September 11, 2017
By Dean Derhak
In the early days of digital wide-format printing, the raster image processor (RIP) was the premier tool for print service providers (PSPs) to ensure high-quality results. Since then, other innovations have taken centre stage, including new output devices, file sharing, remote access and cloud-based storage and applications.
RIPs still matter—indeed, print quality depends on them—but it can now be more confusing for large-format PSPs and signmakers to know what to look for when choosing one. The following are 10 considerations to keep in mind.
1. Do bundled RIPs offer good value?
This is a difficult question to answer definitively, as value is in the eye of the beholder. The issue depends in large part on a PSP’s unique selling proposition (USP) within its market.
There are certainly many excellent RIP software packages from leading suppliers that are bundled with wide-format printers and, for that matter, a combined printer-and-RIP purchase is a good way to ensure compatibility. The decision needs to be made not only for technical reasons, however, but also with business-related factors in mind. A growing shop will need to be able to add more printers and/or cutters in the near future, after all, which will also need to be complemented with a compatible RIP.
That being the case, it may make more sense to purchase a high-quality RIP that is not bundled with any particular piece of hardware, but can support a whole fleet of machines in the production and finishing department.
2. Who developed the software bundled with the printer?
Understanding the origin of the RIP will also help when making a purchasing decision.
In some cases, software bundled with a printer is proprietary to the manufacturer of that printer, so it is important to check (a) how scalable, flexible and upgradeable it will be and (b) how much support will be provided in the future.
In other cases, when the desired printer does not come bundled with software, it is up to the PSP to find out if the machine will run RIPs from suppliers with which it is already familiar. Indeed, the software provider’s track record is a key aspect of this consideration. Signmakers are trusting their business on this basis and will need to know where to go for support when they encounter colour management problems.
3. Will the RIP enable the business to grow?
Just as playing golf well requires more than one club, so too should RIP software offer versatility, with a comprehensive suite of tools and features for various aspects of the large-format printing process. Even a less expensive, more basic RIP with fewer ‘bells and whistles’ should at least be upgradeable to meet a sign shop’s changing needs. Otherwise, the shop could miss out on profitable application opportunities.
Another question relating to future expansion is the ease of adding new devices to the shop that will also be supported by the existing RIP.
4. How well will the RIP integrate into
As mentioned, it is a good idea to look for RIP software that will support the majority of the equipment in the shop. It is common for signmakers to rely on more than one printer and perhaps a cutter, e.g. for high levels of banner production, and they may need software that can combine functions to drive all of these devices.
Compared to having little ‘islands’ of different software throughout the shop, choosing the right RIP will simplify operations, streamline workflow and help minimize the need for additional training.
5. What support is available and where?
For any busy large-format PSP or sign shop, software support is a crucial issue. It is extremely important for support teams to be able to fix unexpected problems quickly and well, but they should also provide expert knowledge in areas like software configuration and workflow efficiency, information about industry trends and advice for new applications.
To be successful, the software reseller should want to build an ongoing relationship, not just send some instructional CDs and move on to the next sale. Learning about the level of support offered should be high on the checklist before making an actual investment.
6. Does the RIP integrate well with CNC machining software?
With graphics customers continuing to demand new materials, colours and formats, requests for novel applications will only increase. There is pressure on production teams to differentiate their capabilities from those of their competition.
As a result, many shops that use large-format digital printers to produce graphic displays and signs are now also using computer numerical control (CNC) routing to finish them. Some RIP software packages have been developed with this trend in mind, e.g. to simplify file cleanup and toolpath preparation for three-dimensional (3-D) CNC output.
7. How is the RIP priced?
The RIP purchase may represent a major investment. For some companies, the cost prevents them from upgrading to the package that is best for their business needs. So, it is worthwhile to look beyond major capital investments to other available purchase options, such as subscriptions.
An ongoing subscription can be a much more cost-effective option than a large capital investment, allowing smaller-revenue businesses to begin using RIP software earlier. Subscription periods of as little as one month offer both flexibility and value. Moreover, the subscription-based software model ensures users always have the latest and best features.
8. How easy and frequent are the upgrades?
As signmakers already know, nothing is static in the industry. New materials, colours, features and customer demands mean it is essential to be able to implement upgrades as time goes on.
The most important factors to consider are how easy and how expensive this process will be. Some inexpensive upgrades require a lot of downtime, for example, and thus provide less value than more expensive upgrades that can be installed quickly. And with subscription-based models, as mentioned, upgrades are even easier, as the software is always kept up-to-date.
9. Does the RIP offer cloud connectivity and other value-added services?
As more and more work today is being done away from the office, it has become important for graphics managers to be able to view files in progress and collaborate from multiple locations. Cloud-enabled RIP software packages have answered this demand with secure job storage and collaborative sign design functionality.
Cloud connectivity has gone on to support additional value-added services, too, allowing shop owners to access detailed and dynamic information—such as production trends—from virtually anywhere, using mobile apps.
10. What is the extent of the RIP’s capabilities?
Every large-format RIP software package has its own ‘sweet spot,’ which should correspond closely to the type of work the shop does in terms of the speed, quality and functionality of its printed output. That said, what’s ‘good enough’ today might not be in six months’ time.
So, it is worthwhile considering what software would be purchased if price were no object. Then the shop can try to find something as close to that target as possible.
RIP software can have a long-term effect on operations. Making the right choice from the start will help signmakers get the most from their hardware in the future.
Dean Derhak is a product director for SAi, which develops RIP software for signmakers. For more information, visit www.thinksai.com.
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