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Question and Answer

The ‘Ins’ and ‘Outs’ of Digital Artwork: What the Diemaker Needs

by Kym Conis

February-March, 2002
The digital age is clearly upon us. As people utilize the ‘information superhighway’ day in and day out in both their business and personal lives, technology has eased the burden of many daily activities. From grocery shopping to sending business correspondence to just about everything in between, a flip of a switch, a keystroke or two, and ‘the world’ is at your fingertips. And the finishing industry is no exception to the rule.

Sending artwork via digital files for stamping and embossing dies seems to have surfaced only a few short years ago, in the mid 1990’s. But in the past 3-4 years, this practice rapidly has gained in popularity, as more and more finishers have caught up with technology, realizing the many benefits associated with digital files. For some engraving shops, film, original art, and photomechanical artwork still comprise a great percentage of their workflow. Yet, for many die manufacturers, digital artwork is not only common practice, it’s preferred.

However, even digital artwork is not immune to its own set of challenges. As convenient and ‘workable’ as digital files may be, those sending the files need to be aware of some basic rules in order to ensure the best quality dies and minimize additional costs due to improper files. InsideFinishing spoke with several die manufacturers to determine some of the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of sending digital artwork.

What file formats do you accept?

While this question largely depends upon the die manufacturer you are using and the systems and/or technology used to manufacture the dies, most agreed on the following list of formats: Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Pagemaker, Adobe Indesign, Freehand, CorelDraw, CorelPhotopaint, Microsoft Office Suite, QuarkXPress, and PDF files.

For most purposes, vector outlined formats such as .ai or .eps files (which can be produced from programs like Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand) and rasterized formats such as .bmp or .tif files (which can be produced by Adobe Photoshop and similar programs) are preferred. Vector outlined formats are particularly preferred for diemakers utilizing CNC technology, as the outlines are made up of points and can be more easily manipulated. This being said, it is important to know what your die manufacturer prefers in order to save time and costly changes down the line.

Which file formats can be the most problematic?

It is important to note that while all die makers interviewed will accept QuarkXPress, most did not prefer this type of layout application due to its tendency to produce artwork that lacks resolution and crisp edges. Photoshop was also singled out as a non-preferred format, as it can leave jagged edges that cause ripples on the shoulder of the dies. In addition, .pdf files can cause difficulties for the die manufacturer in that you cannot make any adjustments to fit other applications. And if the engraver does not know what program the .pdf was created in and opens the file in a different program, the image may differ in size.

What are some guidelines for sending digital files?

Many die manufacturers have a list of guidelines that they can either fax or e-mail to you, and some have CD-ROM’s containing the information along with examples of acceptable and non-acceptable artwork. Checking the website of your die supplier is another good resource for obtaining guidelines for your digital artwork. The following is a list of guidelines that should help steer you in the right direction:

Saving Files

  • Scaling should be 100% (only in the size to be stamped).
  • Files should indicate right reading.
  • If the fonts are not converted to outline format, the font used to create the image must also be included in the file being sent.
  • Fax over a hard copy of the image so that the diemaker can be sure that the integrity of the file remains the same.
  • Make sure all support documents are included, such as art, fonts, links to other files, logos, etc.

Naming Files

  • All Macintosh and PC files should follow the PC format: do not use more than eight characters for the filename and follow with the three letter file extension (for example .eps).
  • The first eight characters should consist of a description of the image or your company name.

Contents of Files

  • Convert to PC-compatible vector art.
  • Include no imagery other than what you want to appear on the engraving.
  • Scans should be black and white .tif files saved with a minimum resolution of 600dpi.
  • Convert all strokes (lines with assigned thickness) to outlines.
  • If your file contains more than one layer of information (for a single-level engraving), try to bring it all together on one layer. For multi-level engravings, multiple layers are okay.

What are some of the most frequently encountered challenges?

Some customers will take a random file, rename it as (.ai) or (.tif) extensions and expect it will open on the diemaker’s side. Subsequently, when the art room tries to open the renamed file in its corresponding software package (Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.), it does not recognize the format. The customer must then be asked for a new file. Also, it is important to note, scanned photos that have been renamed as a (.ai) or (.tif) file are not recognized as vectorized outlined images.

Files received in QuarkXPress can have severely jagged edges. Simple lines can be made straight; however, more complex images, particularly curved lines, can require hours of clean up. And with today’s expectations of quick turnarounds, time wasted in clean-up can cause delivery delays, not to mention additional costs to the customer.

Recreating artwork that has been lost or just is not available in the format required can be a real challenge. Often, customers send older dies, or even stamped books, and ask that they be duplicated, but have no original die art. Or in some cases, the original die may have been made at a different die shop. In some cases the type style can be approximated, but if the match must be exact, the image can be scanned and then traced over to re-create the artwork. However, this can add on time and cost. On occasion, the die is in good enough shape that an ink proof can be pulled and then shot in camera and the copy or image will be fine. In any of these types of cases, close communication must be kept between the customer and the diemaker in order to make sure that the new art is an acceptable replacement.

Other challenges that are frequently encountered include not indicating what specifically foil stamps or embosses when the entire print file is sent; sending foil stamped images in color or gray scale instead of black and white; receiving low resolution images that need to be 600 dpi and above; and not indicating the effects (raised round, raised roof, sculptured, etc.) that are required for an emboss or combination die.

Overall, is digital artwork better for workflow than film?

Many die manufacturers prefer receiving digital artwork for several reasons. First, it saves at least a day in shipping, plus the cost of the shipping. Second, it allows the output of the film with the emulsion on the side of the film that the diemaker requires (negative or positive, depending on the type of die being made). Third, the film can be output at a high resolution in order to get nice, crisp lines which, in turn, eliminates wasted time opaquing film. Fourth, the digital file will output first generation film and the problem of losing image clarity, which can happen when film is duplicated several times, is not an issue. Fifth, damaged film is not a concern. Sixth, digital files can be more easily archived if necessary. Seventh, when utilizing CNC technology, digital files can be imported directly to the CAD system, thereby saving the time and cost of scanning the film or prints and converting them into the necessary file formats. And finally eighth, digital files are very convenient when customers need changes made to the art before making dies, or for series work where several volumes need to align precisely, since more accurate adjustments can be made on the screen than by using a straight edge and tape.

Although many of the diemakers interviewed prefer digital artwork files, all admitted that film, original artwork, and even photomechanical artwork are still very much a part of the work received. And while digital files may be the preferred method of sending artwork, they are not infallible. Before sending any digital file, it is imperative to communicate with your die manufacturer to find out what guidelines should be followed. One diemaker may not be as technologically advanced as another, so never assume your die supplier’s capabilities. In today’s industry demands of quick turnarounds at competitive prices, a little advance research and file preparation can save everyone involved time, expense, and unwanted headaches.

InsideFinishing would like to thank Myk Slaven of Graphic Dies, Inc. (562) 946-1802, David Bohne of H & M USA (888) 387-4226, Pat Carr of E.C. Schultz & Company (847) 640-1190, and Nicole Mercer of Universal Engraving Inc. (800) 221-9059 for their assistance with this article.