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JDF Workflows — Legacy Meets Automation

April 2008 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
MICHAEL MURPHY likes to keep his ear close to the ground. The president of Japs-Olson Co. in St. Louis Park, MN, is a frequent conference attendee who tries to stay constantly attuned to what technological movements are afoot in the commercial printing industry. JDF, or Job Definition Format, is of particular interest.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who is not a strong advocate of JDF in principle, if not practice. The practice area is where it starts to come apart, especially if the topic at hand is full, true JDF workflow. These are almost as uncommon as Elvis sightings and, to some, equally difficult to believe.

“I always find it interesting when you go to conferences and see people showcasing these elaborate workflows. Then you realize that what they did was buy a new press and a new cutter,” Murphy says. “So it makes sense that (JDF) would work. But it becomes more of a challenge when you talk about trying to bridge cutters and folders that are 10 to 15 years old with one new cutter. We found, in our situation, that it happens a lot.”

Like Japs-Olson, many U.S. printers find themselves equipped with a mixed bag (agewise) of prepress, press and finishing gear. The problem with that, as Murphy points out, is the hardware’s varying stages of compatibility with the latest preset standards. Thus, the workflow from a JDF standpoint is not as seamless as advertised.

Bridges to legacy equipment are the key that make JDF life more fruitful. For example, Murphy points to the Microcut from C&P Microsystems as enabling his company to get maximum performance out of his older cutters. The Microcut is designed to automate backgauge movement on any paper cutter, regardless of brand or size. Productivity, greater accuracy and improved reliability are among the touted benefits.

“We have nine cutters and only two of them are preset-able,” Murphy notes. “The Microcut has really helped us update some of the older machines.”

On the folding end, Murphy finds a challenge in sending out presets to mixed manufacturer gear. Japs-Olson operates MBO and Heidelberg (Stahl) folders, and it was necessary to script the prepress system to be able to write out preset files for both because a determination of which folder to use typically hasn’t been decided at this stage of production. Then files can be put on the network to be downloaded by the cutter or folder operator.

“That’s helped give us some flexibility to use some of the presets, which are vendor-specific. But it required us to have a fair amount of technical expertise on the prepress side,” he says. “The workflows are fairly complicated and we have a lot of scripting that’s necessary.”

Imperfect Match

With a large number of machines on the floor at The MATLET Group in Pawtucket, RI, and a wide range of vendors supporting them, introducing automation to older machines is problematic, according to Zeynel Zerek, vice president of information systems and prepress operations. And justification is a stumbling block that can invariably leave gaps in the automation chain.

Binding and finishing is generally the one area that struggles to make the ROI grade. “When you try to embed JDF functionality into them, you always say to yourself, ‘The amount of financial capital I’m putting into this project isn’t going to justify me to implement the JDF system,’ ” Zerek contends. “Machines like presses, even older ones, have bridging software available that enables a JDF workflow. But cutters and stitchers will probably run for 20 more years. It’s hard to put the money and technology into them.”

Zerek doesn’t want to give the wrong impression. He calls the JDF 1.2 implementation “a milestone” and believes it will be a workflow staple going forward. But until legacy equipment is completely turned over, printers will need to weigh the pros and cons as they apply to their particular workflow.

MATLET, for example, conducts time studies to see how much time/money can be saved with JDF-compatible binding and finishing gear. It’s not a matter of reducing headcount; speed and job turnover makes JDF more attractive, according to Zerek.

“The economy is putting so much pressure on companies to reduce head counts and run faster,” he says. “One of the ways we can do it is by pushing information in the XML format into the machinery. There’s a huge push on manufacturers as well, like Heidelberg and MAN Roland, which came out with bridging software for their presses. I believe others will follow.”

Not everyone is a big fan of JDF in its current state. Roy Grossman, president and CEO of Sandy Alexander in Clifton, NJ, feels JDF has failed to live up to its promise. He feels it lacks the open architecture and true information sharing that JDF has long assured, but not delivered. He’s troubled by the lack of progress the past two years.

Grossman does believe in most everything that JDF stands for, but sees the incompatibility with legacy equipment as minor compared to its fundamental flaws.

“There are (bridging) solutions for older equipment that allow you to reap some of the benefits of JDF, but you certainly can’t have a complete JDF workflow as far as we’re concerned,” Grossman points out.

“We’ve had some partial success with JDF and some of our legacy equipment. But it doesn’t work very well and it’s very restrictive. Maybe you can do it in any given plant if you design the facility for JDF compatibility. But, for most of us in the commercial printing world, given the constraints we have and the legacy equipment, it’s a long way from reality.

“We’ve had experiences where, for example, we bought a new cutter and were excited about all the JDF possibilities. When it came down to it, for every problem it solved, it created a new one. It’s a much better concept than it is a reality at this point.”

Highly Variable Work

The fact many printers operate in a true custom manufacturing environment poses a particular challenge for JDF, Grossman remarks, due to the wide diversity of jobs. Workflows where jobs have all standardized specifications increase the success rate of optimizing JDF sooner, he adds. The customized production in shops like Sandy Alexander’s calls for increased synchronization and commonality among different types of equipment.

Murphy feels the problem of legacy equipment won’t go away anytime soon, especially in the bindery. “Manufacturers want to sell new systems and I recognize that. On the flipside, I don’t think people in the industry are going to take a perfectly functioning cutter that was bought at Drupa 98 and throw it out because they want presets,” he says. “We’re buying more stitching gear for capacity; now, we’ll have three generations of stitchers. All three of those platforms have different levels of integration and automation, and it’s left up to us on how we can automate that and get all three on one platform. Companies have to be selective when they do buy new equipment, to make sure they can take advantage of the new presets and automation.

“Every upgrade path here is more evolutionary than revolutionary,” Murphy adds. “That clearly makes it difficult because there are nice features and nice enhancements, but it’s not compelling enough to make wholesale changeouts in any aspect of the industry.” PI

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