How to Create Professional-Looking AFP Resources on IBM i or Anywhere Else

Document Management
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If you want your printed documents to look good, you have to work at it a little bit.


I grew up in rural Wisconsin. The bus ride to my school took an hour, and if I had already done my homework, I would spend that ride gazing out the window. I knew every little hill, every corner and turn of the road. I could anticipate every bump and even knew the best places to watch for deer walking in their favorite cornfield.


A few years ago, I made a trip back there and decided to take a drive on those old roads…and promptly got lost.


Nothing looked the same. Those hills seemed much higher, and those corners were now all decisions I had to make. The little bumps seemed to have evened out, so each road felt the same. And that cornfield was now a golf course with new houses and roads all intertwined. Most of all, I was shocked at how tall the trees had grown, hiding those neighborhoods I used to know so well.


I was reminded of this trip recently when a customer called because their overlay was no longer printing the way it should. Ten years earlier, they had bought Infoprint Designer and made a back overlaya sheet of terms and conditions to appear on the back side of each shipping invoice. Now when it printed, the image often looked scrambled. And sometimes it didn't print at all and threw error messages and exceptions instead. Also, the company had not created an overlay since that first one and was unsure how to create a new one.


To be honest, I didn't ever fix the problem he reported, because the method by which he had created the overlay was totally outdated. Originally, he scanned a copy of a sheet of terms and conditions, imported it into Infoprint Designer, and created an overlay from that. It worked fine for a long time. .


Unfortunately, when trying to fix something that used to work, we often run into two issues: (1) there may be a better way to do it or (2) what you're printing may have changed. He had both problems.


Create Overlays and Page Segments from Windows Applications

The primary purpose of Infoprint Designer is to create page definitions and form definitions that reposition the text of spooled files when printed. It can create overlays and page segments that fit the text, but if you're looking to create a simple overlay with a company logo or header, or even a complex back overlay of terms and conditions, you're likely better off using a program you're more familiar with, like a word processor.


Overlays and page segments can be printed from any Windows application by using the AFP driver, available from Ricoh (download here). In 2010, IBM finalized the sale of the Infoprint Solutions subsidiary to Ricoh, which included responsibility for development of the AFP driver. Instructions for downloading and installing the AFP driver are provided here, but those topics are not covered in this article. Once the driver has been installed and configured, you're ready to start.


Begin with Quality

The most common issue that customers have with AFP objects is that they don't start with high-quality input, so their output suffers. For example, most images that you'd find on a company website would not be intended for print output. Instead, if you have an art department, seek to get high-quality images from them or recreate your own. Many users transitioning from preprinted forms to overlays will scan their form and create an overlay from that, but even if you scan it at a high resolution, it will contain artifacts and other imperfections and will not look professional. In other words, a scan of a logo is not a logo. A scan of a line is not a line. And it will show when you print. So begin with quality, and you will end with quality.


Here are some quick tips on how to get the highest quality output you can.


Create Overlays from Your PDF Viewer
If you're creating an overlay that is a duplicate of a tax form or something similar that comes in PDF format, you can print directly from a PDF viewer to the AFP driver. Don't print a PDF, scan it, and then create an overlay from the scan.


Clean Up Your Graphics

If you need to print a company logo or other graphics and don't have access to a high-quality version, you can scan it and clean it up in a graphics program like Photoshop or Inkscape to turn it in a vector graphic. This will allow you to scale it to the right size and export it at a resolution to match the AFP driver. The YouTube video "Creating High-Quality Signature Page Segments" demonstrates how to do this with a signature.

If your company uses specific typefaces but you're not sure what they are, you can submit example images of text to a web service called
WhatTheFont to identify them. Years ago, a user contacted me about creating his company logo as a page segment, but he had no access to the original. The only version he had was the small one that appeared on the company's web page, which was very small and pixelated. We submitted the logo to WhatTheFont, found the typeface used, and recreated the logo. Now he has a beautiful overlay and a perfect version of his company logo.


