By Patrick Henry October 19, 2004 -- If workflow doesn’t work at Zebra Graphics, where will it? A print and multimedia firm located in Paducah, Ky., Zebra Graphics is in many ways the ideal laboratory for testing the future of computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) in the printing industry. Zebra Graphics is a small, relatively young business, so embracing CIM—in this case, several modules of Heidelberg’s Prinect solution—shouldn’t be as radical a step as it probably would be in a bigger plant with deeply rooted procedures and the change-resistant mindsets that often go with them. Installing Prinect as a part of a press bundle improves the experiment by enabling Zebra to switch on its new workflow at the same moment it presses “start” on its new Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 74. Then there’s the enthusiasm of Zebra Graphics’ owner, Steve Hagan, a former graphic designer and printing salesman who’s as enamored of the idea of CIM as Heidelberg and other vendors of digital workflow solutions want every printer to be. He believes that Prinect will be the key to expanding his capacity without risking the inefficiencies that taking a printing business to the next level sometimes entails. It’s a belief that he will be in a position to test when his Prinect components go live roughly six weeks from now. Like hundreds of other visitors to Graph Expo last week, Hagan showed his interest in CIM by participating in the “Prinect Experience,” a demonstration tour that was one of the busiest sections of the Heidelberg stand. Unlike nearly all of the other holders of Prinect Experience tour tickets, however, Hagan knew that what he was looking at was an idealized run-through of a system that soon would have to cope with the unpredictability of producing, costing, and billing live jobs in a real manufacturing environment—his plant. With his consent and Heidelberg’s cooperation, shadowed Hagan on the tour to see how the carefully staged Prinect Experience would compare with a customer’s actual experience of the product. Sees “one big machine” Without a doubt, Hagan’s vision of digitally controlled print manufacturing is the same as Heidelberg’s. He believes that with the help of an all-controlling workflow, a printer’s productive capacity can be like “one big machine” that keeps human operators conveniently out of the data stream once the parameters of the job have been established. “The more information you have flowing around in the background, the better,” says Hagan, who’s committed to the principle that job data should require no massaging after initial input. If a workflow solution is performing as advertised, he argues, “why can’t the system monitor itself?” Self-monitoring capability was one of many attributes that Prinect demonstrated at Graph Expo, where Heidelberg set up a chain of seven workstations that relayed data from an assortment of sample jobs (postcards, brochures, and a poster). Tour groups followed the flow of data from station to station, each one tended by a Heidelberg docent ready with explanation of what Prinect was doing with the data at that stage. Hagan says he found the 20-minute excursion “very informative,” and he thinks that it was a good introduction to workflow for printers still struggling to grasp the concept. But, he is also a realist who notes that Prinect’s showcase at Graph Expo necessarily was “a sanitized version of a real-life experience.” The real-life installation of something as complex as Prinect can be difficult, according to Hagan. He has found, for example, that its Microsoft e-mail management and remote access components “don’t play nice” and will have to be taught better manners. And, naturally, there’s the expense to consider: “It’s a considerable investment,” he says. All from the same Square One Nevertheless, Hagan’s attitude is full-steam-ahead as he looks forward not just to Prinect but to the delivery of his new press—a four-color model with coater—on November 1. He’s putting the finishing touches on the press bay and on the plate room he built to house his new Topsetter four-up CTP unit, another part of the purchase from Heidelberg. The goal is to have the platesetter, the press, and Prinect networked and ready simultaneously so that the first print run will be CIMply magnificent from start to finish. During the tour, Hagan said hello to Heidelberg’s Mike Blackwell, the expert who will lead a week of on-site Prinect training for all 12 members of the Zebra Graphics staff at the end of next month. If everything goes as planned, Hagan’s company will be a fully functional test bed for workflow about one week after that. “Workflow” as packaged by Prinect is a collection of more than 20 Heidelberg products that have been grouped as solutions for production, color, and information management. With the help of these digital control points, says Heidelberg, printers can initiate, monitor, and optimize every process in the completion of a print job from order entry to bindery—in other words, transform the job into a bona fide exercise in CIM. Prinect, according to Heidelberg, supports industry-standard conventions for digital workflow: CIP3/4, JDF, and PPF, the rules and formats that enable all machines in the print manufacturing chain to take their cues from a common set of instructions. Prinect isn’t a monolithic, all-or-nothing proposition—it’s a portfolio of solutions that any printing company can shop to its liking as Zebra Graphics has. Hagan’s Prinect purchase included the Prinance MIS component for order entry, estimating, and job ticketing; Signa Station software for press and postpress imposition; Printready, a prepress workflow that generates output instructions from data imported from Prinance and Signa Station; the MetaDimension RIP; Prepress Interface, for turning RIP data into machine instructions; and CP2000 Center, the part that loads ink-key settings and controls makeready on the Speedmaster SM 74. On the tour, Hagan had a chance to inspect the Prinect