Tech Review: Raster Image Processors

Think fast and curious.
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Today, nearly everyone has a desktop printer in his or her office and home. Getting such printers to work is a snap: unbox, insert ink, add paper, install the driver, quarter the cables, power up and click “print.” Unfortunately, it’s easy to see large-format printers in the same light – they’re bigger than a desktop printer, but, like a desktop, easy to install and use, right? Not really. The determining difference occurs when it takes hours for your first successful print to materialize. That’s when you grasp the rationale of a raster image processor, or RIP.

So, what comprises a RIP? In its basic form, a RIP is a page translation algorithm that converts a graphic source file, e.g., an artistic poster, to a page description language that, when printed, forms a printable image file, one that is coded with individual, color-tagged addresses for the ink dots. It’s a type of continuous- tone bitmap system that instructs the print machine’s variously colored printheads when to release their ink. In its accessorized form, a RIP may contain numerous additional tools and processes that ease the making of large prints.

The key point is that practically all large-format printers apply ink dots to your selected media when producing an image; thus, to perform, a printer must have the necessary coding that triggers the printheads to produce the dots that make up the image. Interestingly, a software “print driver” will accomplish similar work but drivers aren’t optimized to process the large amounts of data (ink place and color information) needed for a large-format print.

So, where does a RIP reside? The answer depends on your budget, the quantity of printers you have and the volume of work you process. For a one-printer operation, the easiest method is to purchase a machine with a built-in RIP. The RIP process takes place within the printer and the system is free to process the next file when the job is forwarded to the print reader. The next alternative is a software-program RIP that runs on your existing workstation, if it meets the minimum requirements. We suggest your system exceed those minimum requirements.

Most sign-design software packages present an integrated RIP option, or a standalone RIP package that may be less expensive if you presently own a version of the branded software. Shops that utilize various brands or types of printers may prefer a dedicated hardware system with a RIP that will support several printers; thus, another option is to purchase a new computer system and dedicate the RIP to multiple workstations via an internal network.

Other RIP packages combine print and cut tools; the latter will have adjustment settings for custom work. The cutting process goes fast if you have a print-and-cut printer, but today’s cutter guidance systems allow you to move the print to a coordinated vinyl cutter or flatbed finishing machine. Some RIP systems will also place trim or grommet marks. We appreciate job nesting because it saves media. We also prefer an integral file system that allows us to save a print file for future use. With this feature, you can produce an exact reprint later without having to re-process the file. We believe a major addition to many RIPs is the ability to work in a color-managed workflow system and, as well, to have the ability to produce ICC color profiles. If your customers are picky about color, profile systems are a must. In addition, various RIP systems include job management software that auto-mates many print tasks; some include workflow management systems that both assist and record processes from pre-sales remarks to paid-in-full.

If you are serious about wide-format digital printing, a RIP is a must. We suggest you explore and choose other RIP package benefits, but remember that added options influence costs. However, many options will also save you money, automate your processing, ease your workflow and provide effective record keeping systems.

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