If you're a printer, you don't need anyone to tell you that you can't hang plates on a print workflow. You can't ink up a workflow or load it with paper, because by itself, a workflow wouldn't know what to do with either. A workflow has no productive capacity of its own, so it never will produce a saleable product. There's no market for used workflows, and no printer has ever impressed (or probably ever will impress) a customer by boasting about his workflow.

And yet nearly every print equipment manufacturer is telling every printer that without a workflow, it will be well nigh impossible to run a competitive and profitable printing business. How, then, to resolve the disconnect between the vendors' zeal for workflow and fact that most printers neither understand the concept nor see it as essential to their operations?

The perception gap may be starting to close at drupa, where large-scale workflow demonstrations are giving persuasive evidence that the benefits of workflow are real, measurable, and potentially profit-enhancing. For the first time, printers and other show goers are being given the opportunity to examine all of the working parts of workflow in the kinds of production environments into which the vendors want to sell workflow components.

Job data, streamed to booth displays from presses and other equipment running live jobs on the exhibition floor, are showing how digital information can be used to control and in many cases optimize each step in the production sequence. The solutions are being promoted as implementations of JDF (job definition format), the broadly endorsed workflow standard that has become both a slogan for drupa and a marketing theme for many of its leading exhibitors.

At Messe Düsseldorf, the two most prominent proponents of workflow are Heidelberg, which is presenting a solution called Prinect; and MAN Roland, holding sway in Print City (Hall 6) with its printnet connection. The Big Two are not alone in working the crowds on behalf of workflow. Komori, for example, is linking its products to a JDF implementation it has dubbed DoNet. With the help of Creo, the NGP (Networked Graphic Production) organization is expanding its advocacy of JDF by encouraging its members to form partner pairs for equipment interoperability in production workflows.

What these efforts are helping to make clearat drupa at leastis that workflow is neither a panacea that will solve all production problems nor a philosopher's stone for turning mediocre printing operations into golden ones. Thanks to the presentations by Heidelberg, MAN Roland, et. al., it's becoming easier to see workflow for what it really isor, more precisely, to avoid mistaking it for what it isn't.

Workflow, the vendors emphasize, isn't a product or a service in the conventional sense. Essentially, it's a metaphor for the ability of various software and hardware systems to share and act upon information in a way that conforms to the protocols established for JDF by CIP4, the endorsing organization. But, for marketing purposes, workflow also can be translated into something as intangible as itself, but more recognizable: a brand.

Prinect fills both functions for Heidelberg, which uses the word to identify a suite of already existing products that it now offers as an end-to-end workflow to users of its equipment. MAN Roland, likewise, has rebranded its JDF-compliant PECOM press control technologies as Printnet, bringing them into a workflow implementation scheme originally developed for newspapers by one of its subsidiaries. The difference between the two approaches is that Heidelberg's workflow components are all self-developed, whereas MAN Roland uses Printnet to integrate its products with those of other vendors that are its neighbors in Print City.

Both companies are taking care to avoid depicting workflow as a new or a stand-alone product. You can't go to the Heidelberg store and buy a box of Prinect, notes Jim Mauro, who directs workflow marketing support for Heidelberg. He adds that Prinect components can take the form of hardware, software, or combinations of the two. An example of a hardware-software combination is Prinect Prepress Interface, which includes the Prinect Image Control scanner for detailed inspection of press sheets. If the deliverable is purely software, he says, what the customer gets is a box with a CD and some dongles in it.

Heidelberg has established three functional categories for Prinect: print management solutions, incorporating MIS; production solutions, covering process steps such as RIPing and imposition; and color solutions, aimed at yielding what Mauro calls a synchronized color workflow. The three categories comprise about 15 Heidelberg products that now bear the Prinect brand, according to Mauro.

Christian Cerfontaine, director of marketing for MAN Roland, describes printnet as the JDF-compliant digital backbone for upgrades to PECOM products that the company has had in its portfolio since 1993. Users of older PECOM components can expect a plug and play upgrade to JDF-compliant versions suitable for Printnet, he says, adding that there about 1,000 PECOM installations ready and waiting to be taken to the next level of workflow via Printnet.

MAN Roland's plan for printnet at drupa calls upon the workflow to serve as the backbone for products from the more than 50 vendors that have partnered in Print City under the banner of JDF. The partners have grouped their production systems in a common area as five factories for various print applications. Graphically displayed in Print City's integration center, a control tower that overlooks the production floor in Hall 6, the scheme resembles a subway or rail map that represents connections among the systems as Printnet routes with intersections made possible by JDF.

What the MAN Roland and Heidelberg workflow exhibits have in common is that both are channeling actual production information from work being produced on the show floor. According to Cerfontaine, the screens in the Print City integration center are displaying real data from the posters, packaging forms, and other items being produced daily in the five factories. This is the point of Print City, he says. Mauro, likewise, affirms that all data being displayed in the Prinect Center in Heidelberg's Hall 1 represent jobs being run or that have been run in the hall's manufacturing areas.

While Heidelberg and MAN Roland are drawing the most attention to workflow by the magnitude of their displays, other equipment manufacturers also are promoting workflow as a way to add value to their product offerings. At its May 9 press briefing, Komori said that its JDF implementation, the Komori DoNet Digital Network, will control print management functions from inquiry to printed output on its presses, all of which being shown at drupa are JDF-compliant. The company says that its JDF demonstrations at drupa will include a selection of interfaces to MIS systems.

The latter aspect of workflow is key, because a fully implemented workflow not only links production functions but ties print manufacturing to MISthe resident management information system that tracks job progress, manages estimating and costing, integrates information from sales, and otherwise oversees the business of printing in the plant where the workflow holds sway. Both Heidelberg and MAN Roland promise interoperability with MIS systems that have been brought into line with the latest version of JDF. (Some MIS packages widely used by printers are not.) Both also say that while workflow can be purchased in pieces as the customer's production needs evolve, it adds full value only when harnessed to the administrative power of MIS.

At drupa, NGP is doing its part to highlight the importance of the MIS connection by producing a daily newspaper that commences its production cycle with the creation of specs and estimates in the MIS application Hiflex. The specs deliver a production plan that becomes the basis of the job schedule. Software from Creo (which co-hosted NGP's press briefing with its own on May 8) enables job data to pass between the job's prepress workflow management system and the MIS.

NGP has also expanded its membership to 43 production partners that have developed, according to the organization, more than 80 integration pairsproduction systems that can work seamlessly with one another in accordance with JDF. MAN Roland and Komori are among the members of NGP. Heidelberg is not.