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The next revolution? Computer-integrated manufacturing links all print production functions.

Apr 1, 1996 12:00 AM


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Digitally oriented print manufacturing technology, coupled with increasingly sophisticated business information and production/process control systems, are setting the stage for the eventual linking of print production into a continuous computer-controlled stream from prepress to distribution.

Computer-Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) promises to be the next "revolution" that will enable print production to better compete in a 21st century world of instantaneous digital information flow.

The concept has been validated in other industries, and leading-edge printers already are using some portions of the CIM approach. Industry suppliers are starting to band together to create the standards and protocols necessary to seamlessly link disparate production machinery.

As with most print technology revolutions, CIM will go through a series of evolutionary fits, starts, trials and errors before it bursts on the scene, according to PrintCom Consulting Group analysts who have been tracking the integration trend.

The first wave of linking print production functions resulted from the development of desktop publishing and the movement of prepress functions from the realm of traditional trade shop and printer services to the content creator/customer. Content creators increasingly are being integrated into print production and, in the process, have taken over some of the control functions.

As process integration migrates from prepress to plate-making and into the press-room and finishing operations, conventional divisions of labor and process control will break down, blend and blur. This will continue to raise questions about who most effectively can and should control the various aspects of print production.

Over the long term, we expect to see the creator or end-product purchaser (print buyer) increasingly interjected into the production control process.

Prepress systems, computer-to-plate, automated presses with digital controls and closed-loop features, fast make ready binding and finishing machinery with digital controls, ink-jet printing, distribution software and bar coding capabilities all are candidates for linkage in a computer-integrated manufacturing system (CIMS).

Although standalone batch production (in which work is moved manually from one "island of automation" to another) is today's printing plant workflow norm, the digital linkage of production steps has started with prepress and is an accelerating trend.

Practical telecommunications development and the ability to link content with production and process control instructions are the enabling technologies making it possible to tie together islands of automated print production. This linkage will create a coordinated, smooth, continuous production stream.

It is possible to consider telecommunications as the linking cable encasing the spinal cord of content. It carries business/production control software and data that will make evolving computer-controlled integrated manufacturing systems practical and widely utilized.

For CIMS to work, it also will be necessary to have computerized and integrated management and production control systems in place, notes industry consultant Donald H. Goldman. Many of today's systems either have or can be modified and expanded to provide the capability and performance necessary to keep up with the process integration challenges of the late 1990s.

These production management and business systems, along with the current approaches to electronic data interchange (EDI), can be integrated into a digital workflow system to create an effective CIMS approach, claims Goldman. The consultant explains that EDI is a customer/supplier integrated information technology that facilitates computer-assisted electronic purchasing. It can include paperless purchase orders, manifests, automatic billing and payment, material tracking, inventory control and customer work-in-process monitoring.

EDI techniques currently are being used in the printing industry primarily for mill-direct orders of paper and, to a much lesser degree, for other materials. The EDI systems approach electronically integrates printer/supplier materials purchasing and inventory control.

Full computer-integrated manufacturing encompasses supplier activities as well as inventory control functions. CIM concepts integrate printers and their suppliers, as well as print customers, into interactive linked systems.

Printer/customer EDI systems enable print buyers to solicit quotations, place orders and monitor the progress of jobs electronically.

The use of these systems seems to work best when printers, their customers and suppliers use Total Quality Management (TQM) concepts and have formed some type of strategic alliance. In these situations, the number of vendors being used by the buyer often is sharply reduced, sometimes to one or two sources. A long-term relationship is established, and a great deal of trust exists between the buyer and seller in each case.

In many respects, the use of TQM concepts in buying and selling, enabled by EDI technology, represents the ultimate in integration. Although currently a slowly growing trend, EDI concepts will become a part of the computer-integrated manufacturing workflow and grow more rapidly with the increased utilization of CIM concepts.

