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DATA INTEGRATION -- Tooling Up for CIM

June 2003
BY MARK SMITH


Computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) may still be a new concept in print production, but it's a long established practice in other business sectors. The term itself actually is starting to get a little dated.

The notion of a computer, per se, being at the heart of it all seems limiting. What's really being integrated is the information generated and acted upon by various systems involved in the print production process. Embedded controllers, touchscreen displays and Web browsers are as likely to produce and consume job data as is a traditional computer.

The beginning point—as well as middle and end points—for all this information integration is the print management system, also generically referred to as a management information system (MIS). Therefore, a more apt label for the process might be information systems integration (ISI). The last thing the industry needs is another acronym, however.

The alphabet soup already includes JDF/JMF (Job Definition Format/Job Messaging Format), an XML-based digital job ticket specification on its way to becoming a standard. It is being developed under the direction of CIP4 (the International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress). JDF, among other things, is seen as enabling a direct interface between print management systems and production systems—hardware and software. (For more background on JDF, see "It's Just the Ticket" in the April 2003 edition of Printing Impressions or visit www.cip4.org.)

The industry seems to have reached consensus on the vision of integrated print processes, but it's clear that much work remains to be done to achieve that end.

As a national consultancy specializing in helping printers improve their business processes and embrace information technology, Sarasota, FL-based Profectus Inc. tracks and works with vendors of print management solutions. Craig Press, president, says his company's research has identified more than 100 vendors offering management systems for some aspect of the printing process. Only a small fraction of them have indicated they are actually starting to develop CIM capabilities, Press reports.

Lack of Vision

"A lot of print management system vendors still don't have that vision of tying print management systems into production," he says. "This is a big change from what they've done in the past. They need to look beyond the front office to process workflow, and not just management."

Press says he is finding that a lot of printers are buying into the CIM vision. "They've been hearing about it from the production system vendors and already seen an increase in the level of automation in their plants. Printers are now ready for the next step—tying in pre-production," he explains.

For a number of reason, Press believes the industry is still at least five years away from realizing CIM on a broad scale. A key sticking point is the amount of old iron in use that doesn't have any digital control capabilities. "There are some add-on systems you can attach to legacy machines, but you really need equipment that is JDF/CIP4 capable to fully realize the vision," he says.

There are steps printers should be taking today, though, the consultant advises. "If more of production is going to be automated, jobs have to be set up right in pre-production. They need to be properly planned in the print management system before any files hit production. A lot of shops still just have order entry-type people entering the job parameters into a computer, and that becomes the plan," Press notes.

"You need someone with expertise upfront deciding how a job is gong to be produced," he continues. "This person is going to have to understand the capabilities of all the equipment and the implications of how the workflow is set up, as well as have a handle on schedules."

Press believes CIM support will be a competitive advantage for the pioneering management system vendors. "Printers typically go through a major management system upgrade every five to 10 years, so they may be willing to switch systems at that point to get CIM capabilities," he says.

Initial development work done via partnerships between some equipment suppliers and larger MIS vendors shows that CIM is becoming a "do-able" manufacturing approach, contends Philip K. Ruggles, noted author and a professor in the Graphic Communication Department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. Adopters still face several issues, though, he adds.

"Any printer wishing to move to a CIM environment must make the necessary technology investments in both manufacturing equipment and MIS, or the integration will not be seamless. This level of investment is somewhat risky in light of the unpredictable future of print markets relative to sales growth (or lack of growth) and company profitability," Ruggles says.

"In addition, CIM will require a printer to have a work force that is computer-literate down to the shop floor level," he continues. "This necessitates a commitment to training and a level of employee empowerment that has been difficult for some printers to achieve.

"With a seamless CIM/MIS workflow in place, the printing company will experience a significant reduction in cycle time to produce jobs, which translates into an increase in plant capacity. How big of an increase is hard to say, but an estimate of between 25 and 50 percent seems reasonable. Printers sometimes resort to price cutting in order to fill excess capacity, which is not what our industry needs," the management expert notes.

Ruggles asserts that a printing company operating without an integrated management system will be unable to function effectively over the long term.

Not Yet Plug-and-Play

An industry manufacturer doesn't have to be a member of the CIP4 organization in order to implement JDF and CIM, but it does show a degree of leadership in this area. The list of management system vendors on the membership roll at the time this article was written included DiMS! Organizing Print, Printcafe Software and Radius Solutions. Heidelberg also technically fits the list since it offers the Prinance system.

According to Tim Daisy, Printcafe's CIM product manager, while plug-and-play connectivity is the end point that the JDF effort is striving to attain, the current limitations require that print management system developers work with specific production system vendors to enable seamless integration. "Even though it's an open standard and moving toward plug-and-play implementation, there still is specific development work that needs to happen between vendors," he says.

