The Lost Interface
It’s September 2019. The print services operator at a large in-plant loads the print file into the high-speed web inkjet press. Within the file are the setup instructions for the in-line web cutter and high-speed bookletmaker. In a few minutes, when the file’s instructions have been communicated to these components, she puts the press online, and finished and trimmed booklets begin to load onto the delivery conveyor. Any defective booklets will automatically send a reprint request to the printer, and the job will be completed with little or no manual intervention. But wait ... is this real? Unfortunately not, and therein lies a tale.
I’ve been in the industry long enough to have witnessed a small parade of attempts to develop universal print-and-finishing interfaces. In the '90s, there was an effort to develop a common interface among inkjet printers being used on offset finishing lines. In 1999, a much more ambitious effort by the CIP4 consortium led to JDF (Job Definition Format), an XML-based, automated job ticketing schema for the sheetfed and web offset, digital, newspaper, packaging and label industries. JDF-enabled devices could communicate with each other via JML (Job Messaging Format), and JDF was designed to fully automate the process of print production — from the prepress file, right through the bindery and the finished product.
But full industry implementation depended on a “buy-in” and considerable development expense by the workflow platform, press and bindery vendors. While a few large finishing machinery vendors brought out systems with their own interpretations, many smaller bindery suppliers simply did not have the resources to do so. In addition, there were lots of existing finishing systems in operation that could not be retrofitted easily. A friend of mine who managed a large print firm once told me that it took a small contingent of internal programmers to make all of his machinery play well with each other via JDF.
The latest attempt came in the form of UP3I. This was a joint effort by the digital printing manufacturers and the post-processing systems vendors to develop a bi-directional print and postpress communications interface, which would have made my September 2019 scenario a reality. Alas, this effort also foundered on the rocks of complex system interaction requirements.
So, where are we now? Well, there are some work cell systems produced by some manufacturers that actually use a JDF workflow. But, in most digital postpress machinery, the barcode is the most common conveyor of instructions to the system. It’s a printed instruction set that a.) works well, and b.) we can all agree on. Maybe some day ...