of your competition. So we push ourselves, and we push our vendors. We don’t wait for every edge to get smoothed off.”

Team members feed jobs in bulk to Rampage; pages that require special attention or that are rejected by the software become Johnson's responsibility. Two things in particular have cut down on the number of exception files that require his scrutiny, Johnson notes. One is PDF Fixer, a recent addition to Rampage that detects and corrects common issues, based on Marek’s preferences for color management, font handling, and other common issues. “The labor savings with PDF Fixer,” states Johnson, “have been astounding; cutting operator intervention from about 50 percent to less than five percent.”

Another key factor is customer training. "The biggest drag on any prepress department is poorly-made files," says Johnson. "A few simple suggestions tip the scales in our favor."

In and Out

JDF Hot Folders were also introduced in Marek's upgrade to Rampage Version 12. Imposition instructions in Job Definition Format (JDF) are linked to Hot Folders that contain all other processing variables, such as linescreen, black overprint thresholds, and spot color handling. Initiating a job is as simple as appending the file name with the job number and dragging it to a folder on the network. This spawns the job in Rampage, taking it as far downstream as the operator wants.

Marek's use of JDF Hot Folders started with two weekly publications that run on tight deadlines. The files arrive early in the afternoon and are prepped, printed, finished, and mailed the same day. “If you are a pubs printer, you are staffed, equipped, and mentally wired for same-day turns,” says Johnson. “Our primary focus is direct mail, which has a little more wiggle room, but we think it’s healthy from a competitive stance to tell our customers that they can ask for anything, and we’ll deliver.”

An Inside Look

 Johnson believes that many businesses look for silver bullets when they should, in fact, continuously scrutinize existing systems, people, and processes. “When we get a new release from any supplier, we crack it open to see if there is something that can speed things up, reduce errors, save materials…whatever,” states Johnson. “And guess what? There always is, but the Catch 22 is that most people miss these because they are too busy and default to the way things have always been done. Software is not static. It evolves, and we make sure we evolve with it.” 

Adds Johnson, “In doing so, we've increased our throughput without adding personnel, without huge capital purchases, and without discernible disruption to daily operations. One final point: I would not attempt to be this progressive without the near instant access we have to the Rampage Helpdesk. Our maintenance agreement costs next to nothing, and we still get what we consider the best support in the industry.”