Conveyors, robots and automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) are, or will be, tied into and remain under the control of the CIM system. These devices will handle the movement of materials as digital information is converted to analog ink-on-paper products. Using CIMS, printed material content, production instructions and equipment all are interrelated in a single, continuously flowing multi-function system.

Each piece of equipment tied into a CIM production system must, within its own operating scope, be automated and equipped with sensors to gather and feed back information. Each device also must have a data port linking it into a centralized computer system. While these requirements form the operational and data nerve center of each linked equipment module, they also are the limiting factor that will inhibit the rapid deployment of CIM techniques.

Unfortunately, the printing industry is populated with old equipment that is practically impossible to modify with the digital controls and interfaces required by a CIMS approach.

"Nevertheless, it will happen," declares Judith W. Gustinis, director, Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), "because customers want quick response, providing customized products when and where they need them. Agile, cost-effective systems and processes that start and end with a satisfied customers are the name of the game for tomorrow's winners in industry.

"In the world of printing, this means an integrated systems approach to the initialization of technologies, processes and functions, which will provide the basis for new methods of information delivery from individualized one-of-a-kind products to distributed printing, print-on-demand and a growing number of electronic alternatives," Gustinis adds.

RIT is backing its belief with a 157,000-sq.-ft. $22 million structure to house its new Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies. The center is now under construction. The printing industry will be one of the center's primary focal points, according to John R. Peck, who will direct that effort, known as CIMSPrint.

"This new initiative will provide an integrated digital printing, publishing and imaging center dedicated to assisting printers, publishers and manufacturers with a state of the art facility. This center allows users to demonstrate, apply and integrate current and emerging technologies that will take information from the prep stage to paper or electronic end-user products," Peck explains.

"The first phase of CIMS-Print will be a digital printing laboratory that will be linked to other printing resources on the campus. The lab is expected to become operational this summer as the building is completed, but we're not waiting for bricks and mortar, having already initiated projects to examine the evolving digital infrastructures that will be the key to process integration," Peck says.

While digital and conventional output devices are an important part of the linked production chain, the critical success factors are the interfaces with the content creator or print customer, emphasizes the CIMSPrint director. Of equal importance is the way in which the infrastructure handles data movement, communicates production instructions and enables the management of transactions throughout the entire process.

"Creating a CIM system for print and other related information products requires careful planning and development in order to successfully link varied production equipment in a continuous workflow. That it can be accomplished is illustrated by the single- and process-color digital presses that are integrated with both prepress and in-line finishing equipment to produce a completed product. However, to expand this concept will require the development of standards and protocols," asserts Peck.

Printing equipment and information/production control suppliers are working independently and in consortiums to develop the necessary systems approaches required to implement CIMS.

Covalent Systems has proposed Job Monitor Protocol (JMP) as a CIMS workflow standard, JMP provides a method for collecting data as jobs progress through different production steps, transferring this information into business systems. The approach is oriented toward automatic production data collection for use in job tracking, time recording and costing/billing.

Logic Associates vice president Nick Odem expresses a belief in the development of computer-integrated manufacturing systems and indicates that Logic also is working with customers to develop this type of approach.

Best known in the newspaper industry, the Printa total control systems from Honeywell's Graphic Industry Automation Center is one of the most complete and sophisticated integrated production control systems. Suitable for commercial web presses, the Printa system provides a series of tools for managing all of the controls, including auxiliary devices for a single press, a group of presses or an entire printing plant, all within a single workstation.

The Printa Total Control System includes the following functions: (1) production management and planning, (2) press control, (3) presetting, (4) closed-loop color control, and (5) interfaces to other systems.

According to Honeywell, the Printa system may be installed on any type of web press regardless of manufacturer, both as original equipment or as an upgrade to existing presses. When adding a new press or in a plant modernization program without the purchase of a press, an entire printing plant may be brought under the control of a single system, regardless of the make and age of the presses.