Black and White =/= Grayscale

If you're printing an overlay or page segment that uses graphics and you'll be printing a black and white overlay, convert your images to indexed (sometimes also called bilevel) images. The reason for this is that when you print to the AFP driver and use black and white, the driver will choose which parts of your image become black and which become white. In doing this, many of the little bits of gray that make up most black and white images will become obvious imperfections in your overlay or page segment. By converting to pure black and white beforehand, you'll see exactly how it will look when printed to the AFP driver, and you can clean it up. I used the GIMP Image Editor on an image for this article, and you can see the three levels of indexed output that were available.





Match Your Input to Your Output

You want to start with input that most closely matches the pel (or "printable element," which is the same as a pixel in most contexts) density of the driver you are using. If you're printing to the 300 pel AFP driver, render or create your images at 300 dots per inch (dpi). If you're printing to an IPDS printer and using the 600 pel driver, create your images at 600 dpi. If you're printing via Host Print Transform (HPT), use the 300 pel driver, because that is the only density that HPT realistically supports. If you're printing to an IPDS printer, you can use the pel density that matches your target printer. Line printers, for example, use 144, and lasers can print 600 pel.



Make Sure Your Text Is Correct

Finally, when you're redoing an overlay or page segment, take the time to check your company website or other documents for what the text should be. In the case of my customer, the terms and conditions that appeared on his overlay were woefully out of date. We copied and pasted the proper data into a word processor, used the right typeface, and added high-quality company logos so that the final product looked professional and was accurate.


Did They Actually Sign This?

One of my pet peeves with forms is when a signature doesn't look real. It ruins the effect. To make a high-quality signature, the signer should use a fine-tipped Sharpie and a blank piece of paper, and sign their name across the entire page. Scan the signature and increase the contrast to make it as clear as possible, and then convert to a bilevel image in your graphics editor to clean it up before printing. Make the signature black. If you don't change the color to black, the AFP driver will likely fill it with a tight pattern of dots to emulate very dark gray and it will be much less lifelike. Additionally, you can open the image in a vector graphics program like Inkscape and convert the signature to a path. This creates a graphic that has no pixelation and can be exported at the same resolution as the AFP driver. The example simulates the difference between a bitmap and a vector image.




Once you're done editing the signature, scale it to be the right size for where it will be printed and then use the AFP driver's "Offset plus size" option to make sure that the page segment is that size. As an example, if your signature will be 3 inches wide and half an inch tall, and you plan on using the 300 dpi AFP driver, crop the signature tightly and resize it to be 900 pixels wide and 150 pixels high. Then load it into an image program like MS Paint and set the margin to one inch left and top. When you print to the AFP driver as a page segment, choose "Offset plus size" and set the margins and width correctly.


AFP Driver Options: Gray Scale Method

Once you're ready to print, you need to experiment with the settings in the AFP driver to get it to look just right. The Gray Scale Method is typically the parameter you will need to adjust. Choosing the right option is not an exact science, and you should test the different ones to find which is best for your overlay or page segment.


The help text in the driver describes the dithering methods in detail. Default Dither uses a 4 x 4 bit pattern of dots to emulate up to 16 levels of gray. Photographic Dither provides soft contrasts and uses a smaller dot pattern, emulating up to 64 levels of gray. Compressed Dither is typically not used because it sacrifices quality to get a smaller image size. Diagonal Dither is intended to provide a less grainy image than Photographic Dither, and it also emulates up to 64 levels of gray. Line art halftone is an option that I use often because it renders lines and details clearly. There are other AFP driver options, but the Gray Scale Method is the most important one to test.


Creating Color AFP Resources

If you'll be creating your AFP resources in color, all of the same techniques above apply. Make sure the resolution of the images matches the AFP driver you use, use text when possible, and clean up your logos and images. Last spring, I was contacted by a customer who had a complex company logo that she needed to print on invoices, but she didn't have an original version. I guided her through recreating the logo from scratch using official typefaces and company colors. The resulting output was excellent and will print beautifully for years to come.


Do It Right

The good thing about the IBM i is that once you get something working, it should work fine for a long time. So it might be a good idea to put the URL of this article into the object description. That way, when 2025 rolls around and you need to make a new overlay for the 3D printer, you'll remember how you did it.