I don’t know how long this discussion has been active in the industry, but to me it feels like a conversation I’ve had every week for the past three years. Digital presses are no longer new or disruptive technology. They are table stakes for printers who need to be able to offer a full suite of production color and monochrome services whether it be short run, imprinting or variable data print (VDP) work. The challenge many are facing is almost universal: How do I manage the flow of jobs to the digital press(es)?
Digital presses give printers the ability to offer shorter run lengths than are possible on traditional presses. While not all digital press work is short run, much of it is driven by the need for quick turnaround, small order or variable work—where every page is unique. In many circumstances, these jobs are originating from Web-to-Print (W2P) systems. While service providers have established W2P solutions and have had digital presses for years, many are challenged with everything that happens in between the order being placed and the order making it onto the press. As the volume of this “short order” work starts to grow, traditional adhoc job management systems and procedures simply can’t keep up.
The Birth of “Near Line Job Management”
For most printers with digital presses, job queuing, processing, prepping and distribution/output takes place on the digital front end (DFE). The controller (as it’s sometimes called) or DFE is the terminal that comes with the digital press, like the one pictured here for the KODAK NEXPRESS Digital Production Color Platform. Many digital press vendors provide their own DFEs and many also offer third-party DFEs in addition to their own. Each DFE has different capabilities and features but ultimately, their job is to drive the press at its rated speed and resolution.
DFE’s provide the ability to:
• Create a job and its corresponding job ticket information (or modify an existing job)
• Assign specific output settings to the job, such as imposition, stock type, run length, color management
• Manage a queue of jobs including prioritizing, cancelling and rescheduling
• Determine what the press is currently doing: which jobs are in progress, which jobs are complete, what media is loaded, how much media remains, how much toner/ink remains, etc.
• Troubleshoot problems and errors
So what’s the downside? DFEs often have very basic job management features and only function with the press they are connected to, creating workflows that are very engine-specific. In addition, many VDP file formats are proprietary and specific to the DFE…which brings me back to my original question:
Why do you need a workflow in front of your digital press(es)?
An effective workflow platform acts like a traffic signal for digital jobs. It uses the job intent captured during the order process to direct jobs to appropriate devices, automatically scheduling them based on common properties and priority. To achieve this, the workflow platform has to be able to connect to—and communicate with—a variety of digital presses. The standard communication protocol which enables this is JDF/JMF standards. You can read more about these open standards here but the beauty of it is this: when the workflow can communicate with the digital press(es), it can send a job and job data to the press AND it can receive information about the status of that press.
Of course, the golden word I’ve avoided thus far is automation. The pillar of any effective workflow solution is a flexible and adaptive automation toolkit. And no, I’m not talking about hot folders. An automation toolkit will allow you to take all of that order data from a W2P or Management Information System, combine that with a view of your digital press(es), and use all of that information to complete tasks, route jobs and make dynamic decisions about where, how and when to process jobs — automatically. Benefits include:
• Files can be preflighted and checked for potential problems prior to arriving at the press, so that customers can be alerted to any issues automatically, and asked to resupply pages or the entire job.
• An operator doesn’t have to re-enter job data press-side, or set up a job on one press only to have to reroute it to another press.
• Tasks like imposition can be processed centrally, enabling quick and rapid reconfiguration if a change is required. And if a large job needs to be split across two presses, that can be done centrally.
On top of this, that same workflow can also connect to your CTP devices, giving you the ability to switch seamlessly between conventional offset and digital device output. And with a complete view of the entire production environment, you can track and monitor all jobs and tasks, so that if a problem arises, there’s an audit trail and record of resources and events.
So… automation, device connectivity and data exchange based on industry standards are the key elements to building workflow solutions for digital work. But of course it’s not that simple. You need to build all of that on top of a rock solid platform – designed to scale to any size and volume – with redundancy – and the foundations of the ADOBE PDF Print Engine – plus a monster truck-sized ORACLE database to keep all that data safe and sound.
Do I really need to mention we just happen to have a nice little piece of software called KODAK PRINERGY Workflow that can do all that cool stuff? Yep, thousands of the smallest and largest printers around the world use it every day to keep their digital AND offset presses humming and purring.
Worldwide Product Manager, Digital Print Workflow & Portals
KODAK Unified Workflow Solutions