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Real-world workflows

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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With the global economy still depressed and a great deal of press capacity going unused, printers are now competing on the basis of efficiency rather than print quality. Efficiency goes beyond merely determining how much to charge per thousand copies or hour of press time. It requires connecting and digitally controlling all processes, from estimating and order entry to production, scheduling and billing. These connections must flow between workers and workstations within the printer's operation, as well as between its vendors and customers.

Until recently, most print-production processes relied heavily on two computer systems: a management information system (MIS) for generating quotes and job tickets, and the prepress department's RIP for converting computer code into film or plate exposures. Today, workflow systems have replaced the “dumb” RIPs of the past. Regardless of the manufacturer, all workflow systems do far more than convert PostScript into one-bit TIFF data (the output signal that drives the laser beam on an imagesetter or platesetter). Typical add-ons include the generation of print-production format (PPF) (CIP4) data, dynamic scheduling software and proofs from interpreted data, as well as Internet-enabled extensions for customer input of job specifications, job-progress tracking and online soft proofing.

Although workflow systems have offered some of these features for years, the newest generation offers unprecedented integration. Automatically passing data between disparate computer systems within a company can speed production, improve scheduling and provide useful insights into a printer's manufacturing operations. Also, printers that digitally integrate their business and production systems with their customers' and suppliers' can eliminate some phone calls, faxes and even e-mails. Automatically reordering paper and ink from preferred vendors can ease printers' purchasing problems, while allowing customers to track jobs' production status via the Internet, can dramatically reduce a customer-service department's workload.

Emerging enabling standards

Most graphic-arts vendors have long grasped the advantages of computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) — it's only a question of how and when it will happen. Emerging standards such as PPF, eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and Job Description Format (JDF) are tremendously enabling the system's integration progress. The first major development came when the Committee for International Cooperation for Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress (CIP4) approved the PPF standard.

Typically created by the RIP, PPF files communicate machine instructions, such as presetting the ink keys of a printing press or programming the movements of a paper cutter. All of the major press manufacturers now include PPF capabilities on their press consoles, and many binding and finishing-equipment vendors are following suit.

While PPF helps digital data travel from the RIP to the pressroom and beyond, it does not assist in communications between the printer and print buyer. Adobe's (San Jose, CA) Portable Job Ticket Format (PJTF) was originally intended to address this issue. Although its developers hoped it would become an industry-standard job ticket, PJTF's capabilities were too limited to gain widespread acceptance.

The PJTF development committee, however, recognized the advantages of XML, a new data-transfer method, and the XML-based JDF was born. JDF enjoys the extensible attributes of XML, which allows new functions to be defined and added to the language by any user at any time. The Job Messaging Format (JMF) was developed to transfer JDF information between computer systems.

Adobe, Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ), Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) and MAN Roland (Westmont, IL) were responsible for the initial development of JDF, but in 2001, the companies transferred JDF activities to CIP4. Today, most graphic-arts vendors have either launched JDF-/JMF-enabled products or are adding those capabilities to their existing offerings.

A closer look at workflow RIPs reveals the true potential of JDF, JMF, PPF and XML. PDF workflow RIPs can interpret incoming data formats (such as PostScript) using software known as a Configurable PostScript Interpreter (CPSI), typically licensed from Adobe. The result of this interpretation process is a stack of resolution-independent graphics known as an object list. Since object lists also form the basis of Adobe's PDF, the core characteristic of PDF workflow RIPs is the ability to extract post-interpreted data from the system in the form of an editable PDF, re-insert the corrected PDF and continue processing.

Creo NGP/Prinergy

What is the definition of workflow? It's an expanded view of the functions that RIPs can perform in an increasingly digitized manufacturing environment. Beyond the simple RIP, trap and expose functionality of the past, today's workflow systems are expected to improve efficiency while adding value to the customer. Creo (Billerica, MA) calls its version of this interconnected vision Networked Graphic Production (NGP). Content creators working with Prinergy users can implement software to create print-production-ready PDFs, participate in remote-proofing sessions, engage in the print-production process through digital job tickets and track their job's progress with automatic updates. The vision of NGP also extends to the back office, as bills can be approved and issued over the Web.

At Graph Expo 2002, Creo, Komori (Rolling Meadows, IL) and Printcafe (Pittsburgh) provided a real-world CIM example: JohnsByrne (Niles, IL), a $20 million commercial printer that integrates content creation, prepress, press, postpress and MIS. JohnsByrne's installation links more than a dozen NGP components, including Creo's Prinergy workflow, PDF-creation tools, the Synapse InSite prepress Internet portal, platesetters and proofers; Printcafe's Hagen OA; and Komori's K-Station and presses, as well as postpress equipment. Xerox (Rochester, NY) and KBA (Burlington, VT) are the latest partners to join the NGP initiative.

