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2008: The Year of the Smart PDF

Intelligent files will be talking to devices.

This coming year could be the beginning of a universal workflow that’s based on "Smart PDF." The trend has clearly begun, and it’s something that print providers can look forward to moving forward.

The need for this is substantial. Although we have largely overcome the problem with bad files in general, and many files produced are now indeed printable files, we still have a problem: How do you get that file to print the same way on a variety of output devices? Most print providers, after all, offer their customers various output devices. And they often print files that also must be output on high-speed digital devices or even traditional offset presses. They are constantly re-RIPing jobs, and sometimes getting different results on different machines.

Adding intelligence to your files
Companies that make front-end software to feed these machines have been quietly striving to make the process more universal. Indeed, they have to. Companies such as EFI and Kodak not only make the front ends, they also make the print devices. When dealing with both sides of the issue, the problems become challenges, and solving them builds strong customer relationships.

But these companies really do not have much control over the way files arrive. So the approach is to make those files "smarter." The idea is to allow the operator to input data about the files and how they are to be handled by the print device. Since many of the most popular RIPs have been designed to read and understand JDF data, this seems like a reasonable way to get the information through the system.

So the next step is getting that data into the file itself. With such data, operators can add intelligence to incoming files. They can tell machines what needs to be done with the file-including everything from imposition to finishing. When done correctly, this means that files can be sent to a variety of printers and those devices can automatically configure themselves based on the file’s data.

The process will take some operator input up front. The operator must know what needs to be done to the file-for example, is it a booklet or a packaging file requiring cutting, and so on. But the operator will not need to know what device will be printing the file. Instead, the intelligent file will be able to "talk" to the device and give the printer all the information it needs to perform whatever tasks it is capable of performing.

Building a container
The obvious container for this data is PDF, since Adobe has built XML data-handling capability into its file-format structure. What may seem surprising is that the only product currently on the market to create these "intelligent" PDF files is not from a RIP manufacturer, but rather from a small PDF developer, Apago (www.apagoinc.com).

Last month, Apago released another new product-so new, in fact, that it doesn’t yet have a name. Based on a product called AcrosuitePro from Prinux (www.prinux.us), the release is an Acrobat Pro plug-in that does not use JDF data to get the information to the printers (partly because few printers had JDF capabilities when the Prinux product was first created). But Apago plans to combine its PDF expertise and JDF knowledge in future versions. Even now, the product already supports dozens of printer drivers that run devices from Canon, Kodak, Heidelberg, Xerox, Konica-Minolta, Hitachi, and Ricoh.

What kind of information can be input? At this point, factors such as paper type, stapling, drilling, covers, folding, trimming, and any page-level finishing information can be included. All of this information is written into a job ticket, which becomes the container for the data. This may not seem like a lot-yet. And, admittedly, there isn’t much data in the current release that’s specific to wide format. But the future potential for this approach is huge. The stand-alone product that Apago will release next year will likely contain many more capabilities for controlling a wide array of devices.

What’s significant for print providers is that once this data is written in JDF format, any JDF-compliant printer will be able to instantly grab that data. It really won’t matter what device you are printing to; it will automatically set itself up. There will be less waste, less set up time, more automation, and even the possibility of remote, "lights-out" operation.

And don’t think the big players won’t take notice. I bet that they’ll be scrambling to make "Smart PDF" part of their workflow. Keep in mind that Adobe-the biggest player making products that produce files for output-already has anticipated the need for JDF compatibility in its CS3 suite of products. And RIP manufacturers also have been adding JDF compliance to many in-field devices.

Based in Seneca Falls, NY, writer Stephen Beals (stephenbeals@mac.com) is a frequent contributor to The Big Picture magazine.

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