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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.
 

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