If you closed your eyes during On Demand’s opening day, it was just possible to imagine that you were at a show dedicated to workflow.

Just pretending, of course. In addition to workflow, On Demand is about prepress, output, postpress, preflight, servers, paper, and more. But at this year’s On Demand, workflow is being promoted in a new and undeniably attention-getting way. Key vendors are rebranding and repackaging their workflow solutions to make them seem less like abstract formulations and more like handy sets of shop tools. Print providers of every kind are being encouraged to view workflow as something that will work specifically for them, solving their problems and adding value to their services without displacing their existing systems or buckling them into proprietary straitjackets.

This year’s On Demand is shaping up, in other words, as the event at which workflow will emerge as the solution for “the rest of us”—which is to say the majority of the industry, as yet unacquainted with the concept of workflow and the benefits it can bring.

There is no industry-standard definition of workflow, although Xerox made a fair try at articulating one in its announcement of the new “FreeFlow” brand for its collection of workflow offerings. Digital workflow, says Xerox, is “the process by which print jobs make their way from submission through final production and invoicing.”

Within that concise description, however, exists a world of daunting complexity. A workflow may apply to the entire process, or just to parts of it. It may be based on PDF (portable document format) or some other kind of data stream. A workflow may be of the NORM (normalize once, RIP many) or ROOM (RIP once, output many) variety. It probably comes from a high-end source like Xerox, Heidelberg, Océ, or HP Indigo—each of which announced workflow introductions or improvements at On Demand—but a homegrown “workflow” cobbled together from internal resources at almost any plant can satisfy the definition as well.

The workflow vendors at On Demand clearly have recognized that anything this difficult to encapsulate will be equally difficult to sell. And so they are going to considerable lengths both to demystify workflow and to assert their understandings of what their customers hope to gain from using it.

Gil Hatch, president of Xerox’s production systems group (3004), keynotes the company’s introduction of FreeFlow by declaring that what the marketplace wants above all is “adaptability”—the option of modifying a workflow to suit changing production requirements. Open solutions developed in partnership with other technology providers are the ticket to marketplace acceptance for workflow, says Hatch, expressing a viewpoint that is universal among the vendors.

Xerox’s consolidation of five existing workflow components includes DigiPath production software, said by Hatch to have had more than 12,000 shipments worldwide; and the VIPP variable-information tool, with 10,000 shipments. These and the other three solutions now wearing the FreeFlow mantle will be targeted to service bureaus and corporate data centers; in-plants and corporate repro centers; commercial printers; and quick printers.

Océ’s Robert W. Raus, Jr. says that in promoting its “Prisma” solution, his company will be respectful of workflow systems or elements that printers may already be using. He says that Océ’s approach will be, “You’ve got something in place, and we’ll try to improve it.” No wholesale systems replacements will be forced upon anyone: “The key is to do it modularly, piece by piece,” Rauch says. Prisma, a suite of about 30 products applying to nine production functions, is being mapped to a variety of on-demand applications at the Océ stand (2501). Its new addition is PrismaSatellite, an extension of the product for office printing, in-plants, and transaction printing.

Bill McGlynn, vice president for digital printing solutions at HP-Indigo (2801) notes that variable-data printing could get a significant boost in acceptance from the efficiencies that improved workflows will bring. He says that more immediately, however, customers want vendors to make workflow “simple, rather than an IT task.” They also expect their workflow components to be well integrated, and they demand, in no uncertain terms, accountability from those who would sell them workflow solutions: “They want one neck to choke,” says Mr. McGlynn, should anything fail to meet expectations.

He reports that HP’s “ProductionFlow” workflow solution has been augmented with a two-server and a four-server version, the latter of which quadruples the RIP speed of the single-server version and enables data to be RIPed at the full engine speed (72 ppm) of Indigo digital printers.

According to Wolfgang Pfizenmaier, president of the digital print solution center at Heidelberg (3301), the company’s workflow technology now encompasses the “synergy of digital and offset,” enabling the use of the “same prepress process for offset and digital” production via Prinect, Heidelberg’s branded workflow. Demonstrations of this synergy will be seen not at On Demand but at Graph Expo (Sept. 28-Oct. 1) in Chicago, where a new Digimaster 9110cp monochrome digital press driven by a MetaDimension RIP will incorporate the dual-use workflow. At On Demand, Heidelberg is showing another element of its growing portfolio of workflow expedients: ImageSmart Document Mastering 2.2, a job-setup tool based on editable and exchangeable PDF files.

Lest it be thought that all workflow-related announcements and at On Demand are emanating from the digital press manufacturers, here is a heads-up communicated by Mark Hunt, director of marketing for Standard Finishing Systems (3345). At Graph Expo, he says, Standard will demonstrate “a much more fully integrated end-to-end solution” for postpress that will show how finishing equipment may be automatically set up from data captured or generated during the prepress phase. According to Mr. Hunt, the demo also will incorporate an “intelligent feedback loop” for monitoring jobs in progress, controlling load balancing among equipment, and directing other functions.

Judging by these and similar developments, workflow would appear to be swelling from a trickle to a tributary to a torrent, carrying an entire industry along with it. More about workflow will be closely observed and duly reported by WhatTheyThink.com at On Demand and upcoming shows.