components he elected not to buy, such as the CompuCut, CompuFold, and CompuStitch modules for those postpress operations. Still, he feels that he has chosen comprehensively: “I bought the most of the parts that were relevant for me—everything except the bindery part,” he says. “Our workflow will be JDF compliant up to the Speedmaster.” During the “Prinect Experience” presentation at Graph Expo, Heidelberg’s Walter Tipton (left) briefed Zebra Graphics owner Steve Hagan (center) on some of the fine points of Prinect, Heidelberg’s portfolio of products for digital workflow. At right is Jim Mauro, Prinect press product manager. What can a shop like Zebra Graphics expect to accomplish by integrating its production machinery and digitally controlling the output? A few quantifying statements about the promised benefits of CIM could be heard at Graph Expo, but the fact is that no one truly can say what the payoff to printers who adopt digital workflows will be. Hagan, for one, isn’t harping on hard numbers. He says that he will be happy with Prinect if it helps him “eliminate labor wherever possible” as he builds Zebra Graphics from a design-and-sign shop with a small-format digital press (a Heidelberg QM-DI), a duplicator, and an HP 5000 wide-format inkjet printer into a full-rigged commercial plant with a 29" multicolor press and CTP capability. Hagan emphasizes that by “eliminating labor” he doesn’t mean reducing the existing headcount—he’s talking about using digital efficiency to keep the headcount where it is as the plant gears up for greater volume. Hagan is a stickler for the efficient use of computers. Although he admits that he acquired his graphic design skills “just before the Macintosh,” he prides himself on having been the owner of some of the first commercially available personal computers—models like the legendary Radio Shack TRS-80 and the 128K Commodore. He says that using computers in business has taught him the necessity of doing away with redundant data entry and, wherever possible, breaking people out of the data-entry loop altogether. Goodbye, DIY database The Prinect tour at Graph Expo appeared to satisfy Hagan on the question of data input. He inquired several times whether information from the production workstations was being fed back to the Prinance MIS module, and in each case he was assured that it was. This led him to declare that Prinect would let Zebra Graphics replace its “homemade database” with a solution that is “much more sophisticated than what we have.” Hagan also complimented the workstations on the uniform structure and appearance of their information displays, which he compared in user-friendliness with the intuitive interface of the Macintosh operating system. Hagan moved from station to station with a keen eye, now questioning this, next double-checking his understanding of that. He noticed, for example, that components at some of the stations appeared to be based on older versions of software than the ones he purchased. At the Prepress Interface workstation he pointed out that the ink data were being presented in grams, not in the pounds and ounces that he was accustomed to using. The display, he was told, can be recalibrated for the more familiar units of measurement. There was more to like: the ability to manipulate user-defined cut and crop marks in Signa Station, which Hagan said would be much less labor intensive than attempting to adjust them in native files; and the real-time, continuously updated job tracking features of Prinance, which should enable Hagan to call up the status of any job at any point in its production cycle. He says that the tour was most effective when it showed how smoothly Prinance could send data in JDF format to the other Prinect stations along the line. It’s important to sell printers on the belief that workflow can be seamless, according to Hagan, “because that’s where the efficiency comes from.” Resisting the resistance Yet workflow is anything but an easy sell for Heidelberg and others now promoting it. At Graph Expo, the head of another press manufacturing company complained of meeting resistance bordering on hostility whenever he tries to bring the subject up with most of his customers. Not long before the show, one industry research organization reported that of the printers it surveyed, only about 4 percent were considering future investment in CIM. Hagan doesn’t understand why it should be this lonely in the vanguard. Some printers, he acknowledges, “are by nature skeptical of digital altogether.” He thinks it’s also true that the manufacturers may have oversold the advantages of workflow in the beginning. None of this shakes his faith in CIM as the foundation of the digitally integrated, ultra-efficient operation he means Zebra Graphics to be. Calling CIM workflow “the future of printing,” he says that the technology can do for printing what micro circuitry has done for integrated computer chips: make it ever more capable on an ever more concentrated scale, always delivering “more for less.” It’s clear that Hagan’s experience of Prinect at Zebra Graphics—not his Prinect Experience at Graph Expo—will have powerful implications for CIM’s viability as a tools for printers. After all, companies of Zebra Graphics’ size account for what is by far the largest percentage of establishments in the commercial printing industry. If CIM workflow does not make many more friends among shops like these, it will be seen as just another techno-goodie for big printers only, and its impact upon the industry will be negligible. The encouraging thing for Heidelberg is that it couldn’t have found a customer more eager to play the standard-bearer for CIM than Hagan. To survive as a printer these days, he says, “you have to get very nimble.” That’s precisely what he’s counting on Prinect to do for him. “I want the machines talking to each other,” he says. “The smoother and slicker the data gets in, the better. This is going to automate our whole process, and hopefully, make us more profitable.”