By Jess Walker December 15, 2005 -- Job definition format was officially born on July 14, 2000, when Adobe, Agfa, Heidelberg and MAN Roland relinquished all rights to the format they had jointly developed and named the newly created CIP4 as JDF's legal guardian. Since then, JDF has been the subject of considerable debate and the recipient of industry awards and recognition. The editors of The Seybold Report selected JDF as one of the "Ten Biggest Technology Stories of 2002," and JDF was universally hailed as the belle of the ball at Drupa 2004. Then people began asking, How many printers have actually adopted JDF? Were the pundits wrong? Since JDF touches every system and piece of equipment in the print shop the only rational way to approach this kind of transformation is one piece at a time. Looking back, July 2000 was a rather inauspicious time for the birth of JDF. Not only was the worldwide economy beginning to suffer a downturn, but more importantly for print, the new millennium ushered in the era of broadband Internet with its multitude of high quality and instantaneous alternatives to print. Print volume took a dive from which printers never recovered. By 2003, run length averages in the U.S. had fallen precipitously: More than 40 percent of print jobs were only 5,000 impressions and a full three-fourths of all jobs were 10,000 impressions and fewer. Not surprisingly, print margins continued to decline, making a bad situation even worse. Thus, when JDF technology arrived on the scene, printers had very little cash to invest in new equipment, systems and processes. Uncertainty and hard times coalesced with dramatic change on the business end of print, and printing companies merged or were acquired at a dizzying pace. Printers acquired or merged with design firms, advertising agencies, fulfillment houses, Web site developers and more. Characterizing this environment as one in upheaval might be an understatement. What's more, with equipment lists, systems and processes changing with each new acquisition, merger or business plan, printers found it difficult to decide when or how to automate while the dust was still settling on what to automate. Where To Begin? The difficult conditions during the past five years only partially account for the low overall adoption rates of JDF, however. Consider the fact that JDF, the driving technology underneath what's been dubbed computer-integrated manufacturing, potentially touches every single system and piece of equipment in the print shop, from the reception desk to the loading dock. The only rational way to approach this kind of transformation is one piece at a time, since the entire plant cannot be changed all at once. But where should the JDF implementation begin? Which process or processes, when JDF-enabled, are going to provide the highest returns on investment? And when one piece of equipment is made compatible with JDF, what other equipment, systems, or applications in other departments are affected? Vision vs. Reality There are two distinct components of a JDF workflow: the JDF-enabled equipment and the JDF data to drive that equipment. For example, a JDF-enabled folding machine requires JDF folding data. Where does the data come from? It must come from an application with knowledge of the folding information, upstream from the finishing department -- in fact, all the way back to the estimating or planning department. Therefore, a straight-line implementation of JDF is not possible; the lines zig and zag all over the plant, and the domino effect is in full force. Facts on the ground indicate that this realization of CIP4's vision is still a ways off. The CIP4 vision foresees a JDF-MIS system that controls all processes and systems. The extensible JDF file is passed along the chain of production, goes in and out of various production systems, which add production details and processing results. Facts on the ground indicate that this realization of CIP4's vision is still a ways off. Instead, we have islands of automation: various production pieces and parts that have been automated, some with JDF, and some with its CIP3 predecessor. The development and availability of JDF-enabled equipment and systems, while uneven to date, is now turning into a ground swell. Some equipment vendors sell JDF as an option but most make it a standard part of their new product offerings and adoption will follow this upgrade path. This is the natural evolution of workflow, moving from a conglomeration of proprietary systems to a standardized, uniform framework and language, as implemented by hundreds of graphic arts vendors. Turn back the clock to the mid-'80s and think about how many years it took to make the transition from proprietary typesetting to standardized PostScript. And that change, which precipitated a complete and total metamorphosis, had a direct impact "only" on publishing and prepress. JDF, on the other hand, aims to modernize and automate each and every process in the printing plant --no small feat-- and one that will undoubtedly take years to achieve. JDF data is moving in fits and starts, perhaps, but it is moving around various departments in the printing plant. JDF job ticketing, for example, is increasingly used at the front end of the production chain. Adobe has been in the forefront of this development, having introduced a Web-to-print solution in 2002 (now called PDF JobReady) that incorporated JDF job tickets initiated by the customer. Acrobat 7 introduced "JDF on the desktop" enabling JDF job tickets but more importantly, enabling JDF-controlled PDF generation, preflight, and verification. This implementation lets printers send a JDF file with embedded settings to their customers for use as a template. In this way, the JDF file not only describes the job, but also helps ensure proper PDF file generation and preflight. What's more, job integrity is assured by verification that the PDF files are not only error-free, but also consistent with the job definition. Next year promises to be a banner year for JDF, when the applications and systems capable of generating JDF data, such as MIS systems and prepress systems, will take a huge leap forward. In the meantime, the islands of automation are growing larger, and printers are asking their vendors about JDF compatibility with increasing frequency. Widespread JDF adoption is not a question of "if," it's a question of "when." Jess Walker is senior product manager, Workflow Products, for Adobe Systems Inc.