Based on Adobe's Extreme RIP architecture, Prinergy allows users to submit data in a variety of formats for normalization (interpretation) into single-page PDF documents. Building prepress operations around RIP-generated PDFs is a natural fit, according to Christine Krause, Creo's product marketing manager for workflows. “One of the main reasons we've been a big fan of PDF is its interchangeable, repurposable nature,” says Krause.

Debuting in 1999, Prinergy was originally part of a Creo/Heidelberg joint venture established in 1997. The joint venture ended in 2000, shortly after Creo and Scitex merged.

Although Creo is now the sole proponent of Prinergy, expanded JDF capabilities means the development pace for this modular product hasn't slowed. Creo has also recently acquired related products of interest to JDF users, such as ScenicSoft's Preps and UpFront imposition and planning packages.

When Prinergy was introduced, many observers wondered if the printing industry was ready for a sophisticated workflow approach. The answer is “yes,” according to Krause. “We're seeing a real groundswell of printers that want to differentiate themselves by pulling customers closer into the production process,” she notes. “Printers have been skeptical of using the Internet in production due to the shakeout of the dot-coms, but we have over 100 installations of our Web portal in North America alone.”

While many Prinergy users want to maximize integration with their customers through features such as digital job tickets, soft proofing and Web-based production tracking, others want to start with a simpler installation that just RIPs, traps and outputs. Since Prinergy (like most workflow systems) is sold on a modular basis, it's possible to start with a $15,000 investment.

Fuji CelebraNT

Fuji's (Hanover Park, IL) options for driving output devices include its Extreme-based CVX5 CelebraNT workflow system and RAMpage Inc.'s (Waltham, MA) RIP (branded as Rampage Valiano in Europe). Fuji relies on local Enovation resellers to make RIP configuration and installation recommendations.

“Somebody has to work with the customer to configure all of this,” says David Smith, Fuji (Enovation)'s product development manager for electronic imaging software. Although CelebraNT offers a full gamut of advanced capabilities, Smith says the company hasn't seen a lot of interest in options such as soft proofing over Internet connections. “Under current economic conditions, we're mainly seeing people interested in the basic RIP configurations since feature for feature, the workflow systems tend to be more expensive,” he notes.

One product that is garnering a lot of attention is the recently introduced Output Director. Acting as a “black box” to connect Fuji imaging devices to non-Fuji workflows, Output Director accepts incoming screened data as one-bit TIFFs. This interface can drive both violet and thermal platesetters; more than 50 Output Directors have been installed since January.

Heidelberg Prinect

An early advocate of ink-key and bindery automation via open-platform PPF files, Heidelberg continues to embrace standards such as JDF and XML. By Drupa 2004, all of its Prinect modules will be built on JDF.

Based on client/server architecture, the modular Prinect system integrates tools for scheduling, preflighting, PDF conversion (normalization), trapping and imposition. Some of these components have been offered by Heidelberg for several years, such as the Plate Image Reader (plate scanning), Signastation (imposition) and Delta RIP (raster image processing). Image files, page layouts and other digital assets can still be shared with customers for annotation and approval using Heidelberg's JetBase asset-management software.

PPF automation remains a key component of Heidelberg's new workflow system through the Compucut, Compufold and Compustitch modules. New features include JDF links between many of these workflow components. Scheduling software coordinates core production areas by communicating with other Prinect modules. Prinect also uses JDF to pass job specifications derived by the quote, in the form of an electronic job ticket, directly to the press, making it easy for the press operator to get the press ready quickly and accurately, reducing makeready time and waste.

“If operators could concentrate on producing jobs rather than managing them, they would be more productive,” says James Mauro, product manager of Heidelberg's Prinect press products. “To that end, Prinect, starting with MIS, builds the foundation of the job, eliminating redundant data entry throughout all stages of production.”

The exec emphasizes the company's commitment to open systems. “Today's demanding customers and competitive environment makes connecting business systems unavoidable for print buyers, manufacturers and vendors. Our use of JDF and other open standards means that Prinect can interconnect Heidelberg workflow modules, as well as integrate components from other vendors.”

Agfa ApogeeX and Delano

The benefits of Agfa's early electronic job-ticket standardization efforts can be seen in ApogeeX, an update of its Apogee PDF workflow system. Offering a host of functions for packaging applications, this system features Agfa's proven PDF-based RIP, based on Adobe's Extreme technology. Built from a variety of modular components, an ApogeeX workflow can include JDF job tickets, process control strips, stepping and nesting of RIPed files, generation of PPF ink-key settings and a Web-based tool for client approvals of single-page or full imposition proofs.