Meeting the telecommunication requirements of CIMS is being enabled by turnkey suppliers such as the Digital Art Exchange, which is providing an end-to-end ISDN-based data transmission service. Known as DAX, it uses AT&T's public telephone network. Installed Mac or DOS hardware, network connections, configuration, on-site installation and seven-day, 24-hour support all are a part of the DAX turnkey package, which is offered in three configurations. Each one involves a one-time hardware purchase, a monthly charge and per minute usage charges.

Although the DAX service is said to be targeted at mid- to small-size printers, both R.R. Donnelley and Schawk have announced that they are subcontracting all client ISDN installation and integration operations to DAX.

The National Assn. of Printers and Lithographers (NAPL) has negotiated consortium pricing with DAX, which is aimed at providing mid- and small-size printers with substantial discounts over independently acquired systems and telephone line access. The DAX service is being co-marketed by the Digital Art Exchange of Boston and AT&T.

Another newcomer in the telecommunications arena is NetCo (Minneapolis). The firm's WAM!NET (wide area media network) Digital Courier service permits rapid electronic transmission and delivery of large graphic files between originators and service providers. According to Ed Driscoll, president of Netco, data can be transported to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada in about an hour.

Files are transported using a high-speed, secure nationwide network between desktops. Files can be delivered directly to a workstation, server or color proofing equipment. "We're providing the missing link, a convenient, affordable means of moving graphics-intensive documents between content originators and printers."

The WAM!NET approach provides a turnkey solution to data transmission. Users provide only a wall outlet and are charged per megabyte transferred, eliminating initial capital costs. The service runs independently of the customer's local area network. Operation is a simple drag-and-click process that transfers the file off the user's network and onto WAM!NET for forwarding.

In an effort to simplify the movement of data from the creator to output on high-speed printing systems such as the DocuTech series, Xerox and PagePath Technologies are integrating their existing products to create what they call a simple point-and-click process. The intent is to combine the software developed by both companies to provide transparent remote job transfer regardless of whether the originating computer is running on a Mac or Windows operating system. The combined effort will provide software tools to manage the digital files that DocuTech printers receive from their clients. The approach is a basic single-color, low-end CIMS-type tool.

Individual printing equipment manufacturers are offering digital control systems that are intended to be integrated and linked to other up- and down-stream production equipment. The limitation of these individual efforts is that they lack the standards and protocols necessary to tie together a diverse range of equipment from a multiplicity of suppliers. Proprietary systems are workable in closed production situations, such as those found in some digital press applications. However, the practical broad-based implementation of CIM concepts requires that individual equipment be compatible and able to communicate with all other equipment modules in the system.

Spearheaded by European press manufacturer Heidelberg and under the coordination of the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics (Darmstadt, Germany), a consortium-developed specification for linking a mixed array of machinery from several manufacturers appears imminent.

Heidelberg began working with the Fraunhofer Institute in late 1993 to develop a print production format (PPF). The format was to be used to expand its data control product offerings to integrate press and post-press systems utilizing data created during digital prepress operations.

After initial developed work, Heidelberg's strategic partners, Polar/Mohr (manufacturers of cutting equipment) and Stahl (folding machinery), were brought into the effort to provide postpress knowledge. Fraunhofer, with a knowledge of community systems and prepress requirements, worked with the three manufacturers to develop draft specifications and test the initial interfaces.

In February of 1995, Heidelberg invited other graphic arts equipment companies to a presentation describing the development and plans for the print production format. The outgrowth of this meeting was the formation of a consortium for the joint development and support of PPF. This group has christened itself "The International Cooperation for Integration of Prepress, Press and Postpress," which is abbreviated as CIP3.

The first public presentation of CIP3 was made at DRUPA 95. By September of 1995 many of the basic decisions regarding the PPF approach had been decided and the implementation of a prepress interface to read CIP3 files and creation by imposition software of the first CIP3 file had been achieved.

Perhaps one of the most important early decisions was choosing PostScript as the CIP3 file format. In making this decision, the CIP3 group recognized that the establishment of a new format or computer language would be difficult to do and perhaps not acceptable to the marketplace.

