From DMIA Business Printing Technology ReportPRINTING TECHNOLOGIES REPORT SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2005 Document Management Industries Association Three Approaches to Forms Composition Last issue, we looked at the current state of forms composition, including the three major approaches to producing forms today: using legacy systems like F3, using forms composition software from suppliers like Amgraf and Digicomp, and using traditional page layout programs like QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign. We also discussed the benefits of moving from legacy systems to one of these three approaches. Assuming that forms manufacturers have decided to make the switch, which one of these options is right for you? Today, everyone is facing the dual challenge of doing more in less time. But depending on what you are trying to accomplish, one approach might be more appropriate than another. There are also workflow, budget, and training considerations. For those who have not yet upgraded from legacy systems, or who might be interested in what other solutions have to offer, this article will take a look at the three primary software approaches—Amgraf's Mecca 2000 and OneForm Designer; DigiComp's FormsX and eFormsX; and traditional page layout programs like QuarkXPress and InDesign. Amgraf Mecca 2000 Mecca is a UNIX-based composition software for the creation of paper-based business forms, labels, and security documents, largely in the high-volume environment. Although Mecca creates proprietary files, it imports and outputs PostScript and PDF files for compatibility with digital and offset production systems. Working in much the same way as AutoCAD, Mecca is a robust system intended for use by a full-time, trained operator. Among Mecca's primary benefits is that it is optimized for print production to both digital and conventional presses, with special attention to print requirements like the ability to do up to 32 separations and handle complex document security. Mecca also has a particularly useful batch feature. If you are producing lots of similar products, such as checks, you can let Mecca handle the repetition robotically. "Imagine composing personal checks, with names, addresses, special backgrounds, or pictures, and everybody has his or her own version," says Franklin Garner, president and CEO of Amgraf. "In Mecca, you can set up the batch composition feature to gang all of these products and process thousands of orders per day." Another benefit is that, by setting up an online portal, where customers can view, modify, and order their forms, this automates the prepress portion of the process, reducing the manufacturer's burden and maximizing profitability. "Our customers have a keen understanding of the potential for prepress as a driver for the business," Garner says. "Rather than thinking of prepress as a necessary evil, many of our customers realize that they can use it as a way to capture end user loyalty. If you provide them with the tools, libraries, and techniques for creating and managing their own documents, this is a powerful value-added. At the same time, it ties them into a long-term relationship with their forms manufacturer." Among those using this feature is PrintManage Inc., Baltimore, MD. Until recently, the shop considered itself a distributor, but when it decided to branch into on-demand print manufacturing with the purchase of HP/Indigo and Oce digital presses, it brought forms design in-house, too. It has been using Mecca's Internet interface functionality for about a year now. "Our first customer in this area has very distributed operations, and its workforce is always in need of advertising literature to be sent to specific areas," says Bill Pate, vice president of business development and technology. "Initially, they had some very laborious, expensive manual processes in place. Their marketing department couldn't processes all the volume and they couldn't give their sales force the flexibility they needed." So, with the help of Amgraf's staff, PrintManage Inc. set up an Internet interface that allows the customer's loosely affiliated sales network to log in, access the literature they need — whether letters, postcards, product brochures, or others — customize it, if necessary, and order it on-demand. "People are looking for solutions to their marketing problems," says Pate. "This gives them a great deal more flexibility and an opportunity to think about the best way to target their market needs." While the basic design features of Mecca have remained consistent over the years, one area of Amgraf's continual investment is keeping up with today's production standards, such as CIP3/4 and JDF, which allow users to specify settings, not just for prepress, but for finishing and delivery. Manufacturers with these workflows can preset settings for inserts, covers, binding, and finishing, for example, by simply scanning a barcode. They can even automatically calculate how much the job will cost to package and