In many ways, On Demand is the ideal venue for postpress, that sometimes under-appreciated class of production technologies that convert unfinished printed matter into documents that people can use. On Demand is a comparatively small show, so postpress booths don't get lost amidst the theme-park stands and fantasy islands of grander exhibitors in multiple halls. Offset lithographic presses are absent from On Demand, freeing postpress vendors from having to mount costly displays that conform to the big-iron character of conventional pressrooms. And therein lies the real key to the expo's value as a showcase for postpress. Because it's built around digital output, the event challenges finishing systems to prove that they can perform as efficiently in a digital production workflow as any of the printers that they're in-line with, near-line to, or off-line from.

Rising smartly to the occasion at last week's show, digitally enabled postpress systems showed themselves off to their best advantage as components in solutions for short-run, quick-turnaround printed products of many kinds. The leading attention-getter was the Books for Schools exhibit, an almost totally integrated book production line in which the blocking and the cover binding were as automatic as the high-speed digital printing. Books for Schools was the show's most elaborate but by no means its only demonstration of how far along the digital path postpress systems have come. To qualify as partners to digital press manufacturers, vendors of postpress systems have learned to how to make their products keep pace with the throughput requirements of the output devices. They have embraced JDF (job definition format, the uniform job-ticketing scheme for digital print), and they have even come up with a JDF implementation of their ownan emerging standard known as UP3I. If On Demand proved anything, it was that postpress systems are abler than many realize to help print service providers enter and cultivate the market for digital documents.

And what a market it is, particularly for documents in color. In opening-day remarks, conference coordinator Charles A. Pesko Jr. (CAP Ventures) indicated that waning growth in the demand for offset spells good times ahead for those who know how to migrate content from traditional production to digital alternatives. According to Pesko, about 837 billion of an estimated 3.4 trillion offset pages in worldwide use are eligible to be produced digitally, including 208 billion pages that could be printed in color. But because only about 20 percent of the color-eligible volume is being printed digitally, noted Pesko, the market is brimming with profit potential for suitably equipped producers.

Call It A School Bellwether

Naturally, all of these pages will have to be finished in some way, and that is where digital postpress comes in. Although it was devised to serve a not-for-profit objective, the Books for Schools assembly line provided the show's clearest glimpse of what profit-making production solutions with digital postpress will look like. A joint project by seven vendors, Books for Schools pledged to print 6,000 softcover copies of three literary classics during the show as a donation to New York City junior and senior high schools. This praiseworthy effort also let the vendors demonstrate that the day of push-button, hands-off, just-in-time book manufacturing has arrived, with all of that scenario's deep implications for the business of publishing. The line's postpress components, by virtue of being identified with the part of the process once thought to be the least open to automation, therefore stood out as the most striking examples of how digital technologies now can be applied to the production of books and other everyday documents.

The line, said to be capable of producing a 200-page book every five seconds, began by feeding Boise Paper Solutions' Dakota Digital Paper from an LS Series Automatic Web Splicer by KTI to a CR1300 Digital Web Press by Delphax Technologies. The 600 x 600 dpi press, imaging 6" x 9" pages three-up at 2,400 ppm, streamed the printed web through a buffer to an LX500-series cutter/stacker combination by Stralfors, which formed the book blocks. The blocks then traveled on a Shuttleworth Star Roller Conveyor to a Muller Martini AmigoDigital perfect binder, which affixed four-color covers printed on a Xeikon DCP 500D digital press. The hand-off of the books from the Amigo binder to a near-line Esprit three-knife trimmer, also from Muller Martini, was the only manual step in the entire sequence.

Conversations with managers from several digital press vendors about their companies' postpress strategies made it clear that the tight integration of systems in Books for Schools was not just some commercially unfeasible stunt cobbled together for a trade show. Each of the vendorsXerox, IBM, Océ, and Delphaxdescribed a product-development methodology that mandates postpress integration from the ground up and requires postpress partners to earn and keep their status by continually improving the compatibility of the equipment they supply. The vendors also signaled their belief in postpress integration as a marketing asset by voicing their support for UP3I, the postpress equipment makers' initiative for start-to-finish (but especially finish) process control in production workflows.

What with Whom, and Why

Xerox's Jerry Sturnick outlined the plan whereby the world's largest producer of digital document systems organizes its postpress complement by sales channel and document type. Sturnick, who manages Xerox's finishing application business, explained that the company divides its partnerships with about 30 postpress vendors into three channels: standard OEM arrangements, with Xerox as the branding entity; reseller agreements, in which Xerox sells equipment under its original brand and provides the first line of support; and reference sales, in which support is the responsibility of the partner. Partnerships can be shifted from channel to channel, and some partners may operate in all three. Xerox sorts out the relationships at an annual partners' conference that also includes prospective postpress suppliers and software developers.

Deciding what finishing solutions to harness to an output device, said Sturnick, starts with identifying which of seven document types the system will be called upon to produce. Xerox then issues a competitive RFP to the partners best qualified to deliver what is needed. Selection criteria include technical suitability; support capability; and business metrics (favorable price and profit margin). No less important, according to Sturnick, is Xerox's goal of making its finishing solutions equally capable of supporting in-, near-, and off-line use, depending on what the customer wants. Operation in all modes, although not required in every case now, will be a clearly delineated future direction for postpress suppliers to Xerox, Sturnick said.

