Workflow automation continues to be one of the hottest topics among all printing establishments. While manufacturers continue to introduce new products, printers are moving into its usage in different degrees. For those who have implemented workflow automation, benefits include a better handle on their entire manufacturing approach; for those who are still investigating its possibilities, the varying systems available promise greater efficiency.

Last year, according to InfoTrends, a respected industry trade group located in Weymouth, MA, there was a barrage of new software introductions and major upgrades in the areas of workflow management, variable data, Web-to-print, and print Management Information System (MIS). Integration among various workflow components, says the group, continued to be a strong theme throughout the year as the industry moved closer toward super efficiency.

But what is workflow automation? An integrated, automated production workflow can be as simple as computer-to-plate or as sophisticated as a JDF-driven workflow from file submission through finishing. Put simply, workflow is the process of managing jobs from creation through final output. The challenge is to get from one step to another in the quickest, most efficient way possible while still maintaining the highest levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty.

What can we expect this year? “Continuing where the industry left off in 2006, we expect integration to (again) be a major development theme in 2007,” according to InfoTrends Production Workflow Solutions Roadmap, published in January 2007.  “Automation requires connectivity between many components in the workflow. An important connection is between print service providers’ own production workflow and print MIS. Today, these systems are mostly their own separate islands. Print services providers still need to re-enter job related information in their print MIS as the job enters and exits production. Overall, these “connectivity” issues increase error rates, negatively affect turnaround time, and reduce print services’ profitability. With JDF standard maturing (now at its 1.3 version), the advancement of Web-enabled solutions, and integration efforts from major hardware/software vendors, however, we expect major progress and adoption of automated workflow in 2007.”

But others are less sanguine. According to a recent study done by The Industry Measure/TrendWatch Graphic Arts, printers are slowly adopting workflow automation. Taken in the fall of 2006, the group measured that just under one-fourth (24%) of print and prepress establishments have incorporated automated production into their workflow. More surprising, 35% of the respondents believe that production workflow is not relevant to their business and therefore are doing nothing about it while 25% have been reading and studying it. The good news from the survey---41% of the industry is open to purchasing some sort of integrated, automated production system in the future.

“Our research shows that larger print shops understand the value of automated workflow,” says Deborah Hutchinson of Agfa. “Smaller shops continue to need further education. But overall printers realize that they need to know where their costs are, how they can better redirect their employees, and how best to improve their productivity. An automated workflow system can accomplish these goals.”

InfoTrends predicts growth in this segment for the upcoming year. “The print production workflow software market will continue to grow in 2007,” according to its report. “With increasing costs and competitive pressure, print service providers are moving toward the implementation of automated workflow. Hence, they are looking for solution sets that offer tighter collaboration and integration of workflows, while at the same time addressing technology obsolescence issues. Software such as Web-to-print, variable data, workflow management, and Print MIS are key enablers of high levels of efficiency and will experience the most growth in 2007.”

In other words, connectivity and openness are two words being bandied about manufacturers and printers. “Our view for the upcoming year is integration,” says Alex Sumarta of InfoTrends. “Printers are facing increasingly short run jobs; how ever many times they have to touch the job costs them money. Implementing an automated workflow system reduces that need and allows the printer to be more productive and profitable. The implementation of JDF gives the industry a standard for these systems to talk to each other.”

Here’s a brief review of some of the automated workflow systems available on the market:

Agfa's :ApogeeX JDF-powered workflow system provides a real-time view of a printer’s production cycle, allowing the printer to monitor and control production tasks instantly. Its scalable architecture lets it accommodate small and large operations. According to Agfa, over 20,000 :Apogee systems and an additional 3,000 :ApogeeX installations have been installed worldwide. Last year, Agfa introduced :Apogee 3.0 workflow management software. The newest version of Agfa's popular workflow software features connectivity enhancements and options for easy integration with non-Agfa workflows. Agfa’s ApogeeX 3.5 also offers greater JDF/JMF enabled connectivity, Raster Preview function for soft proofing, interactive editing of PDF documents and an AutoStrip JDF-based stripping module. 'OpenConnect' enables 1-bit TIFFs and DCS Copy Dot files to be imported for direct imaging to film or plate. If needed, their resolution can be adjusted to match the resolution of the output device. They can be descreened, down-sampled and color-managed for color-accurate output to a wide range of :Sherpa and non-Agfa proofing devices, or can be output as a screened proof using 'Dot4Dot'.