JDF job tickets can be created using ApogeeX production plans, or the tickets can be imported from any file that already contains JDF instructions. Using JMF messaging within the ApogeeX system allows operators and administrators to monitor the real-time status of all jobs in production; the current status of all output devices is also shown. Production employees can use the information to set handling priorities, put jobs on hold and re-run jobs by dragging thumbnails onto icons representing the output device. Color-management settings, screening information, imposition templates and a variety of other resources can also be viewed from anywhere on the ApogeeX network.

Internet connectivity isn't limited to customer/ printer relationships. Richard Lightfoot, vice president, Mercury Publishing Services (Rockville, MD), uses Apogee to connect a prepress-only operation on the East Coast with the company's Midwest print partner. “We service our clients locally and use our Apogee workflow to RIP, trap, screen and produce single-page proofs, then export one-bit TIFF files for production 1,500 miles away,” explains Lightfoot. “The data integrity has been fantastic — there've been no problems.”

Apogee encompasses the production side of Agfa's CIM approach; Delano is its project-management system. Users purchase the Delano Web server and install client software (available for both Macs and PCs), then interact with Delano to perform a variety of planning, scheduling, proofing and approval tasks. Delano's use of XML and JDF allows the system to coordinate and automate communication between print buyers, CSRs, department managers and accountants via a multilingual interface. Users can coordinate multiple versions of the same document, automatically ganging similar projects for maximum production efficiency. Delano also can track change orders and generate invoices. An optional module preflights files and tracks the processing of individual pages.

Screen TrueNet

TrueNet from Screen (USA) (Rolling Meadows, IL) encompasses both its TrueFlow and PowerCTP workflows. TrueNet is based on interpreted PDF data but is not an Adobe Extreme derivative. Most installations of TrueNet are expected to occur in conjunction with the installation of Screen's platesetters, according to Michele Struchil, Screen's workflow solutions marketing manager.

“There's a huge benefit when you combine CTP with the power and flexibility of a workflow system,” notes Struchil. “With so many printers using CTP, the motivation for acquiring a sophisticated, Internet-enabled RIP is both customer demand as well as competitive differentiation.”

Going beyond the management of typical prepress production tasks, TrueNet includes modules with both static and variable-data document structures built from QuarkXPress templates (useful for opportunities such as personalized business cards and office stationery). Helping printers navigate the challenges of Internet file transfer is also part of Screen's solution: The TrueNet E-portal is a secure File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server that includes verification of PDF files and can be accessed from any browser interface.

Similar to competing products, TrueNet is offered as a series of individual components. “It's all modular, and accommodates everything from the small printer to the largest commercial shop,” says Struchil.

Shira Xpressi

Founded in 1987, Shira (Newton, MA) initially developed cross-platform workflow solutions by bridging proprietary file formats and providing conversions and interfaces to various vendors, including Creo, Crosfield, ECRM, Hell, Iris, Linotype, Monotype and others.

“Our customers have told us that we have the best file conversion in the industry,” says Scott Champeau, Shira's vice president of marketing and product management. “There's a certain trust level because of the work we've done with OEMs.”

Xpressi, Shira's newest workflow product, is an automated, networked-based raster and PDF solution said to enable “prepress from anywhere.” “It allows users to leverage existing [proprietary] workflows or combine CEPs and PDF workflows,” notes Champeau. “It can be a standalone system or it can complement an existing workflow.”

Xpressi uses a standard browser interface to enable a printer/prepress operation's authorized in-house users to manage accounts, assign workgroups, submit jobs, set parameters, assign workflows, soft proof, approve work and establish destination/distribution parameters. When customers are submitting jobs into the system from outside the printer or prepress company, Xpressi lets system administrators manage accounts, assign workgroups, set parameters, assign or create workflows (through templates), and establish destination/distribution parameters.

“Our customers' clients submit, preflight, soft-proof, collaborate, and approve jobs/work,” explains Champeau. “But our customers' clients also can use Xpressi as a common working repository for their department to keep work in a managable form before submitting the final piece into the workflow. Plus, our customers can offer the system as an ASP-business model since it is Web-based and has all the necessary transaction tracking and reporting capabilities.”

PDF Alternatives

Before Adobe's PDF became firmly entrenched in prepress culture, vendors were already developing ways to manipulate interpreted data. Here are some alternative, non-PDF methods for processing graphics en route to proof, film or plate.

