By Chuck Gehman November 24, 2003 -- Digital output devices and variable printing deserve all the buzz and coverage they get in the media, and arguably deserve even more than they are getting today. We can't forget, though, that a tremendous amount of On-Demand printing is produced using offset printing, or is executed using a combination of offset and digital printing. There is a great need for new workflow tools that encompass both the offset and digital worlds. Increasingly, the lines between offset and digital are blurring, and many print projects incorporate elements that are produced with offset, then are run through digital presses for some kind of personalization or customization. Direct mail applications are clearly among the leaders in this trend, but there are also more mundane applications like books, training materials, invitations and even stationery (preprinted shells with four color process artwork produced on offset, then imprinted using digital devices to apply the black and white “personalized” portion of the product.) Last month in OnDemandJournal , I lamented the fact that there is no standard way to create documents that can be used as variable templates. Having such a standard would certainly solve some of the front-end issues involved in getting work to the print manufacturing facility. Once the work is in-house, though, there are additional roadblocks created by workflow solutions that don't comprehend the capabilities of both offset and digital output devices. Today, few printers have the software and processes to efficiently produce products that employ a blend of these two production technologies. Most print service providers who have both offset and digital capabilities operate them separately—often in different rooms (or even buildings), staffed by different people. Until recently, this was an appropriate setup, because these distinct operations produced different products for different customers (or, perhaps more accurately, for different applications within the same customer account). Most commercial printers with more than $10M in sales have adopted some type of workflow system from a pre-press equipment or software vendor, but primarily for film or CTP output. These high-end workflow solutions are full-featured and provide the needed offset workflow components, including trapping, imposition, and RIP capabilities. With some notable exceptions, sending files to digital devices today is a simpler (and, naturally, less capable) process of loading the document into a native application and printing (using a vendor-specific driver for the output device) directly to the toner-based output device. If the output device is sophisticated, there may be a workstation attached to it that can control variable printing features, simple imposition, and a wide variety of additional features like paper selection and tabbing. We're entering a new phase in the workflow software environment. It's driven by shorter runs, tighter turnaround times, and non-professional document creators who are now feeding commercial printers' production capacity. How many pre-press operations today struggle with handling offset output of customer files from applications like Microsoft Publisher or the Microsoft Office suite? Have you ever received an order for an offset color project consisting of 5,000 pieces, only to discover that the digital files were produced by the customer in Microsoft PowerPoint? These problems aren't going away, and we need workflow to make these jobs flow seamlessly into production. The challenges are easily identified: The first, and most basic, need is the ability for the workflow servers, RIPs and their accompanying tools (i.e., the pre-press production workflow systems employed in high-end production) to be “digital smart”, capable of driving a variety of digital devices and supporting their many features. Secondly, we need the ability for offset devices to be driven by the same workflow system, where output on an offset press is “green button” easy, just like the digital press. Finally, just when we think we've solved all the industry's proofing problems, there is the matter of proofing for jobs that combine offset and digital output. The good news is that we're beginning to see innovative solutions to these problems in the marketplace that are specifically designed to addresses the challenges facing the industry in a blended offset/digital world. It's exciting to see the industry adopting new techniques and processes, to increase productivity and enable print's expansion into new applications and markets, resulting in business growth and profitability. Workflow convergence may be the “killer app” that makes this all possible.