Artwork Systems: Odystar was born from the synergy of Artwork Systems’ workflow technology and Enfocus’s PitStop and Certified PDF technologies. It is an automated pre-press workflow solution based on PDF 1.6 as its native data format and on JDF as the job ticket format. It offers a complete range of pre-press tools, from preflight, certification and automated document correction all the way to advanced trapping, imposition, proofing, printing and screening to plate.

Odystar is a completely integrated solution for PDF creation and production, which gives new life to legacy RIPs and workflow systems, transforming them into PDF 1.6 compliant systems. With an unprecedented ease of use, Odystar provides an important boost to operator efficiency. Odystar not only drastically increases productivity in a pre-press production environment, but is equally suited for remote generation of highly robust, production-ready PDF files, at advertising and design agencies, document generators, or facilities management sites.

DALiM TWiST is a server-based automated premedia workflow solution with an almost infinite number of workflow possibilities to optimize print production. The system allows anyone given permission to access and modify workflows, submit and validate files, and output to virtually any device. Since it is structured around a modular, software-only model, DALiM TWiST allows a user to pick the most appropriate hardware, middleware and allied software that’s right for a printer’s own unique production requirements. DALiM TWiST interfaces to virtually any digital print engine, platesetter, imagesetter or proofer, either directly or via JDF.  The system can be tailored to produce virtually any number of “print-predictable’ files within a given space of time and feed any number of local or remote output devices concurrently.  DALiM PRiNTEMPO, which shares the same workflow engine as DALiM TWiST, is a JDF-based production system designed for commercial printing companies that offers file submission, preflighting, file optimization, trapping, softproofing, imposition, signature output and job tracking -  all via an easy-to-use, web browser interface.

At Graph Expo 2006, EFI introduced Fiery System 8, an advanced print server software designed for professional print environment customers.  With the Fiery open platform and compliance with industry standards such JDF, PDF, and PPML, Fiery System 8 readily integrates into customers’ overall print shop operations, including offset/digital hybrid and Computer-to-Plate (CTP) environments and third-party graphic arts workflows, with full functionality operating in both Windows and Macintosh environments.

At Graph Expo 2006 Fujifilm Graphic Systems USA displayed the Rampage JVX v10.3 workflow system and Trueflow 3 software from Screen (USA). The Rampage JVX v10.3 is a modular system with a standards-based open architecture that allows its users to reduce labor and material costs while growing as their needs change. The latest version of Rampage JVX features enhanced soft proofing, is fully JDF compliant and supports Fuji-film Co-Res and Taffeta screening. Additionally, the new version features remote job submission, preflighting, and content proofing with notifications.

The Prinect family of integrated workflow components from Heidelberg helps printing companies fully realize their potential by increasing production efficiency and creating greater workflow transparency. Prinect has integrated the traditionally separate areas of management, prepress, press and finishing into one system.  With full visibility across a print shop, owners can see where they are saving and spending money, and adjust their business practices to achieve greater profit margins. Designed as a highly modular, scalable and open system, Heidelberg's Prinect product family can be connected to and work seamlessly with a company's existing equipment from Heidelberg or another manufacturer, due to the integration of JDF.  At Graph Expo 2006, Heidelberg announced that the Prinect Digital Print Manager, for integration with Xerox, HP Indigo and Kodak digital printing systems, will be available in early 2007.

Kodak Prinergy workflow systems are complete, modular and scalable PDF-based workflow solutions that allow users to easily customize and optimize their workflow. They deliver intelligent automation, optimized production management, and flexible integration options for unprecedented speed, quality and control in production. KODAK PRINERGY software uses Job Definition Format (JDF), ADOBE software compliant Job Tickets (PJTF), Job Ticket Processors (JTP), and Rules Based Automation to control and automate workflow tasks. At Graph Expo 2006, Kodak previewed Prinergy version 4, which implements its Kodak ColorFlow color management technology and is a component of the Kodak Unified Workflow solution. Other enhancements include a new “Dashboard” browser-based interface to the system, rules-based automation, greater MIS system connectivity and Digital Print Manager software for automating digital print production.

In November 2006 Screen’s Trueflow 3 version 4 workflow management system was introduced as part of the Trueflow Suite of products within the JDF-enabled Trueflownet environment. The Trueflow Suite increases prepress productivity by integrating file checking, color conversion, OPI, trapping, imposition, intelligent RGB conversion and RIPing. This fully automated PDF/JDF workflow is designed to optimize computer-to-plate (CTP) production and digital printing.

Trueflow 3 version 4 is an upgrade that improves overall workflow efficiency and provides a high degree of centralized control. Key new features include PageOptimize, a new software module for page imposition optimization; Versioning/Double Burning, a function to create different language versions of a job; double-sided printing support for printing proofs; and integrated proofing control.