A series of four private interoperability testing sessions leading up to a public session schedule for Drupa 2004 will benchmark the progress toward plug-and-play, Daisy points out. "We'll hopefully get to a point at Drupa and beyond where, if a management system can produce a JDF job ticket, then any other system able to consume (read) that job ticket should be able to act on the information. We are definitely still a ways away from that level of interoperability," he adds.

One of the things JDF currently is lacking is some specific functionality around prepress messaging, Daisy points out. Vendors have to implement extensions to get around those issues. One example is the integration work Printcafe has done with Creo Inc., he says.

"In the real world, operators can be working on a file in prepress before the job even exists in the management system. In JDF, the concept of beginning work before the job exists, as such, is foreign. We've had to create extensions that allow Prinergy to start working on a job as it's sending the information to the management system so, when the job is opened in the management system, all the data associations are automatically made," Daisy explains.

The currently slated testing will not provide a certification of interoperability, but CIP4 has been exploring the possibility of designating a third party to fill that role, the product manager says.

Regarding Printcafe's specific efforts toward interoperability, Daisy says the company is developing a separate line of "Connector" add-on modules that will work with all of its management systems. "Prepress Connector is a beta product, while Press Connector is still a proof-of-concept type of development—not yet in alpha or beta testing," he reports. "Postpress Connector would be a next logical step, but we are not yet announcing anything on that front."

The product manager describes each Connector as essentially a small piece of software that sits outside of Printcafe management systems. It handles JDF communications with all external devices and provides a security layer, taking that burden of the management system, he says.

Info as Needed

As the need arises to work with more vendors to implement specific types of information, it will simply be incorporated into the existing digital job ticket, Daisy points out. "Those that can use the information will; those that can't will ignore it. There will be a common Connector product and job ticket (in each area)," he notes.

DiMS! is taking a different approach, since it offers a single management solution built on an open architecture and based on common objects, activities, processes and workflow, reports Chris Wood, vice president of sales and marketing. "The DiMS! interfaces, both output and input, are already XML-based," he explains.

"Our XML label-naming is JDF compliant or specific if necessary," Wood continues. "Since the XML data structure and label-naming are part of the DiMS! business template, updates can be software release independent. If a new type of interface has to be implemented—to an ink-key setting system, for example—we only have to add a new XML template to the existing business template.

"Since DiMS! is an integrated system using one central, relational database, it does not need to use JDF as an information carrier for its subsystems," the company exec adds.

Radius Solutions has laid the groundwork for integration by using existing technology to provide interfaces to prepress, press and bindery/finishing hardware on a case-by-case basis, say Katie Sigmon, sales and marketing coordinator. "As a member of the CIP4 alliance, Radius is committed to working with the standards that evolve from JDF," she adds. "We are already able to export job information from PECAS in an XML format, and we'll continue to extend this capability based upon customer demand."

Radius will offer upgrades in order to integrate with equipment from additional vendors, Sigmon continues. "A way to simplify the integration between our software and the PLC unit on a press is to use a third-party device called Lantronix. It makes the PLC available to the Internet and internal networks."

Heidelberg has the unique advantage of already being a vertically integrated manufacturer, offering prepress, press and postpress solutions. The company is committed to the CIP4/JDF standard and, by Drupa 2004, intends for all its Prinect products to be based on JDF, according to James Mauro, product manager, Prinect Press Products.

"This means all of our Prinect products (prepress, press, postpress) will be engineered to implement the JDF architecture as a standard feature," Mauro says.

While JDF development continues, a separate but related integration effort is being pursued by PrintTalk (www.printtalk.org). PrintTalk is both the name of the organization and its solution for interoperability between printing management and e-commerce systems. The list of management system vendors currently on its member roll includes Graphic Arts IT, Heidelberg USA, Pace Systems Group, Parsec Corp., Printers Software, Prism-USA, Profit Control Systems, Streamline Solutions and TripleArc Ltd.

According to PrintTalk Chairman Jim Mekis, the two groups are in no way competitive and their development efforts are well aligned. His organization recently published a new XML "schema" designed to enable developers to test communications using standard XML tools. It is intended to complement the previously released PrintTalk specification and will simplify its adoption throughout the industry.

Mekis defines a schema as a rule set for how the XML language must be configured and a mechanism by which it can be validated. While the two organizations have their own XML schemas that can be updated independently, they have agreed on a structure by which the two can tie together seamlessly, he says.

Cooperative Effort

"Our group actually wrote a good portion of what is now the 'intent' part of JDF," Mekis explains. "PrintTalk offers a set of business processes that have not yet been incorporated into JDF. We address things like change order management, ability to handle payments, a definition of what a digital purchase order should look like, status notice functionality, etc.," he says.

"JDF is about describing the printed piece and the workflow component that happens within the plant. PrintTalk extends beyond those walls and addresses the way two companies work together. It's a tool for managing the business process of printing," Mekis asserts.

Printing companies may not yet be able to assemble a complete CIM toolkit, but there's no reason not to start putting the available pieces in place. After all, information is power.
 

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