Including details about a print job in its PDF will improve the ordering and production process. Barney Cox looks at the developments.

One of the big challenges facing print is ease of use. It can be confusing enough to those involved in day-to-day production, never mind an outsider who simply wants to get a job printed. So anything that promises to simplify the process of specifying, submitting and producing a print job is to be welcomed. A proposal to put additional information into PDF files to describe the format of a printed job as well as the graphic content is a laudable development.

The Portable Document Format (PDF) has come a long way since it was first launched in 1993. Originally conceived by Adobe as a way of presenting documents consistently across print and screens, it has evolved and now performs several distinct tasks. For the print industry it has become the default way of submitting files.

More information needed

‘PDF is nominally device independent,’ says Global Graphics’ chief technology officer Martin Bailey. ‘Other than that it doesn’t matter if the output is on a monitor a proofer or a press. A lot of the time that is the right thing to do but there are instances where it is useful to have some additional professional print production tools.’

Although some details about the form of a job are already in the PDF – things like the page size, the number of colours and the total number of pages – they are not enough to define what the final product will be. There is nothing that says ‘this is a business card’ or ‘this is a book’. Some of the latest developments of PDF aim to include these descriptions of the final product, which are also known as intents. These are not an exact set of production instructions. Think of ordering a cab to take you from A to B. As a passenger your requirement is to get to your destination. It is down to the driver to get you there, whether they’re a black cab using The Knowledge or an Uber driver using Waze.

Similarly, the choice of production method is down to the printer, and with an expanded PDF, they will have more explicit explanation of how the job should turn out, with information about the types of material and binding style to be employed. It won’t specify a brand of paper or a particular series of production processes – those choices will still be down to the customer but they will have a less ambiguous set of instructions to work from.

Run (with an idea from) VT

The concept of these ‘intents’ within a PDF is not completely new. It was first implemented in PDF/VT, the special variant of PDF designed to support variable data, in particular for the transactional market (bills and statements) – the V and the T. This sector of the market had for a long time used legacy data streams including IPDS and AFP but as colour and richer graphics became required, the limitations of these formats started to show. Unfortunately, while PDF could handle richer graphics and colour, it lacked the ability to guide the machines about the mechanical details of the job.

‘The genus of the idea for PDF/VT came from my discussion with a friend who works in document composition for a transactional printer,’ says Mr Bailey. ‘They were talking about the frustrations of using a PDF file for their work – for cutsheet presses the file didn’t have the instructions built in to enable tray pulls of the right paper stock.’

The transactional market is only a small and specialist sector and the problems PDF/VT addressed turned out to be more or less universal. Therefore it was felt that there was a need to extend the inclusion of the intents into all PDFs.

The problem with that is that PDF is now a standard, controlled by the International Standards Organisation (ISO 32000-1:2008). On one hand that is good news, as something so fundamental to our industry for the transfer and processing of jobs is not a proprietary technology subject to the whims and fortunes of one company. On the other, the evolution and development of standards, due to the need for agreement between a large number of stakeholders globally, can be glacially slow.

PDF 2.0

Fortunately there is a lot of work going into the development of PDF 2.0, (ISO 32000-2), the next version of the format and a significant revision from PDF 1.7, which has been around for a decade. The addition of intents is not the only development within PDF 2.0, it will include a lot of enhancements based on the last 10 years of experience in print production. Many of those developments are designed to iron out quirks and inconsistencies. The benefits promised include fewer surprises caused by ripping and especially in the colour rendition of files depending on the vendor’s workflow. This is largely due to a tightening of the definitions used and making explicit the way things should be handled – which has previously been open to interpretation by software developers.

Time of arrival

The timeline for the implementation of these new features is dependent on the publication of the final specification for PDF 2.0 by the ISO. This is due to happen during 2017 and then depends on the time taken by vendors to implement it in their software. Products using PDF 2.0 are expected in 2018. As the new features aren’t explicitly purchasable it is difficult to provide any figures for their cost and payback. Any software that is covered by a service contract, such as digital press digital front ends (DFEs) and prepress workflow systems is likely to include the new functions as part of planned upgrades. For products subject to paid-for upgrades it is likely that such a major change will incur a charge and customers will need to decide if the new service offers value for money.

The new features in PDF 2.0 should make the process of getting files to print easier, in particular including the right intents. It isn’t as spiritual as observing right intentions, part of the eight-fold path of Buddhism, but in its own small way it is a step towards workflow Nirvana.

Read the December issue of Digital Printer online here