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POSTPRESS automation -- Backing into IT

February 2004
BY MARK SMITH

Technology Editor

From start to finish, the printing process traditionally has had a split nature. Digital technology initially increased that divide, but now promises to tie all of the process steps together.

On the front end, prepress has been as much about art, or at least craft, as it has been production. It's also where the digital revolution began, bringing an ever greater degree of computerization and automation.

At the back end, binding and finishing operations come closest to being what people think of as a traditional manufacturing environment. It's about precise measurements and exacting specifications, as well as repetitive actions and heavy lifting.

Postpress operations almost never get the same attention as what comes before. So it's ironic that striving to become manufacturing operations is now touted as key to the survival of industry companies. Granted, people tend to talk in terms of computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), and the bindery isn't a hotbed of electronics.

The latest product offerings do feature servo motors and electronic controls systems with touchscreens, digital preset capabilities and automatic makeready functions. That doesn't necessarily mean such capabilities are on the average shop floor, though. Even if they are, there are still a lot of manual operations that must be carried out in binding and finishing processes.

That's one of the reasons why Jim Harvey, executive director of CIP4 (Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress), says he prefers to talk in terms of "process automation" rather than CIM. "Computer-integrated manufacturing implies that you are trying to take as much labor out of the process as possible," he explains.

Process automation addresses that issue, too, Harvey admits, but it also encompasses automation of the business workflow and management of the human component. The latter is done by automating the bi-directional communication of information to and from operators. The goal is to eliminate keystrokes and improve communication, thereby eliminating errors and redundant activities while pulling all job information from a single source point, the executive director notes.

Out With the Old?

Along with figuring out how to address manual operations, incorporating legacy equipment is a big issue in bringing postpress into a CIM workflow. The long life span and cost of bindery equipment makes it impractical for shops to consider a wholesale upgrade to new systems with state-of-the-art electronic controls and digital interfaces.

Even existing systems with such capabilities are likely based on the PPF (Print Production Format) and not the JDF (Job Definition Format), which is seen as the basis for industry automation efforts going forward.

One of the main reasons for making a switch is that the JDF specification, with its Job Messaging Format (JMF), is designed for bi-directional communication. PPF was developed only to communicate job data from prepress to downstream operations for use in automating device makeready and setup. JDF adds the capability for devices to potentially report back their capabilities, status and progress toward completing a job.

The JDF specification uses a different data structure than PPF, but it includes an appendix detailing—element by element—how PPF maps to JDF, Harvey points out. PPF wasn't simply rolled into JDF "because, for all intents and purposes, it's a proprietary format, not an open specification like XML (extensible markup language), which is the foundation of JDF," he explains.

Freestanding JDF controllers are likely to become a commonly used solution for dealing with legacy equipment and manual processes in the bindery, Harvey believes. Such a controller could provide an interface to several different devices or even a whole department, he says.

"The server would act as a bridge between MIS systems and automated bindery equipment," the association exec observes. "This approach would provide a migration path that would be a little more friendly to a shop's capital budget. A lot of installed devices already have some capability to be included into an automated workflow, so it would just be a matter of slaving them (using their proprietary language) to a JDF-enabled controller."

Manual operations can be handled in a similar fashion, Harvey asserts. In the JDF specification, manual labor is one of the resources that can be used by a process, he points out.

"If a job hits a non-automated point in an automated workflow, the job data can be brought up to a PC monitor, control pad or other display device," Harvey explains. "The operator does the work as directed, then comes back to report its completion before calling up the next job."

Another issue that must dealt with throughout the plant, and not just in postpress, is the need to create "handshakes" between the implementations of JDF in specific workflow components (hardware and software). The process of learning what a device is capable of is called "creating a handshake," Harvey says.

Version 1.2 of the specification (due to be published in April) includes a greatly expanded section on "Device Capabilities" to allow for the automatic creation of handshakes between devices, he reveals. However, it will be some time before a large number of devices supporting v1.2 capabilities are available and installed.

Lining Up Teams

That's where the efforts of Networked Graphic Production (NGP) Partners, PrintCity and other groups come into play, Harvey says. They are developing handshakes between specific combinations of software and hardware products to realize the potential of JDF sooner.

Assuming these potential impediments to JDF's implementation in postpress can be overcome, that still leaves open the question of whether an automated workflow realistically can span a printer and outside trade binder, or will it only be practical for operations under one roof? Harvey says cross-enterprise connections technically are possible, but at a minimum would require a very close working relationship between the parties.

In terms of real-world application, CIM in printing remains at the pioneering stage. One company that is pushing the envelope, including extending it throughout the process, is Action Printing in Fond du Lac, WI.

