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Making technology dance, Part 2: Next generation workflow today

Dec 1, 2002 12:00 AM


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Sponsored by Agfa Graphic Systems

What if on your way home tonight you could approve a whole slew of tasks that would give you more time to relax and spend with your family? Tasks like getting dinner started or programming the movie you want to watch later that night. Or how about being alerted to certain grocery items you're running low on and being able to approve and order them? Better yet, how about having custom profiles for each member of the family so that things like volume, lighting and even temperature are preset for each person's preference? And when guests are over, you have the ability to interrupt and select new settings at a moment's notice.

Sounds like a futuristic movie, doesn't it? It's not as far off as you might think. All you would need is the right software and programming to automate tasks; the right appliances and hardware built to work together — regardless of the make or manufacturer; and of course, it would have to be easy enough for anyone in the house to use.

This technology may not be available for your home for a while yet (unless you're Bill Gates). Maybe the next generation will live this way. Yet, this next generation technology already exists — today — in the graphic arts industry. Simple, automated, and integrated systems for your business are not only available — they're critical to remaining profitable.

You can't escape the changes needed to compete in today's marketplace. The search for profitability is what's driving us all, and a simple, automated and integrated digital solution is the only way to survive.

The Case for Automation

Competition for today's printer is fierce. Press runs are getting shorter and printers need to process more jobs — in less time — just to keep the presses rolling. Printers need to meet tight turnaround deadlines, stay competitive on price and still deliver great quality. To win at this battle, printers are investing heavily in automation. But automation is not just for the pressroom alone. Automated systems are being used to streamline the entire business — to create a Graphic Enterprise — from print buyer through to final delivery of a job.

According to an August 2001 study, sponsored by Heidelberg and published by PrintWeek (UK), the operational cost of order management, prepress, finishing and correction will increase through 2005. Additionally, prepress and order processing costs will outstrip all other costs to account for 28 percent of the cost of a job. Just consider the possibilities if you can optimize these processes and reduce these costs through automation!

Over the years, various formats have entered the graphic arts industry helping to automate individual processes. For example, PJTF (the Portable Job Ticket Format) from Adobe, enhances the processing steps within prepress. It lets users describe the required parameters for a given job such as imposition, separations, trapping, rendering and output in a single file but it is only focused on the prepress. Another example, CIP3, focuses only on automating press ink-key settings and finishing for folding and cutting machines.

Formats such as PJTF and CIP3, while providing automation within an isolated department, don't provide the integrated communication between departments' systems that is needed. In order to profit from automation, your entire business needs to be automated into a Graphic Enterprise solution — creating a technology system that begins with the print buyer, flows through all the processing steps in between, and ends with the final delivery of the completed job. For example, the State of California fully automated its workflow with Agfa's Apogee. Apogee allows them to produce as many as 3,000 pages of legislation each day without any human intervention.

Integration: A Function of Standards

Common communications language, or standards, ensures the interoperability of a wide range of multi-vendor devices and software in a complete production environment. They are a reflection of industry leaders' broad-based thinking and expertise, rather than an inherently narrower vision reflected by individual vendors offering proprietary systems. Standards are developed to address the mutual interoperability needs of both vendors and users. They help to focus the development of new products and aid ongoing efforts of the industry to increase automation, integration and efficiency in the graphic arts.

To succeed today, isolated aspects of the production chain — or ‘islands of automation’ — need to be fully integrated. These islands can only communicate with each other by using a common language, or standard. Standards help create a seamless and optimized production cycle.

PDF is one such standard. As the print buyer generates more and more digital content, PDF becomes the vehicle to bring assets from the customer to the production system. This standard file format establishes a much closer relationship between the content creator and the prepress facility, allowing both the printer and buyer to work with common data files that will appear identical at either site.

One of the newer industry standards is JDF, or Job Definition Format. JDF is a consolidation of PJTF, CIP3 and other file formats. JDF describes the product intent or end result (e.g. hard cover book, magazine, package, etc.) and describes how the content is to be processed through all the related production processes. JDF also establishes a common way of describing, monitoring, and managing an entire workflow.

These two standards, PDF and JDF, work very well together. They specify what to print and how to print it. In short, PDF describes documents, while JDF describes the process. Standards such as PDF and JDF are vital to integrating new hardware and software with your existing environment — allowing you to communicate, profit and continue to change and grow your business

All that, and simple to use too?

Manual prepress tasks require time and skilled labor. Skilled craftsmen are becoming harder and harder to find and don't come cheap. So how easy is it going to be to find and train people on this new software and how long is it going to take before you get up and running?

The tasks required in manual prepress are still required in a digital workflow, but the functions are embedded into software instead. Systems with intuitive graphical interfaces and drag-and-drop ease of use, significantly shorten the learning curve allowing staff to concentrate on other processes to be even more productive.

For example, one process that becomes much simpler to manage is the proofing and approval of jobs. It can become a pretty big issue if you are on a deadline and you are waiting on the hardcopy (contract) proof approval from your customer. But with Web-based remote approval of content, this process can be as simple as an email notification linking the print buyer to a secure Web site where approval can be given. This is not only easy, but can also be performed in seconds rather than hours or days.

Bringing it all Home

Today's Graphic Enterprise faces many new challenges as well as opportunities. Print as a medium retains its high demand, but the nature of printing has changed. Shorter runs, tighter deadlines and high quality jobs make automation significantly more attractive for printers. Automation frees up skilled labor for other profitable tasks and significantly raises the threshold to handle more jobs and decrease production costs. Standards-based integration is the key to allowing printers to chose the best-in-breed products and solutions for their purposes, and connects them in a seamless and complete production workflow that begins with the print buyer and ends with the job delivered.

In order to make print the best medium of choice for today's graphic arts customer, printers need to select partners that can bring them the cost savings and process improvement of automation. Printers need simplicity and a flexible workflow solution that can integrate into new and existing systems. It is paramount to understand and evaluate this big picture before investing in new technologies. Automation of this caliber is still many years from debuting in common households, but it is here today and affords print providers a powerful strategy to lower production costs and increase profits right now.

For more information about Agfa's integrated, workflow automation solutions, visit www.agfa.com or call us at 1.800.TRY.AGFA