ship. These specifications are made upfront, at the design stage, so Mecca is continually being refined and upgraded. Mecca is also continually being refined to be compatible with today's XML workflows, such as those designed for enterprise-wide document management and content management. OneForm Designer While Amgraf's business has been built on its print-optimized Mecca software, approximately half of its sales now come from its Internet forms product, OneForm Designer Plus. Unlike Mecca, OneForm Designer is a Windows- based software that is designed for the more casual user. OneForm Designer will create simple paper-based forms, but its strength is the ability to create e-forms, Internet forms, PDF forms, and connect to databases, collect information, and handle other online and database-connected processes. A great example of this approach comes from the U.S. government. Most, if not all, of the forms downloadable from IRS.gov were created in OneForm Designer. "The IRS chose to go this route because it wanted to make its forms fillable, so people could bring up their forms in Adobe Reader, fill them out, print them, and mail them in," says Garner. "Our PDF Forms Generator [an option within OneForm Designer] makes that possible." Most IRS forms on www.irs.gov are created using Amgraf's OneForm Designer. Although e-forms is an area that Garner expects to grow considerably, what excites Garner most isn't standard online forms. It's the ability to allow Internet users to do design and composition themselves, in their own time frame. "When the customer presses the purchase button, all the prepress work is being funneled, by XML, into robotic systems that drive digital printing presses to do on-demand printing from the whole Web-to-print, online interface," he says. Digicomp FormsX FormsX, the main competitor to Mecca, is a QuarkXPress XTensions Module (i.e., a plug-in to QuarkXPress) that both serves as a standalone composition system and offers F3 and Mecca conversions into QuarkXPress files. It will soon be available as an extension to InDesign. One of the advantage of FormsX is that it looks and acts like QuarkXPress, so if your designers can work in Quark, they can work in FormsX. If you have legacy F3 ProDesigner or Mecca files, you simply open them into QuarkXPress. This results in fully editable QuarkXPress files, with the customer's existing library fully preserved. And because the resulting file is a Quark file, even customers who don't have Forms X can open them. For new forms, FormsX is a drop-down menu in QuarkXPress. It adds floating palettes, as well as additional tools, that give users the ability to create barcodes, pantographs, check borders, frameworks, and specialty objects that QuarkXPress doesn't natively support. Because the user is working in QuarkXPress, they still have access to all of the benefits of QuarkXPress, such as the ability to create separations and handle spot colors and any image format. This makes FormsX compatible with all preflight tools, such as Markzware's FlightCheck, as well as CIP3/4 and JDF workflows and a variety of soft proofing tools. New Quark versions offer compatibility with PPML for variable data print, as well as a series of tools for locking and permissions. Productivity Hounds Everything about FormsX is geared toward productivity. "We offer features, for example, that allow users to ‘crank in' objects by coordinate only, so using numeric portion of the keyboard and left hand tab key, the designer can sit there and — boom, boom, boom — lay objects down across the page at a high rate of speed," notes Dave Leland, president of Digicomp. The software also offers features such as cloning, splitting of objects into sub-components, and simplified copying to various pages. It also has a feature called "text entry mode," so that, once the designer has created a series of boxes, they can use the keyboard to insert the text from box to box without having to individually select each one. "The idea behind our software is to create operations that allow users to eliminate using the mouse," says Leland. "We really like the use of keyboard short-cuts." While FormsX looks and acts like a Quark or InDesign file, former F3 users will also find that many features are carried over from F3, and there are many dialog boxes and features that — while not exact copies — they will recognize. And when they convert F3 files (as well as files designed in other forms design software) with FormsX, FormsX reads the native file, so it preserves all of the document's structure and styles. There is no need to work the file once the conversion is complete. Digicomp eForms X Digicomp also offers eformsX, an option to FormsX that allows users to create Internet form fields and PDF electronic forms, as well as SecureX for creating security documents. It is offered in both desktop and server versions. So like Mecca, this software can be used to create Internet-based portals, where customers can log in, access files, make modifications, and click