Automation: looking forward

Presently, ‘process automation’ is one the most crucial activities in the printing industry. And to foster this process, the International Cooperation for the Integration of the Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress (CIP4) organization brings together vendors, consultants, and end-users in the print communications, graphic arts industry, and associated sectors, covering a variety of equipment, software, peripherals, and processes. CIP4’s members participate in focused working groups to define the Job Definition Format (JDF), PrintTalk, and other standards relevant to process automation; to study user requirements; to test product interoperability; and to develop a range of JDF software development tools. One such member is Optimus associated with CIP4 since its inception. Currently, the director of Optimus Group Henny van Esch is also CEO of CIP4 organization and the 2010 recipient of the CIP4 Fellowship which recognized his contribution to CIP4 and the JDF specification. A chat with Henny. Automation: looking forward Q. Is JDF ‘old news’ or is it still growing, and if it’s still growing, where do you think JDF is headed?

Henny: JDF is certainly not old news; it is however a fact that the functional extension of JDF has recently slowed down somewhat, which is a good thing. We have reached a point where the specification has become fairly mature, and many integration projects have been installed. So while we might not be hearing much in the media about JDF, that is because it has already become a mainstream technology. If we look ahead to the next few years we will see further developments in JDF…both in the specification itself and in the adoption of JDF and related technologies…especially in the areas of business-to-business communication, be it buyer-to-printer or printer-to-printer for applications like subcontracting.

Q. Optimus has been a member of CIP4 since its inception and you, personally, have been very active in CIP4. What was your original motivation for getting involved in CIP4 and has your motivation changed over the years?

Henny: Optimus was one of the early adaptors of direct interfacing between MIS and production equipment. As early as Ipex 1993 we were showing integration with the manroland PECOM system, not using JDF but using a proprietary link instead. In fact, during that Ipex show there was a conversation on our stand between some industry vendors about the idea of creating a standard for such interfaces. Soon after, Optimus joined what was then CIP3 with the objective of getting some MIS features built into the Print Production Format. In the meantime Adobe, Agfa, Heidelberg and manroland began working on what would become JDF, and through our work with manroland we got involved with that effort at a fairly early stage.

Henny van Esch Having gone through the pain of developing different interfaces to various vendors’ systems, my motivation was to contribute to something that would work for all vendors. This is why I have done quite a bit of work in what has become CIP4. The latter was required because the equipment vendors had little knowledge of MIS, why printers use MIS systems, and what kind of information MIS systems require. I believe that one of the great achievements of CIP4, apart from JDF itself, is the fact that it brought vendors from all over the industry together, which has resulted in a far greater understanding of each other’s processes and requirements. My personal motivation has not changed. I still believe it is important that the industry not duplicate efforts, but instead build standards that we can all use. What’s new for me is a drive to expand the potential for automation, which can bring back profitability to an industry that is facing very hard times at the moment.

Q. Has JDF helped Optimus in working together better with other vendors or establishing new partnerships or markets?

Henny: Of course! Working with JDF allows us to integrate with any vendor in the world. There were vendors whom we worked closely with but we hadn’t integrated with their products; now with JDF we have been able to work together with those vendors to implement automation and create new, closer relationships.

Q. Folks in the industry started using the term ‘production automation’ or just ‘automation’, rather than JDF in the last few years. Is there a difference between automation and automation with JDF?

Henny: Automation (and the benefits of automation) is the goal, and JDF is the way to achieve that goal. So in a way there are two descriptions of the same development, just coming from different angles. JDF has become the de facto standard to achieve automation of production processes and increasingly, business processes, as well. The key to any automation process is communication, and communication in a well-defined common language. For the printing industry, JDF is that language.

Q. Where is the growth market for JDF-enabled automation; is it still in Europe and North America, or are you expecting more growth in other areas of the world?

Henny: JDF is already happening outside Europe and the US. There are also many more examples of highly efficient JDF integrations in countries like Japan, China, India, and so on. In fact, we find that new technology is more easily accepted in these markets than in Europe, where companies tend to be a bit more attached to their existing work methods. There are new printing companies opening their doors in India, the Middle East and Asia, and new businesses invest in new technology and are not hampered by legacy systems and legacy workflows. It would not surprise me if in the next few years what we now call developing economies will outgrow more traditional markets in their adoption of these new technologies. Many printers in Europe and the US will invest in the areas of web-to-print, process automation and MIS.

Q. Some industry pundits says that in ten or fifteen years digital printing will replace offset altogether. How does the migration, or at least the growth of digital printing effect JDF, if at all?

Henny: I’m not sure if making such a distinction between offset printing and digital printing is actually justified. The production of a job, whether produced through offset printing or digital printing, involves a workflow with a number of process steps, various production equipment and resources. It is exactly where JDF provides that common automation language.

There are some production processes, such as variable layout, that are unique to digital printing. CIP4 members participating in the technical work groups, including representatives of all the major digital press manufacturers, have been preempting the migration to digital print by providing extensive support in the JDF specification for digital printing. For instance, in JDF 1.4 we added support for automated layout of variable data print jobs.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as CEO of CIP4?

Henny: More and more printers, using JDF-enabled solutions to automate, and more importantly to improve productivity, reduce costs and improve turnaround times. Where three or four years ago most printers who implemented automation had connected a few devices or a couple of departments, now we are seeing a greater number of printers achieve full automation, from job creation to delivery. We expect that many specialty and smaller vendors will get involved and add JDF to their capabilities. Though at present, the momentum isn’t coming from vendors, but from the printers. In my tenure as CEO, I hope to see this momentum result in growth in CIP4 membership, and ultimately an exponential growth in the number of JDF-enabled solutions in the marketplace.

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