Digital watermarking and print workflows

Global Graphics has started working with Digimarc, which offers a digital watermarking service, and has produced a white paper to explain the options for adding watermarking to a print workflow. 

Martin Bailey, formerly chief technology officer for Global Graphics.

This white paper – Optimising digital watermarking in print workflows – was written by Martin Bailey, who was formerly the Chief Technical Officer for Global Graphics software and is one of the UK’s leading experts on PDFs and RIP software. He now works as an independent consultant. 

The term watermarking refers to the practice of embedding some kind of mark in artwork to authenticate it. The basic concept can be applied to anything from currency to packaging. Manufacturers around the world have long worried about how to stop counterfeiters disrupting their business. There’s an obvious incentive for criminals to copy high value luxury items, which costs manufacturers both lost revenue and reputational damage. Worse still, counterfeit medicines or food can have devastating consequences for consumers. 

Bailey points out that many manufacturers already print two-dimensional codes such as Aztec, Data Matrix and QR codes onto packaging to help with this. But as he notes this “immediately makes the barcodes themselves the target of counterfeiting.” 

For this reason, the barcode is usually only one part of an overall system that includes global databases and data validation. Even then, many manufacturers use a static barcode, where one barcode is used to describe every instance of a product, making it relatively easy to copy that barcode and apply it to the counterfeit items.

The alternative is to use a variable barcode, with encrypted data that includes manufacturing data for each individual item. This makes it easy for any authentication system to detect if the same barcode has simply been copied onto multiple products. 

An even better approach is to think of the data code as just one layer in any anti-counterfeiting strategy. This could include using steganography, where data is hidden within the design in such a way that it is difficult to detect just by the human eye, for example, by altering the colour values of individual pixels in an image. 

Another option is to overlay an artwork masking layer with a pattern of graphics that is hard to see and adds very little extra size to a data file. Bailey notes: “In practice this usually means something that looks like a sprinkling of very fine dots under a magnifying glass or loupe.”

Bailey suggests that an artwork masking layer or steganography could be added at the design stage but that variable data is best added at the prepress stage. This still leaves room for approval of the final design but does make it harder to rework that design if necessary. And Bailey also points out that adding an artwork masking layer in prepress can lead to very large PDF that in turn can slow down a DFE.

Late binding

Instead, Bailey goes on to argue that it’s more efficient to add the variable data marks to the file right at the very last minute before the data is printed, which can be done with Global Graphics’ SmartDFE. Bailey notes: “Applying the watermarks in parallel with colour management and rendering (in the RIP) allows full access to all colour channels for the output, while also removing the need to generate a fully resolved “optimized PDF” or PDF/VT file containing all of the variable data further upstream.” 

He adds that applying the marks after RIP’ing leads to even higher performance through the DFE though this might restrict the watermark to just one colour channel. This also makes it harder to approve the artwork. However, the great advantage is that any improvements that lead to more efficient software processing means that you can use cheaper hardware to run that software, thus cutting the cost of the DFE, and therefore the press itself. That’s an important argument to make given just how sensitive the labels and packaging sector is to price. After all, no one wants to allow the cost of the packaging to push up the price of their products, even where that packaging adds value by authenticating the product.

I think there’s a much wider debate to be had on the role of design and steganography, as well as data matrix codes and track and trace systems in countering the counterfeiters. But this white paper does a useful job of summarising the options for press manufacturers and is a good starting point for anyone developing a packaging press, and useful background for anyone investing in print for packaging. 

You can find further information on the Digimark watermarks from digimarc.com, and the white paper itself on incorporating digital watermarks into production workflows from globalgraphics.com.


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