Production: A Closer Look at the Latest PDF Print Engine
Posted: 12/16/2013  |  By: Toni McQuilken
Adobe recently released version three of its PDF Print Engine, complete with the new Mercury RIP Architecture. “It is a scalability framework for processing pages in parallel. It manages and coordinates the activities of multiple instances of the print engine running on different CPU cores, or multiple systems across a network,” said Mark Lewiecki, Senior Product Manager, Adobe PDF Print Engine.

One of Mercury’s key new features, Lewiecki noted, is the ability to dynamically allocate resources—the controller checks the status of all available RIPs, and sends the job to the one with the most available resources. “The target is that no CPU core should sit idle where there is work to be done,” he said, noting that it allows shops that produce multiple or complicated jobs to send them to the RIP once, and know that the job will be routed to whichever engine is most appropriate, as soon as it is free, rather than require the operator to manage the process.

Beyond making the pressroom more efficient, which means it can process more jobs and print them faster, the architecture is also optimized for today’s digital presses. “Newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal are printing locally in cities around the globe, in very short runs,” said Lewiecki. “It is basically a world of shorter print runs, greater versioning and personalized printing, which the Mercury RIP Architecture was designed for.”

The new architecture wasn’t the only improvement, however. Version three brought major upgrades to complex graphic constructs such as transparency and repeating patterns. They process much quicker and much more reliably in the new PDF Print Engine. “I have heard about very intricate linework, a map in fact, that took 24 hours on competing technology, and ripped in an hour on PDF Print Engine,” Lewiecki said. “The reality is that printers every day are expected to handle poorly made, complicated, problem PDF files, and the faster they can go, the better.”

He did note that performance is, as always, job dependant. So more complex jobs will still take more time to process, but he believes everyone will see a massive improvement, no matter what types of jobs they run. “We make continual improvements with every release, and have been able to improve performance an average of a 10-20 percent range in every release, but is very content dependant,” he said. “And newspapers are incorporating more graphics and color into their jobs, so it’s definitely relevant to the segment.”

Tighter integration
Another benefit to the new version is a tighter integration across all of the Adobe product lines. “It’s not just performance for a given set of pages,” said Lewiecki, “it’s about considering the overall workflow, especially as newspapers are becoming more versioned to target different regions and locales. It becomes critical—presses are running more plates, even for same daily edition as runs become shorter. So they need greater reliability and don’t have time to go back and make fixes. When the runs were long, it wasn’t as much of a problem, but today they need to be very automated. Newspapers often use Acrobat to proof the pages on screen; and we have a standing goal of aligning the output with what you see on the screen in Acrobat. It’s a moving target, but printers can be very confident that what they see in Acrobat is what will get printed on press.”

The latest version of Acrobat was, in fact, released in October, and version three of the PDF Print Engine leverages the same technology. Lewiecki said that they used the same core libraries, and the same compilers to create the binaries, and the same technologies for rendering fonts, color management, etc. “There are a lot of moving parts and they all have to fit together,” he noted.

The PDF Print Engine isn’t actually a stand-alone product— it is a software development kit (SDK) that partner OEMs build into their own products. Lewiecki pointed out that the exact performance and features will depend on how each OEM decides to implement the technology, but he anticipates products using version three will be hitting the mass market in the next 3-12 months. Agfa, he noted, is one partner who already announced Asanti, a product that will be shipping this year, and he named partners such as Xerox, Heidelberg, Screen, EFI and Fujifilm who are working on implementing the PDF Print Engine into their solutions as well.

Facing the future
Looking into the future, Lewiecki noted that one trend he is keeping a close eye on is moving more of the process into the cloud. “I don’t think RIPing will go to the cloud any time soon,” he said, “but color management is already in the cloud, from a number of vendors, and workflow management is available on a cloud basis as well. I see additional movement in that direction.”

An increasing move toward more versioning is another trend he is keeping an eye on. It’s already started, he noted, but he sees newspapers, in particular, moving toward more of a distribute-then-print model in the future. One example he gave is on-demand printing in airports of newspapers from anywhere around the globe.

One thing he doesn’t see is an end to print, especially in newspapers. “I don’t see online newspaper editions wiping out the printed versions,” he noted. “I know there are some experiments, but the economies of scale for print, despite declining readerships, are still compelling to advertisers. And I know a lot of people still consult both the online and print versions, which is how a lot of newspapers are now packaging their subscriptions. Many people are choosing the receive both, because of comfort and familiarity of paper; that is changing with younger generation. But one finding over last few years is that, even for young people, there are some types of promotions they prefer to receive in print. There is a - higher degree of trust – e-mails are easy and cost effective, but the response rate and level of trust is lower than from a printed piece.” (see http://www.epsilon.com/sites/default/files/2012_Channel_Preferences_Study_FINAL_0.pdf).

He went on to note that, “this is why corporations and marketers need to have a cross media strategy. People still trust print more than online promotions; when you hold something in your hand, the impact is greater than online. Effectiveness is affected by inks and color, how expensively it was printed, whether it is on a heavy coated stock with spot color, or features metallics, varnishes, etc. It has been proven to have a greater impact on people’s decision making process; when you spend more time looking at something, touching something, as opposed to a fleeting image on the screen, is still an effective part of marketers portfolio. The challenge is how to track response rates and ROI. It’s not impossible for print to match online in that regard, but it’s a bit trickier, and there is more work to be done to give advertisers the feedback they need to improve campaigns based on response rates, brand awareness and so on.”

And color is a big part of the strategy that newspapers, in particular, have had to step up to the plate with. Lewiecki noted that it’s not enough to simply offer color in today’s news pages – the colors are being held to a higher standard, and have to meet the expectations of advertisers – they have specific brand colors, and newspapers are not exempt from reproducing them with full fidelity. “Newspapers are under pressure from other types of media,” he said. “It is important for them to have accurate renditions of all the ads, which are often in color. To stay relevant and compelling, newspapers need to be able to reproduce complex graphics and be as effective as other mediums.”

And that, he noted, is where Adobe hopes its PDF Print Engine will continue to bridge the gap, making it far easier for everyone in the process to be completely engaged and aware of exactly what the final pages will look like, every time, no matter where in the world they are printed.