to order. SecureX, which is an option with FormsX, has been a strong area of business for Digicomp and, more importantly, a "shining profit center" for its customers. "Forms manufacturers can sell anything with security added at a premium," says Leland. "So we have commercial printers and others who, if they use nothing else, buy it for that." How secure is secure? When Leland received the birth certificates for his triplet girls, he immediately recognized that they were produced using SecureX. A Different Way to Use QuarkXPress Scott Silverstine, proprietor Doxpress, a print distributor in Harrisburg, PA, is among those using FormsX. Silverstine does his own forms design, which he sees as a competitive differentiator. He switched from F3 to FormsX after repeatedly encountering driver issues and other problems as the Windows operating systems upgraded beyond the capabilities of F3. "FormsX is great because it works as an adjunct to Quark. Quark is a rock solid program, and your files are saved in Quark format, which most prepress departments can open," Silverstine says. "FormsX saves time, as many of the complex design tools, text placement, and unique standard and secure pantographs with blends can be added with a click of your mouse." Mike Daughenbaugh, graphics manager for Quick Tab II, Inc., is using FormsX 6.0 with Quark 6.5. He particularly likes the security features, since more than half of the company's business is high-security checks. "We often use dozens of security features in a single document, whether void pantographs, different linear pantographs, border warnings, or a host of others. Not that they couldn't be done manually, but it would be very time-consuming. And if we were using traditional page layout software, some of them would be physically impossible." Among the most commonly used features at Quick Tab II have to do with boxes and lists. The split box feature, for example, allows the designer to draw a box, then split it evenly by the designed number of sections, or specify the width of individual sections. It also likes the "replace color" feature, which allows the designer to simply select a color and replace it with another without manually selecting every instance of that color. Traditional Page Layout Programs For those who are not ready to invest in new software, the option exists of using traditional page layout programs. The software is inexpensive and readily available, and designers are already familiar with it. There is really no risk. The drawback is time. Tasks that take seconds in Mecca or FormsX can take minutes or hours. Depending on the volume running through your job, this can be a profit-killer or a non-issue. Another major issue for forms manufacturers goes beyond cost and learning curve, however. If they switch to forms-specific software, will they still be able to take in the wide variety of files that comes to them from distributors? Often, they receive snippets and samples in a wide variety of programs, including PDF, QuarkXPress, Word— anything. Daughenbaugh, however, points out that without the task-specific software, QuickTab II could never handle its volume. "We put 2,000 jobs per month through here," he says. "I have three designers. Do the math. On a 20- day per month basis, compare taking two hours to add security features by hand versus two minutes. The difference is astronomical." Cost vs. Risk When evaluating task-specific software versus traditional page layout software, manufacturers must weight the benefits of a risk-free design environment with the value of their time. Another consideration is if designers were not creating forms, what else could they be doing? Designing marketing materials to promote and market their businesses? Sometimes the impact on the bottom line isn't what's being done, but what isn't. Certainly, there are differentiators between competitive forms composition software, but one must wonder whether one of the most important steps a forms manufacturer can take is simply to pick one of them. Because in a tight-margin business, your time is too valuable to lose. How Do the Options Compare? Mecca OneForm Page Layout FormsX eFormsX 2000 Designer Programs Conversion from F3 Yes Yes Yes N/A No Conversion from Via PDF Via PDF Directly From Directly From No other design software Import Import Proprietary File Proprietary File Learning Curve High Low Low Low Low Proprietary Output Yes Yes No No No File Security Features Yes No Yes No Yes Batch [Automated] Yes No Yes Yes Composition Option for Online No Yes Yes Yes No Forms Handles Color Yes Yes Yes Yes No Separations Time-Saving Features High High High High No Internet-Enabled Yes Yes Yes Yes No Forms Customization All of the information in this chart is supplied by vendors. Heidi Tolliver-Nigro is an industry analyst and writer specializing in digital and variable data printing technologies. She is the former editor of Printing News, a consultant and writer for TrendWatch Graphic Arts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.