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Let's Move Forward Quickly --McIlroy

December 2003
In May 1998, William Davis, then new chairman and CEO of RR Donnelley—one of the largest printing companies in the world—said, "In this game, manufacturing discipline will win. The craftsman who has to leave his thumbprint on every page will lose." He continued: "We are a decade behind in manufacturing best practices."

His comments reflect the modern challenge of the graphic arts. Traditionally the manufacture of print has been craft-oriented, from design through to print. Designers made their reputations by creating unusual print pieces, with beautiful typography, tough-to-match colors, and unusual trim and bind requirements. Printers made their reputations by dealing under deadline with these extraordinary print demands of designers and their clients.

Standards Issues

Computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) is the term used to describe the complete automation of a manufacturing plant, with all processes functioning under computer control and with digital information tying them together. Different industry groups are approaching the automation challenge from different perspectives. Most of the work is going into standards development.

One group, the Digital Smart Factory Forum (www.smartfactory.org), is trying to build a conceptual framework around applying the principles of CIM to the graphic arts. As they point out in a recent conference brochure, "Over $9 billion of systemic cost found in the North American graphic communications industry…can be freed up by computer-integrated manufacturing, networked production and supply chain management techniques. Changes brought on by desktop publishing and CTP pale in comparison."

But most of the energy that is moving the industry forward is coming from the standards groups, most prominently those involved in developing JDF (the Job Definition Format) and some potentially competing standards.

PrintAction is a Canadian equivalent of Printing Impressions, a monthly journal focused on the printing industry and the key issues that surround it. The November cover story is about JDF and the modest controversy that has arisen over the Creo-sponsored Networked Graphic Production (NGP) initiative, seen by some as a threat or competitor to the slow-rising JDF development effort. The competition in standards has lead to a bit of a ruckus among our vendor community. I'd hate to think it's going to distract us from the essential CIM goal.

As many readers know by now, JDF is an open and extensible, XML-based print workflow specification. The JDF spec uses the job ticket concept and links together authoring, production and management upstream with manufacturing and delivery downstream.

Originally developed by Adobe Systems, Agfa, Heidelberg and MAN Roland, JDF is now managed by CIP4, a non-profit standards body based in Germany. CIP4 has more than 160 members from around the world.

The antecedents of JDF are, first of all, CIP3 (acronym for International Cooperation for Integration of Prepress, Press and Postpress), which in the late '90s developed PPF (Print Production Format), a file format used for ink key presetting, folding and trimming. At the same time Adobe was building into PDF a format subset called PJTF, the Portable Job Ticket Format, designed to control PDF output.

JDF has several key features:

* The ability to carry a print job from genesis through completion. This includes a detailed description of the creative, prepress, press, postpress and delivery processes.

* The ability to bridge the communication gap between production and management information services (MIS). This ability enables instantaneous job and device tracking, as well as detailed pre- and post-calculation of jobs.

* The ability to bridge the gap between the designer's and publisher's view of the product and the downstream manufacturing process.

Adding Partners

Creo launched the NGP initiative in 2000 as a way of bringing JDF into the workings of Printcafe, a software and systems company in which it was once the largest investor (Printcafe is now owned by EFI.) Creo has now gone industry-public with NGP, and has recruited another 30 vendors into the fold, including heavyweights like Adobe, Komori and Xerox. The majority of these partners are also CIP4 members, though certainly not all.

The apparent aim of NGP is to focus on a defined subset of JDF that can be implemented by member companies (or at least made demoable) by DRUPA 2004, to be held next May. DRUPA has embraced JDF as the major theme for its next show, and NGP may make practical what could have been unwieldy or impossible.

The controversy stems in part from the scope of the JDF spec—more than 500 pages. At that length, no one can quickly implement the whole spec. I previously criticized the complexity of the spec (see "In Search of PrintTalk and JDF," Printing Impressions, June 2001).

But I'm pulling back from that now. The spec is not written for the general public; it's written for developers. And no one is really intended to implement the whole spec—it covers too many processes for any single vendor (with the possible exception of Heidelberg). However it's the nature of JDF's design that vendors should create software systems that can process any JDF-formatted data, and extract only what's relevant to their own devices, rather than focusing solely on a subset of JDF. But it's also clear that developing such a software capacity will extend well beyond May of next year, so perhaps NGP is a practical alternative.

The main issue, as critics point out, is that after so much work has gone into JDF, it would be a painful setback for NGP to create some kind of proprietary restrictions on that openness.

It reminds me mostly of the long road to color management. Setting standards was hugely difficult because, as with JDF, each vendor had a proprietary interest to promote, whether it was commercially motivated or simply a technical requirement. The result was that the standard was years in development and constantly in flux. As I pointed out in my earlier column on JDF, two respected industry analysts looking at color management concluded that "despite a decade of hype about how universal adoption will be as rapid as it is inevitable, the concept loosely known as color management isn't even close to becoming mainstream."

We can't afford this fate with JDF. Print is threatened, and JDF promises to make it more predictable and affordable—hence competitive with new media. I'm willing to support the NGP initiative, provided its leaders pledge to further the broadest industry cause, in the shortest possible time.

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing consultant and analyst, based at Arcadia House in San Francisco. He welcomes your comments at thad@arcadiahouse.com.
 

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