Peter Doyle, operations manager, says he believes it can be a mistake to get hung up with names and file designations. "What we are trying to do is enter job data once and then reuse it," Doyle explains. "I don't care what file type it is, as long as it's a format that more than one piece of equipment can read."

The printer was credited with being the first shop to use PPF files to drive a Muller Martini Prima saddle stitcher equipped with an Automated MakeReady System (AMRYS). "When you can have somebody sitting at a desk in the customer service area creating a file that actually makereadies a machine without turning a wrench, that's amazing to me," Doyle says.

Action Printing has also been using PPF data to set up jobs on its Polar flatbed cutter. The shop had the machine for two years before implementing the digital link, the operations manager reports. "We had to purchase a PC and CompuCut software to tie it in," he notes.

Through a separate initiative, the shop has already addressed the two-way flow of information. According to Doyle, direct machine interface (DMI) systems—including Auto-Count and Shop Floor Data Collection (SFDC) units from what is now Printcafe Logic—have been tied into Action's Covalent MIS server.

A DMI on the stitcher, for example, provides production data that is used for scheduling, job costing and production reporting of makeready times, waste and run speeds. The unit captures a pulse from the stitcher so it can track how many pieces are produced, he reports.

"DMI devices have been around for years, but they haven't caught on widely in the printing industry," Doyle says. He would like to see the devices enhanced so they can operate as "smart boxes" to eliminate the need to rekey data.

"The reason we got into it (CIM) is because we want to be able to save money, process jobs faster, increase throughput and improve efficiency. We've done that, and we're also able to set up equipment more accurately and consistently," Doyle adds.

Action Printing has found that the ideal place to capture job data is at the job layout/printing imposition stage, its operations manager reports. It uses Upfront software from Scenic Software (now part of Creo Inc.).

"Some people are talking about using data from the work order or job ticket. I don't see that as being a good source for JDF data," Doyle states.

Currently there is a lot of hype associated with JDF, and the concept is being driven more by the manufacturers and standards committee than it is by printers, Doyle maintains. "Some people make it too complicated," he says. "The majority of printers I hear from have no concept of how a job data file is going to be created or used.

"It (CIM) is a lot easier than people think," Doyle continues. "We're a $17.5 million printing company with 103 employees and we've been able to make it work." The shop primarily produces books, publications and manuals.

Doyle likens the adoption process to the experience of addressing the Y2K bug. "Companies should consider putting a committee together," he advises. "They should start by asking some basic questions: Where can we capture this data? What is the benefit going to be to our company? Can we justify the expense?"

Action Printing included bindery and finishing personnel in the problem-solving meetings and training it conducted in implementing PPF. "The level of teamwork and communication really has to increase, especially during the initial roll out," Doyle stresses.

He sees JDF support becoming for the printing industry what UL approval is for consumer products. "Buyers will look for it even if they don't plan to immediately use the capability," Doyle concludes.

To round out the discussion, a couple of leading vendors of postpress equipment provided their perspectives on some of the issues. Both are CIP4 member companies.

Older generation equipment does present a challenges, agrees Werner Naegeli, president and CEO of Muller Martini Corp. "JDF integration is really only feasible with current or new equipment," he says. "Retrofitting the required servos and automated makeready capabilities to take data directly through JDF on older machinery is not feasible."

Taking a Leap of Faith

Since the CIP3/PPF workflow hasn't been widely established in the binding/finishing arena, Naegeli sees an opportunity for shops to "leapfrog" directly to JDF technology. "PPF is a dead-end in regard to further development, but existing installations can be upgraded in most cases to JDF," he says.

In addition to being active in CIP4, Muller Martini is an NGP Partners company. Naegeli characterizes that effort as enabling plug-and-play integration of equipment, as long as it is NGP certified. "The goal is to have the certification done for the current members by Drupa 2004," he reports.

According to recent surveys, most printers see investing in automated finishing systems as the next step in realizing a more efficient production workflow, points out Jim Mauro, product manager for Prinect press products at Heidelberg. "JDF-enabled systems will more closely integrate postpress with prepress for higher efficiency, but will also enable owners to acquire actual machine production information via JMF," Mauro says.

"Given shrinking margins and lower run lengths, it is critical for printers to keep a close watch on their operational and material costs. The ability to analyze shop floor production data will assist them in seeing which jobs are efficiently produced with the equipment that they are using," the product manager contends.

As for incorporating legacy equipment into JDF workflows, Mauro endorses the concept of having operators manually enter data through what he calls Human Interface Terminals. "This approach is a proven method that has been used in printing and other industries for many years," he asserts.

Will the implementation of JDF/CIM become the next revolution in printing? The concept has met with its share of skepticism. The plan is pretty much in place, though, and many of the pieces should be too after Drupa. The answer then will be found in how industry companies choose to vote with their investment dollars.
 

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