by Andrew Tribute October 6, 2003 -- As a long-term industry analyst and journalist I have lived with and worked through almost all the developments in digital technology that have impacted this industry for the past thirty years. This has generated in me a serious degree of cynicism concerning company announcements. In this I read company press releases more for what they don't say than what they do say. I also take announcements of industry wide partnerships and proposed standards with a degree of doubt. When Creo announced plans for Networked Graphic Production (NGP), an initiative to bring together a large number of companies to complete fully integrated JDF enabled computer integrated manufacturing for printing, I regarded this with serious doubt. Creo has not been a good example of a company that can be a part of a successful partnership. In the past it has had partnerships with a number of companies, most of which have come to acrimonious endings. Think about the Heidelberg Creo joint venture. Look at the close working arrangements between Creo and Kodak in making a tremendous success of thermal CtP. What about their part in the creation and ongoing funding of Printcafe that Creo participated in. All of these “partnerships” fell apart with bad feelings on all sides. Creo is also regarded by many to have a non-friendly approach to companies it considers competitors. NGP was proposed as an agreement under which a large number of companies in all areas of print, many of whom may be competitors of Creo, would work together to make cohesive computer integrated manufacturing and business networks. My feelings were if Creo could not maintain single company partnerships, what chance would a multiple company approach have? I therefore went in a highly cynical mode to the Creo press conference at Graph Expo recently in which NGP would be covered. In this conference I listened not only to Creo but also to many other members of the NGP partnership. The CEO of MAN Roland USA was particularly enthusiastic about what NGP would do for the industry. There are now twenty-eight members in NGP, and the numbers are increasing. It includes major press manufacturers like MAN Roland, KBA, Komori and Mitsubishi, Xerox in digital printing, Muller Martini from post press, and most of the MIS companies in the industry. There are many key companies missing from the list and these include all Creo's prepress competitors such as Agfa, EskoGraphics, FFEI, Lüscher, Presstek and Screen; digital print companies like EFI and HP; postpress companies and of course Heidelberg. Before continuing on about the partnership let me go into what is the intention of NGP. This is a way of getting a large number of companies to work together to pass relevant information between their disparate systems using the JDF data formats. This brings up the question of why do we need NGP when we have JDF. Isn't Creo just trying to “hijack the JDF standard for its own advantage? I find that the answer is no, and let me explain why. This means first looking into what JDF is. Many suppliers are putting forward JDF as the whole future of the printing industry as it allows all companies to integrate their systems together. What they don't explain is how complex and all encompassing JDF is. The command structure of JDF as its first iteration is defined in a 700-page manual. This is only the first version and the CIP4 body that is responsible for JDF is still developing the formats, and it is understood it may take many years for it to be complete. Many companies are developing JDF hardware and software interfaces and are claiming they are JDF compliant. The way these companies implement JDF will be to choose those aspects of the JDF specification that they want to use. There is no guarantee that other suppliers will choose the same JDF elements in their implementations. This means that while both systems will be JDF compliant, they may well not interface together successfully. Heidelberg for example is working on Prinect, its JDF workflow to link all its products together. In this it links up its own workflow, prepress, press and postpress products, but not its digital printing products, plus a selected MIS system. It does not link up any other products yet and will only link in other supplier's products under agreement with that supplier. That's hardly open integration. NGP is trying to simplify the situation in getting a range of companies' products to integrate. It will agree on standard JDF implementations for similar products. All MIS systems will use identical JDF formats and routines to work. All press control systems will use exactly the same JDF structures. This may well restrict some degree of functionality, but it means everyone in the NGP partnership is singing from the same song sheet. I am impressed with what is being done in NGP. It will still be a huge amount of work in all companies implementing the NGP subset of JDF, but at least they will only have to write one JDF set of data. The benefits of this for users of NGP members equipment is that one is not locked into one suppliers products as will be the case for some time with Heidelberg's Prinect. It also means that a printer with both MAN Roland and KBA equipment will be able to have them both in the same integrated CIM network. There is however still the problem of bringing into NGP a wider range of companies in prepress, workflow and other areas. While NGP was considered a Creo solution such companies would never come in. Creo points out that this is not a Creo initiative. They were just the organization that got things under way. They advise me that plans are in hand to have an independent organization owned by the NGP members running the operation. I hope this happens, and happens soon. I think NGP is what is necessary to get good implementations of integration between the systems of a number of companies. Without it I believe most initial JDF implementations will largely be linking together of equipment selected by manufacturers and not users. I understand anxieties about Creo and NGP but I do believe that the company is really sincere in wanting to get multi-company integration under way for the benefit of all print users. I hope companies like Agfa, EFI, HP and Heidelberg will participate. We are told that next year it will be a JDF drupa. NGP plans to show how it is implementing JDF among its members. I believe it may be the only real multi-company JDF implementation on display. It is a shame that PrintCity is not doing something similar.