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SYSTEM INTEGRATION -- Process Ins and Outs

August 2001

The basic concept has been given many names. Digital Smart Factory. CIM—computer integrated manufacturing. CIP4—International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress. Or, you can simply call it "process automation."

Welcome to system integration in the digital age. The terminology alone is confusing enough.

System integration used to be a fairly straightforward problem in the graphic arts arena, even if productive solutions were sometimes hard to come by. The challenge was to get different pieces of electronic prepress equipment to communicate and work together efficiently in a unified workflow. While the digital revolution was redefining the front end of the printing process, it overshadowed the more quiet advances computerized controls were making into the pressroom and bindery.

The introduction of digital printing and computer-to-plate systems helped bring the all-digital workflow concept to the forefront. Suddenly, the revolution no longer stopped at the door to the pressroom. The entire printing process became a system to be integrated. This shift has major implications for printers and their hardware/software suppliers alike.

Japs-Olson Co. in St. Louis Park, MN, has committed to integrating its prepress, pressroom and bindery operations by implementing CIP4 technology. The sheetfed and web printer took its first steps down this path several years ago when it set out to utilize the ink key presetting capabilities of its sheetfed presses, according to Chris Illa, prepress manager. To accomplish its goal, Japs-Olson had to take the initiative and nurture a relationship between the manufacturers of its prepress system and presses, he says.

The work paid off. Today, the direct mail and commercial printer has systems in place that enable it to use data captured in prepress to preset the ink keys on all of its sheetfed and web presses. Along the way, the company did hit another snag when it switched to a new front-end system. "Both manufacturers were very good about working to resolve the problem, but it took some going back and forth. Ultimately, the fix required patches to the software on both ends," the prepress manager says. "Fortunately, we are a large enough company that we could devote the resources to get it done." (In 2000, Japs-Olson's sales exceeded $120 million and it employed almost 700 people.)

Linking With the Bindery
Unfortunately, the same types of problems are now cropping up as the company works to extend this link to the bindery, according to Illa. "Currently, if we want to take full advantage of the automation features in our bindery equipment, we are faced with having to switch imposition systems. We would have to change our whole workflow, learn a different software application and add six new PC-based workstations," he says. "We are trying to push our existing vendors to step up to the plate, but at some point you can't wait any more."

Japs-Olson's system integration efforts have had repercussions beyond the hardware/software level of the organization, Illa reports. "Our departments definitely are working closer together. In fact, we created a position—color systems manager—just to be a liaison between prepress and the pressroom. We also had to teach our prepress people about the pressroom," he explains. "Now, we're having to do the same things with prepress and the bindery."

The management of Crowson Stone Printing in Columbia, SC, has set system integration goals every bit as ambitious as Japs-Olson's, but it has taken a different tack because of its size. "We are trying to make our process an automated manufacturing workflow," says John deLoach III, company president. "With a company our size (55 employees), we can implement technologies faster and more successfully by working with a single vendor."

CIP4 is the foundation of Crowson Stone's automation efforts, as well. It routinely takes advantage of the ink key presetting capabilities in its equipment but, like Japs-Olson, has found bindery operations a little tougher to integrate.

"Actually, our first exposure to a CIP4-enabled product was with our cutter," points out David Schmidt, prepress systems manager. The shop didn't initially implement the interface in part because its bindery operators were already faced with learning how to use the new computer controls on the cutter.

"When the ink zone presetting came along, we immediately saw how it could cut makeready times. Our press operators were quickly sold on it. In fact, that success has motivated us to go back and look at linking to the cutter," Schmidt says. "Integration is not just about getting the equipment to work together. Operators can put up barriers, too."

While practicality is a factor, deLoach believes establishing close ties to an integrated vendor can be a sound financial decision. He and his team have considered the argument that such an arrangement can lead to paying a premium for products and possibly not getting the best-of-breed solution.

"In some cases there may be an equal product out there at a cheaper price, or maybe even a superior technology, but I take a broader perspective," the company president explains. "You can waste a lot of time and resources trying to put pieces together, and we just don't have the people to spare. Also, developments are moving too quickly to waste any time. The life of a technology now is down around 24 months, so you can't afford to spend a lot of time getting it up and running properly."

