Commentary & Analysis
Next Generation Workflows: The Time is Now
By Chuck Gehman Streamlined workflows hold the key to enabling printing operations to offer value-
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 2, 2004
By Chuck Gehman Streamlined workflows hold the key to enabling printing operations to offer value-added services August 2, 2004 -- Print production workflow has been, and continues to be, one of the most important topics in the industry. The reason is simple: increasing the efficiency of preproduction processes is one of the most accessible, lowest-cost ways to improve overall profitability. An effective workflow will comprehend all aspects of production and business management, incorporating as much automation as possible across products and solutions from multiple vendors. Above all, an effective workflow will eliminate unnecessary rekeying--or better yet, the need for any keying at all, reducing errors and speeding the job through the production process. Further, streamlined workflows hold the key to enabling printing operations to offer value-added services. Streamlined print production workflow has been proven to decrease the labor-intensive processes associated with getting files ready to print--freeing up staff to perform activities that add value or enhance customer relationships. In a more direct way, new workflows can provide the ability for a printing company to offer new services. These are the things that are driving the need for next generation workflows. Whether a printing operation is large or small, there is an increasing desire to supplement one type of printing technology with another. In a large commercial print operation, it might make sense to add a digital capability to be able to support shorter runs. In a small printing operation, there may be a desire to move into more sophisticated, higher quality products by adding CTP and a small offset press. Whether the desire is to expand market share or to increase capabilities and reach in an existing market, there are several challenges inherent in adding a new and different printing technology to an existing operation. Whether a printing operation is large or small, there is an increasing desire to supplement one type of printing technology with another. Today, most operations that have both offset and digital printing technologies employ two distinctly different workflow for the two types of work. Many printing operations even employ different business systems to estimate, quote, track, and invoice digital versus offset jobs. This is becoming increasingly cumbersome. Internally, it impacts profitability and efficiency because we shouldn't have two sets of employees processing jobs. Externally, as the volume of work that combines the two technologies increases, print buyers don't want to see two types of invoices, one for digital and one for offset work; and they shouldn't have to understand two distinct technical processes from the same print vendor. Next Generation Workflow A single workflow system that lets an operator work on, and manage jobs destined for either or both of offset printing (i.e., Computer-to-Plate), or for digital printing is a new concept offered by very few vendors today, but sure to be increasingly important for the reasons stated above. Next-generation workflows take this a step further, and consist of the following applications: Streamlined and integrated business and production processes and systems, using JDF Automated Workflow for both digital and offset production Customer-facing systems that connect to both workflow and business systems, with support for both digital and offset processes and business rules Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM), to capture data and provide closed-loop tracking, control and reporting The implementation of standards for all workflow components The Growing Importance of PDF and Other "Newer" Standards Standards minimize the risk associated with adopting new technologies by ensuring interoperability between components in the workflow. Interoperability among software, and hardware enabled by standards gives your company more choices: in the vendor selection for each individual component, as well as in your ability to configure each component of the workflow in a way that fits the "big picture" of your operation. Standards let you extend the capabilities of your systems so your operation can be more flexible, both in how your staff works internally as well as in the ability to change processes more easily to meet the demands of the changing marketplace. The most important standards for Hybrid (offset and digital production) Workflows are: PDF: Portable Document Format Content and workflow standard From creation through output JDF: Job Definition Format XML format communicates job intent Delivers metadata about job from creation through finishing PPML: Personalized Print Markup Language Variable Print Standard Documents contain "re-usable content" The PDF standard provides the ability for documents and/or pages to flow seamlessly through the workflow. It has become a ubiquitous standard both for offset and digital production. The reasons are becoming obvious: PDF is a universal page container that lets many of the manual processes of preparing files for production be automated through software. Over the last couple of years, PDF has moved very quickly upstream to document creation. On the digital side, many systems are either converting "office"-type documents into PDF at the entry to the workflow, or are helping customers to create PDF with desktop print drivers or Acrobat Plug-ins. Similarly, offset workflow has moved to PDF, with native files from Quark and other applications being converted to PDF as they enter the workflow. The fact that both offset and digital are quickly moving to PDF "end-to-end" bodes well for the adoption of next generation, Hybrid Workflow solutions. The fact that both offset and digital are quickly moving to PDF "end-to-end" bodes well for the adoption of next generation, Hybrid Workflow solutions. With older workflow solutions, for example LW/CT, an operator needs to be a guru in applications like Adobe PhotoShop to apply even the simplest corrections to a job once it has entered the workflow. There's virtually no way to automate the identification of problems (i.e., preflight), or to fix common problems. By virtue of its object-oriented nature, PDF pages can be addressed programmatically and off-the-shelf tools can be used to fix common problems automatically. Further, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people who know applications like Photoshop at the level of expertise that is necessary to perform these chores. And if such skill sets are present, try getting that person to work at your printing company! They'll have a better career path working in Hollywood for Pixar, as an example. Total cost of ownership of a workflow solution should be a calculation based on your staffing and training needs, productivity, and the ability for the workflow to complement your existing software, hardware and customer's input files. Summary The fact is JDF delivers all the benefits of PDF and more, for any company that wants to get more productivity out of the same number of employees This brings us directly back to the old craft vs. manufacturing (i.e., print by numbers) issue, and to those other standards like JDF and PPML. Where a PDF workflow has been proven to deliver these benefits, these "newer" emerging standards aren't understood well enough to be embraced by all printers--yet. Even some well-respected industry pundits, who we've counted on for years to explain these things, are having a hard time understanding the benefits of JDF. But the fact is JDF delivers all the benefits of PDF and more, for any company that wants to get more productivity out of the same number of employees. We are on an adoption curve with JDF that is much faster than what we experienced with PDF--it's taken some 12 years for PDF to get where it is today--JDF is technically less than one year into product deliveries, so we're moving very quickly. Next generation workflow solutions are emerging… both from large vendors like my own company, and from smaller vendors you may not have heard from yet. It is time to begin to explore these options.