Esko-Graphics Fastlane

Created from the 2001 merger of Barco and Purup-Eskofot, Esko-Graphics (Kennesaw, GA) has a long history of developing solutions for graphics-arts applications. Fastlane, its workflow RIP, is a former Barco product that gained broad acceptance among both commercial printers and packaging shops. FastLane Next Generation derives its technology from Esko-Graphics’ packaging heritage--its internal GRS technology was originally created because the software would have been restrained at the time by PDF limitations. The software, however, uses an Adobe Licensed Interpreter to accept and output fully compliant PDF files, including the different of PDF/X and the new PDF 1.4 files. Esko-Graphics recently stated that FastLane will be JDF compliant, and fully PDF native, by Drupa.

As you would expect for a solution popular among packaging printers, Fastlane features powerful trapping capabilities. Electronic job tickets provide workflow automation, but are not JDF-compatible.

Fastlane also includes Esko-Graphics' own imposition tools. The system provides high-resolution previews for each plate, and allows users to view separations and measure densities. According to Andy Redman, Esko-Graphics' business-development manager for automated workflows, “In addition to our step-and-repeat functionality, just-in-time imposition is also popular because it allows individual pages to be replaced or updated moments before the output process begins. People like the power of just-in-time imposition, but they also appreciate the simple features we've added to make life easier, like the ability to print trim lines on the imposition proof.”

DALiM TWiST

Having introduced its first workflow system in 1993, Dalim Software (New Orleans) claims bragging rights for introducing the concept of workflow automation to the printing industry. Earlier versions of DALiM TWiST introduced the method of defining workflows by assembling a string of icons representing production tasks; more recently, DALiM TWiST provides complete PDF compatibility, including the recently developed PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-3. (While Dalim Software provides customers a flexible and open workflow that could include options such as PostScript, TIFF-IT, EPS, DCS, etc., many of its customers operate end-to-end PDF workflows.) Going beyond simply offering a modular system, multiple DALiM TWiST servers can be clustered together for large-scale processing power. The workflows are driven by Dalim Software’s "Power PDF Workflow" technology.

“The largest system we've implemented allows one of our customers to output more than 5,000 pages per shift,” notes Gee Ranasinha, Dalim Software's director of marketing. “At the other end of the spectrum, we have companies where three or four people with more modest requirements use the same engine.”

Clients accessing DALiM TWiST's soft-proofing module can use the browser of their choice. There's no need to download additional software or plug-ins. Dalim Software was an early proponent of Internet-based tools — DALiM TWiST provides browser-based job submission, status monitoring and reprioritization through DALiM's FiCELLE enterprise-level production management system. DALiM FiCELLE is said to streamline production efficiencies and can interface with other business systems.

Revolutionizing the industry

While workflow systems aren't new, the interoperability of open standards such as JDF, PPF and XML are set to revolutionize the printing industry in the same way that PostScript transformed the prepress department. Reducing costs and improving efficiency will grow even more important in the competitive days ahead — so the time is right to consider how the new workflow RIPs can help your company maximize profitability and improve customer service.

More machine intelligence

Don't ask Group InfoTech (Lansing, MI) about its RIP. The company does not offer one. “We let other vendors take care of that,” explains Leigh Kimmelman, Group InfoTech's director of marketing. “RIPs are fine, but they're [just] translation boxes. What we actually do is attach a database to RIPs, adding machine intelligence to the workflow.”

Kimmelman explains that the company's Print Line Automation (PLA) provides “quality assurance of loose components.” “We'll break a page down to its finest granularity, or ‘cell level,’” explains the exec. “The system does a quality-assurance check of the elements, allowing data to move forward when correct.”

Originally developed for one of the largest printers in the U.S., the software is drawing the most interest from catalogers and book printers.

When a multipage QuarkXpress document is posted to the system, PLA breaks it down to its smallest possible components. “A page might have three text boxes and two graphics,” explains Kimmelman. “The system does an immediate preflight and generates a to-do list at the job, page and element levels. The prepress operator knows exactly what needs to be done to [correct a] job.”

Because the PLA database is populated with metadata about files rather than jobs or hi-res images, it can offer dynamic asset management. Additional features include data tracking, job management and revision history.

For more information, see groupinfotech.com.

PDF peace of mind

Many vendors supply a copy of Enfocus' (San Mateo, CA) Pitstop with workflow installation. In addition to enabling users to make last-minute type corrections and color changes to PDFs, Pitstop can help both printers and designers “certify” that incoming PDFs comply with specifications such as PDF-X/1a.

Wayne Holden, owner of Bay Publishing (Monterey, CA), uses Pitstop in conjunction with his Creo (Billerica, MA) Prinergy workflow. “When Time magazine said it was going PDF exclusively, that was huge — the big bang, the start of the new direction in prepress,” recalls Holden. “That's when I knew I had to learn about PDF-X/1a. The Enfocus Certified technology has eliminated my initial fear of PDF.” For more information, see enfocus.com.

Click here for a detailed chart on vendors'

workflow offerings.