True Stories: Masterphoto gets to grips with digital printing

3 Nov 2003

Masterphoto was founded in 1967 and has specialised in the accurate reproduction of colour. “Colour reproduction is our bag,” says graphic designer Peter Duggan (pictured). “We’ve been reproducing colour, be it in ads, poster prints or digital prints. We also calibrate ads for the national newspapers. When a designer in an advertising agency might specify a pantone colour, we are the intermediaries that ensure that all things are well and all artwork is properly prepared.”

Over the 36 years of its existence, the company has seen many changes but one thing remained constant, printers required four-colour separation films to manufacture its printing plate. But over the last couple of years that has changed, with many publishers using ‘direct-to-plate’ technology. This has led to upheaval in the pre-press sector. In the light of this, says Duggan, the company was obliged to redefine its focus. Based on the company’s skillsets and expertise developed over 36 years of business, Masterphoto entered the world of digital print and now operates a Hewlett-Packard Indigo 1000 Press and a MAN Roland Dico Press. Last year the company was named winner in the digital print category of the Irish Print Awards.

One of the features of digital printing is that it is economical for short runs. This one factor changes the entire dynamic of the printing business. “Because there are shorter runs, there’s less expense, there’s more turnover and it’s more immediate,” says Duggan. “That’s a major opportunity for us.”

That major opportunity translated into actual work including a major contract with Sherry Fitzgerald, one of the largest estate agents in the country. “We produce all of its second-hand home brochures ranging from four-page A5 brochures to eight-page A4 brochures,” he says.

According to Duggan, when Sherry Fitzgerald negotiators visit a home, they take measurements, draw a plan of the house using special software, take digital photographs, write copy and then email it to Masterphoto. “Within 48 hours they will have the brochures delivered. We have had 4,000 individual jobs in the last 13 months so it’s quite intensive. There are short-run jobs, between 50 and 250 copies, but normally in the 100 range.”

With pressure like that there is no room for error and it was Masterphoto’s tradition of getting things right that earned it the contract. The company started using Excel for tracking but this proved unsatisfactory. Fortunately, the company had access to another piece of software, FileMaker Pro. Developed originally by Apple for use on the Mac, FileMaker Pro is a multi-platform product and is one of the top-selling database packages for Windows. The company originally acquired the software as part of a solution to track invoicing on other jobs. Duggan felt it would be ideal to track the Sherry Fitzgerald projects.

Despite the fact he had no prior programming experience he set out to create such a system. “We could have gone for a developer program, whereby someone would develop it for us,” recalls Duggan. “But I thought to myself that I’d have a go. All good software enables you to do something you weren’t able to do before and the best of software actually rewards any endeavour you undertake. Within 24 hours of starting to experiment with FileMaker I knew we had something that would suit us down to a ‘T’. It’s been refined and it’s actually working so well that our client relies on us for accuracy.”

Rather than have one person assigned to tracking the projects, anyone working on the project can see what the status is. Using the tools supplied with the software, and with advice garnered from the internet, specifically FileMaker-related usenet groups, Duggan created an easy-to-use interface that requires a minimum of typing. When a job comes in by email, the operator types in the reference numbers supplied by Sherry Fitzgerald, the agency, the address of the property and then enters other data such as format and quantity. As the project passes various stages, the person responsible merely has to click on a button and the date and time of that milestone is automatically entered.

When the job is complete, the invoicing department can access the information for billing purposes. Duggan’s future plans include refining the invoicing end to automatically calculate fees based on quantities and size.

The database itself runs on FileMaker Pro Server which itself runs on a 500MHz iMac and can be accessed by anyone running FileMaker Pro on either a Mac or PC. The company’s licence allows it to run up to 10 copies of the application at any one time. FileMaker exports data to a number of different formats and every day Masterphoto sends a report on current jobs to the client in an Excel-readable format.

According to Duggan, the system he created replicates the capability of a bespoke system costing five figures. “If you are determined to get a solution with FileMaker and spend some time at it you will be rewarded very quickly,” says Duggan. “With the extra effort you make, sometimes it’s brain crunching, but you will always get there. That’s the best type of software.”

By David Stewart