As a Xerox representative to UP3Ithe manufacturers' alliance promoting the trademarked Universal Printer, Pre- and Postprocessing InterfaceSturnick was in a position to praise the standard as a tool that can help Xerox postpress systems support two key objectives for digital output: to produce documents using the smallest number of feeding and finishing modules; and to use the modules in as many different applications as possible. Xerox tells its postpress partners that it supports and expects compliance with UP3I, said Sturnick, who called the it the best standard for synergism among digital equipment vendors.

Xerox is a founding member of UP3I along with Duplo, Hunkeler, IBM, Océ, and Stralfors. Also backing the alliance are 16 associate developers of workflow technologies, primarily postpress and finishing. The group's goal is to create an open-standard  information backbone for a digital printing line that includes instructions for post-processing hardware. The specification conforms to JDF and other recognized standards and can be used, according to UP3I, by any equipment manufacturer free of charge.

Big Blue and Binding

Bruce E. Otte, production solutions strategy manager for IBM Printing Systems, said that in selecting finishing solutions for the Infoprint 4100 and other output devices, IBM keeps its eye on end-users' operating costssomething that many print service providers can't always fully account for.

Otte said that IBM sees itself as middleware oriented in print production workflows: focused on monitoring and analyzing all of the data that enter into the delivery of a finished document. This scrutiny, said Otte, helps IBM identify solution hooks to make the process more efficient. A solution hook, based either on hardware or on software, could be almost anything helpful to monitoring the workflow: the addition of a bar code reader, for example, or a simple manual input by an operator.

The object is to give the document producer enough information to calculate not just the direct cost per pagewhich is as much, according to Otte, as most printers typically knowbut the total, end-to-end cost of completing and delivering the job. He said that new updates to Infoprint Workflow, IBM's print management solution, could help customers improve productivity and reduce costs by giving them a single point of control for the entire document production process from data creation and job acquisition through mailing.

At On Demand, IBM partnered with C.P. Bourg and Plockmatic to present roll-fed and cut-sheet finishing solutions in keeping with the specifications of UP3I, which IBM supports as a core member of the alliance. Otte noted that the wide-web (three-up, 6" x 9") Infoprint 4100 can be fully configured for UP3I, enabling data for a UP3I-compliant finishing device to be managed by the 4100's controller. He said that IBM was committed to open standards such as UP3I for optimizing the interface between printers and postpress equipment.

Don't Interrupt the Moneymaking

To find the right finishing solutions for its extensive array of continuous-form, cut-sheet, and wide-format printing equipment, Océ North America asks its postpress partners to submit their devices for testing at Océ's Boca Raton, FL, headquarters. There, said James N. Hughes, partner program manager for digital document systems, Océ technicians evaluate the devices' reliability and review the quality of their documentation. Partial disassembly of the equipment may be required, and the vendors are expected to give Océ's personnel whatever training they may need to peer knowledgably under the hood.

Typically Océ will know within three or four days whether acceptance is likely; the complete certification process takes about a month. Océ has qualified about 250 postpress devices for its continuous-form equipment in this way, according to Hughes, and has begun to send finishing solutions for its cut-sheet printers through the same round of testing. The goal in each evaluation, he said, is to build a solution that does not stop the printerto assure, in other words, that the printing-finishing sequence is uninterrupted and never causes the printer to run at less than full speed. If the press isn't printing, the customer isn't making money, Hughes said, adding that postpress devices must be able to guarantee nonstop operation even when running problem-prone lightweight papers.

Océ has lived up to its obligations as a UP3I framer, Hughes said, by making all of its continuous-form and cut-sheet printers compatible with the standard. He said that customers want equipment vendors to adopt standards that will enable printing and finishing systems to set themselves up from digital job tickets, run with minimal operator intervention, and bring a lights-out mentality to automated, self-regulating document production.

Fast Is Just Marking Time

The neatly finished output from the front-end attraction of the Books for Schools line, Delphax's CR1300 digital web press, was both a proof of the ability of postpress equipment to keep up with high-speed digital printers and a caution that the benchmark is only temporary. The CR1300, which consumes 45,000 linear feet of paper in 150 minutes for a running speed 300 fpm, will be leapfrogged in that department by the new, 450 fpm CR2000 that Delphax will unveil at drupa. Bob Vandenboom, worldwide marketing director for Delphax, noted that the 50 percent speed increase has forced our hand with respect to finishing by ruling out CR2000 partnerships with postpress vendors for whom 300 fpm is as far as the envelope can be pushed.

Andy Featherman, manager of on-demand solutions for Muller Martini, declared that tachophobia was not an issue for his company, which he said regards Delphax's 450 fpm challenge as the perfect opportunity to prove that finishing need not be a bottleneck at any pace. No one can match the speed of Delphax, and no one can match the speed of our binding equipment,  he said. He also reported that Muller Martini and Delphax would partner at drupa to present what he called the next evolutionary step in the integration of printing and finishing for the high speed production of documents on demand.