Mahaffey's Quality Printing in Jackson, MS, is not all that different from Crowson Stone in size (40 employees) or in its aggressive approach to adopting new technology. The companies are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, though, on the issue of using a single-source vendor.

"We are very resistant to being locked into a single manufacturer to supply all of our hardware or software," says Jeffery Wall, production manager. "We probably have to take on a little more responsibility to do our own integration, but it's not an unbearable load." Wall freely admits the attitude of management makes Mahaffey's a bit of an industry maverick. "The owner is a real risk taker," he says.

One of the printer's recent gambles was betting on Linux as the operating system for its server and networking infrastructure. Wall calls his initial experience with Linux a fortuitous accident rather than a planned strategy. It simply was a low-cost solution for implementing an FTP server, he explains.

"We got off to a rather inauspicious start, but I was immediately impressed with what could be done with this open source networking solution. It is very reliable," Wall says. "The amount of development that has since taken place with the operating system's capabilities, interface and third-party applications has been breathtaking. I don't understand why the graphic arts industry hasn't embraced it."

Wall estimates it took less than $10,000 to put together a system that would have cost $50,000 or more to equal on a UNIX platform. A key factor in keeping its costs down was the company's involvement in setting up a local Linux users group.

"There's great camaraderie in the group, so we've been able to use that pool of talent for all manners of free problem solving," Wall says. The company maximizes its internal resources by cross-training staff members, he adds, while maintaining a close relationship with a small local firm to fill any gaps in IT resources.

From his perspective, Wall sees the dramatic increase in files originating on PCs in the last year or two as one of the biggest system integration challenges. "PCs on our network had been second-class citizens until last year. We finally relented and decided we had to put these systems on equal footing with Macs," he reveals.

Consultant K. Richard Littrell, president of Littrell & Associates in Groveland, MA, has experienced system integration from both sides of the relationship during his more than 22-year career. Most recently, he was involved in product development and marketing at manufacturers such as Polaroid and Agfa. Prior to that, Littrell worked in prepress production at several industry companies. As a consultant, he is focusing on the implementation of systems that automate and manage the workflow of information from content generator to end consumer.

Littrell says the standards and data formats themselves can contribute to the difficulties in implementing them. A product doesn't have to implement all components of the standard to be deemed in compliance. This can lead to problems if a system component passes along too little or too much information to a subsequent step. "There's no provision for just ignoring an anomaly and letting the job go through. If the software expects to see data in every header record and doesn't get what it wants, then the file is stopped completely," he explains.

Nevertheless, Littrell believes manufacturers must be given the option to tweak their implementations of standards in order to optimize the capabilities of their systems. This is what enables companies to differentiate their products in the market, he points out. "There's no reason the resulting file shouldn't still be able to drive compliant equipment from other manufacturers without a problem, though."

Learn to Play Nice
All of the manufacturers have to "play nice together" in order for the concept to work, Littrell admits. He believes that is why manufacturers took a step back from talking about CIM after it made a splash in the industry a few years ago. "It's a great concept, but it's bigger than all of them. Having to play nice with 20 or more manufacturers is daunting," he says.

Littrell thinks turning to a single-source supplier can be a valid way to deal with system integration issues, especially for a smaller company. "If you know the systems are going to work well together it's one less thing to worry about," he asserts. "Shop owners say, 'I want to produce print, not fight technology issues all the time. That might be fun for my technologist, but we can't make money doing it.' A lot of printers don't even have a full-time technologist."

There is an obvious consequence to all these efforts at system integration that in some ways would be the biggest development of all—yet it doesn't get talked about much. Whether a manufacturer needs to play in all three arenas—prepress, press and bindery—may be open to debate, but realistically the printer has to own all three processes in order to reap the full benefit of end-to-end system integration. In theory, open standards should make it possible for independent operations to cooperatively implement an integrated workflow, but in practice that would greatly increase the magnitude of the challenge.

The printing industry already had been trending toward a one-stop-shop business model. CIM and CIP4 are more than just the new technical names for that progression; they also are giving impetus to the change.

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