PostScript was selected because it is universally accepted in the printing industry, and is flexible, easy to extend and permits control printouts for archiving, communication and documentation of print orders to be created on any of the widely available compatible printers.

In making this selection, CIP3 recognized that the PostScript language is highly complex and that the extraction of information from a PPF file based on PostScript would involve a difficult implementation of an interpreter.

The Fraunhofer Institute reports that the CIP3 group is currently preparing a revised version of the specification document to include rules to reduce the complexity of CIP3 PPF files. There also are plans to develop a common parser library to interpret CIP3 files with interfaces for press and post-press applications.

Work continues on the development of the Print Production Format, which, because of its widespread support, appears to have the best chance of becoming the implementation specification or ad hoc standard for CIM in print.

Today there are 18 companies working with Fraunhofer, supporting and participating in the CIP3 development. (See chart above.)

CIP3 has indicated that its machine interface Print Production Format (PPF) will be treated as an open system and made available to all manufacturers. However, the addition of the digital press manufacturers, as well as other conventional press equipment companies and most postpress firms, might serve to make the specification more universally acceptable and usable.

As PrintCom analysts understand the CIP3 proposal from the Fraunhofer Institute, the specifications and protocols do not overshadow the use of independent business and production control systems. For example, the Covalent Job Monitor Protocol or the Logic information systems developments might ride along with the CIP3 approach.

However, since Covalent, Logic and other information system vendors are not participating in the CIP3 development group, this integration issue must still be clarified.

The PPF specification is undergoing continuous improvement and development, with Version 1.1 scheduled to be released during the second quarter of this year. In addition to the efforts to reduce the complexity of a CIP3 PPF file, the update will provide specifications for encoding and compression techniques of preview images in order to reduce the size of CIP3 PPF files.

Making the system's register marks capable of being bound to one or more separations also will be included in the update.

According to the Fraunhofer Institute, there are ongoing activities within the CIP3 group to extend the capabilities of the format in the prepress area, particularly for book finishing and binding. In the future, products such as books and magazines should be supported.

However, it appears as if the earliest implementation of the CIP3 specifications probably will be in the commercial off-set sheet-fed world rather than web offset or digital presses.

Touted at DRUPA, Heidelberg is moving ahead and bringing its CIM concepts to market as the data control CPC 51. Later this year, the CPC32 prepress interface will be introduced, with an initial linking from prepress to press and the bindery. The Heidelberg data control modules are a part of the CPTronic and CPC control systems, which also include systems for remote control, quality assurance in-line image measurement and automatic register.

The Data Control System also provides links between front office functions and the production operations of a printing plant. This enables all presses equipped with a CPTronic to be fed with order data such as run length, sheet format and ink settings.

Production information also flows from the plant floor to management, providing an overview of the current status of individual orders and scheduling. Data is provided in real time, which increases capacity utilization and flexibility to react to work-in-process changes.

As parts and pieces of the CIM puzzle are developed, refined and dropped into place, print production is slowly but surely becoming an integrated, continuous flow of digital data from the creation of material through prepress into the pressroom and beyond to binding and distribution.

Traditional relationships of who does what and controls what, when and where, will be upset as print production is reengineered to be competitive in the 21st century.

During this CIMS incubation period, printers purchasing new production equipment should look for digital controls with tentacles that will enable the equipment to be linked into CIP3 or similar CIMS approaches.

The CIMS evolution has begun. For those who ignore is beginnings, CIMS could, however, turn into print's early 21st century revolution.

* Prepress: Adobe, Agfa, Creo, Crosfield, Ekotrading-Inkflow, Harlequin, Linotype-Hell, Scitex, Screen, Ultimate Technographics

* Press: Goebel, Heidelberg, KBA Komori, MAN Roland

* Postpress: Muller Martini, Polar/Mohr, Wohlenberg

William C. Lamparter Contributing editor and president of PrintCom Consulting Group, Inc., Charlotte, NC