Hamillroad Software Wins 2018 FTA Technical Innovation Award for Bellissima DMS Screening Software

Bellissima DMS delivers superior dots and increases flexography’s print quality to gravure levels while improving its short-run capability to challenge digital.

If you have ever picked up your smartphone only to discover its battery is dead, then you are well aware of the power of software. Even the $999 iPhone X is reduced to a gorgeous glass-and-stainless-steel paperweight when it cannot be used to take photos, browse the internet or hail an Uber.

Through a combination of engineering and design expertise, smartphones continue to get thinner despite containing a growing number of components, but without software to tell them what to do, they are nothing but jigsaw puzzles of silicon, aluminum and other materials. Software, everywhere, is what powers the technology we use each and every day.

The power of software has become increasingly evident in the world of flexography, as has its ability to improve print quality without the need for hardware-based changes. Decades ago, Andy Cave brought this to light when he fathered the Harlequin RIP. And with his latest creation, Bellissima Digitally Modulated Screening (DMS), he believes he has produced software which dramatically improves flexography’s quality, minimizes common “hardware” issues like press bounce, and strengthens it in the fight against both digital and gravure printing.

Judges in the 2018 FTA Technical Innovation Awards agreed, awarding Bellissima DMS and Cave’s company Hamillroad Software Ltd one of two honors this year and the only one in the Prepress – Graphics category. One week after learning of the achievement, Cave said he still could not stop smiling—a hardware malfunction?—and expressed his excitement for flexography’s future.

“This feeling is going to be with me for weeks, if not months,” he admitted. “Quite simply, this award provides the strongest public affirmation, by a panel of peers who are experts in the industry, that they agree what we have is a major technical innovation for flexo printing that will cause a significant transformation of what is possible.”

Unlikely Beginning, Unlikely Ending

If you trace the stories of some of the most prominent hardware and software inventions back to their beginnings, you’ll find some interesting starting points. The original iPod came to be when a senior vice president at Apple discovered a 1.8-in. hard drive that was developed by Toshiba but for which the company had no use. The predecessor to Facebook—FaceMash—was created by Mark Zuckerberg while he was drunk and displayed the headshots of two Harvard students side by side, asking users to vote on which person was more attractive.

Bellissima DMS’ origin story is similar in its tangential relationship to the final product which received a 2018 Technical Innovation Award. Before Bellissima DMS there was Auraia DMS, which started off as the byproduct of Cave’s attempt to assist a customer who was using a toner-based Oki laser printer. He admits that effort “went nowhere” but, in working on the project, came up with a number of ideas he felt would work well with offset printing.

“The best thing about Bellissima is seeing the reaction on someone’s face when they hear about and see it for the first time, or when they win a contract using it, or when it solves a problem for them.”

Andy Cave, Hamillroad Software

“The technology we developed was so different to everything else that was out there—AM, FM, XM, etc.—that we had to come up with a new name to describe it,” Cave recalls of his screening work. “And so DMS, standing for Digitally Modulated Screening, was born, and Auraia DMS (for offset) was launched.”

Take a look at the in-flight magazine on most domestic U.S. flights and you’ll see a real-world example of Auraia DMS; browse the magazine rack inside any of the stores at an airport and you’ll see many more. Initially, the offset technology was focused on violet plates, which he says posed significant challenges due to high levels of dot gain; that issue was mitigated by shifting to thermal plates.

The strength and success of Auraia DMS are what led Cave two years ago to begin work on bringing the technology to flexography. Going into the project, he recalls facing an even greater challenge presented by the high levels of dot gain inherent in the print process. But after six months of work, he says he “knew we had something special” and worked for another year-and-one-half to refine the technology before launching it.

In total, it took a decade from the lightbulb moment while working with that Oki laser printer to releasing Bellissima DMS. Interspersed in that time was testing at hundreds of printers—a mix of offset and flexo—in the U.S., U.K., Italy, Spain and Norway. Traveling all around the world to trial the software, Cave likens the process not to a path, but a “tortuous journey across deserts, mountains and rough seas.”

“If someone had told me at the start how difficult a journey it would have been, to be honest I might never have started; it would have been too daunting,” he admits. “I would say it’s been the most technically complicated and challenging thing I’ve ever had to do, particularly getting it to work on flexo.”

A Screen Supreme

“Bellissima, to me, shows the power of what software can do,” Cave says, reflecting on the result of that tortuous journey. Specifically, what it can do is create from a PDF a run length encoding (LEN) file which is imaged on a plate via a CDI. There are products that already do this; the advancement Bellissima brings to the table (and what caused it to win a Technical Innovation Award) is the screening method it uses.

Hamillroad Software 2018 FTA Technical Innovation Award Bellissima DMS peppers screened with 150 lpi AM
An image of peppers printed using 150 lpi AM screening
Photo courtesy of Hamillroad Software
Hamillroad Software 2018 FTA Technical Innovation Award Bellissima DMS peppers screened with DMS
An image of peppers printed with Bellissima DMS
Photo courtesy of Hamillroad Software
In developing the technology that powers Bellissima, Cave explains that he aimed to overcome all the issues inherent in other screening methods: AM screening (“with AM screening, you cannot have good image reproduction capabilities while being stable—you can have one or the other, but not both”), FM screening (“FM screening produces very high image detail, but flat tints can be noisy and it does not have a reputation for being stable”), XM screening (“XM screening only improved tonal range”) and Concentric screening (“Concentric screening reduced ink consumption, which in turn improved stability on press, but is not easy to plate”).

Cave recalls that, in thinking through the challenge, he discovered a “paradox”: The need to design a screen that uses a large, stable dot like a 133 lpi AM screen, which at the same time uses a small dot to provide high levels of image reproduction. He overcame that contradiction with a trio of inventions.

The first was a technique of using reduced dots to build larger structures. These dots can either be standalone sub-dots or connected sub-dots, and the larger structures they build can be anything from geometric shapes to round, AM-like dots (like those seen in Hamillroad Software’s logo).

The second was a system of building rectangular dots by using pairs, triplets and then chains of dots as their basic structure. Cave says the combination of these two inventions solved many of the issues faced with FM screening.

Finally, there was the development of the “Stochastic Rosette,” which interleaves the dots between the separations. “It’s not just the different dot shape that matters, but also the different dot spacing. One of the things this guarantees, 100 percent, is that no two adjacent dots in any one color will fully overlap any two adjacent dots in another color,” he explains. “As you can imagine, this is immense, as it does not just eliminate color shifts, but also reduces noise in flat tints which are made up of more than one color component.”

By the numbers, Hamillroad says those inventions bring highlight dots of 1 percent to 2 percent on labels and 2 percent to 3 percent on flexible packaging, shadow dots up to 99.5 percent, and prints with the equivalent of 350 lpi to 450 lpi.