History defines the survival of printing technology

We all know Apple developed the first personal computer that was actually usable by graphic designers. The Apple II and Apple Elisa were perhaps not yet the most user-friendly desktop computers, but the Macintosh definitely was the first machine that anyone could operate. Most of the older generation of Apple computer users also know Apple was the first to come to the market with a PostScript printer. But few of us know it was EFI — then Electronics For Imaging — that developed the first ever PostScript RIP (Raster Image Processor). Without a RIP the printing industry wouldn’t survive at all.

It was around 1990 the first RIP — the Fiery — was invented. Its developers envisioned a low-cost, easy-to-use system that would allow users to process and print high-quality graphics, including photos, with equipment that doesn’t need to be operated by fully qualified people who are familiar with offset, lithography, etc.

Until the late eighties, high-quality colour processing and printing was the domain of printing companies who ran bulky printing equipment that ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This was about to end in the mid-eighties when major copier manufacturers such as Canon, Ricoh, Xerox, Kodak and Minolta began introducing machines that were capable of generating high-quality colour copies for the mass market. The challenge was that all of these manufacturers used different languages to control their printers. Around the same time, Adobe released a uniform page description language called PostScript.

A RIP is a relatively simple solution. It needs to do three things:

  • Interpret the page description language (e.g. PostScript or today: APPE) from the layout or design app
  • Generate a display list, which is a list of the commands converted to objects such as lines, boxes and filled
  • Rasterise or convert the data into dots and produce a bitmap at the resolution of the device, which tells the writing engine where to place the dots.

From the start, the Fiery RIP went a bit further, supporting four-colour separations, a workflow server and transparent management of printed pages in a queue. It could convert RGB images to CMYK separations fast — while the system was already sending files to the printer. And it did this with colour copiers and printers of many different manufacturers.

A decade later the printing industry started needing something more powerful, something that could load files from various network sources and process them for variable data applications as well as pull information from a database for personalised documents — what we now know as the Digital Front End or DFE.

A DFE should not only load files from multiple network sources and process these for output on digital equipment ranging from small desktop printers to large digital presses. It must also provide consistent colour, quality and accuracy, ensuring the highest standards are met at all times.

As with most things in life, not all DFEs are created equal. Especially when the economy is slow or the future uncertain, a powerful DFE can seem like a luxury when it probably isn’t. Looking into the past to see how it all started and evolved can tell you something about the future and what to expect from a technology.

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