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JDF: Ready for Take-Off?

The Job Definition Format has been around for a decade now. So why isn’t it more common in wide-format printing—and why is that about to change?

Big Picture

Not another acronym, you say? Yes, but this one has the potential to transform your workflow into an efficient, automated process.

The idea behind JDF, or the Job Definition Format, is to provide a way for the different components of a digital print production workflow to communicate with each other – from the initial creation of a job ticket through control of the finishing process. They do that through a JDF file, an XML expression of the specifications for a job.

“I have this file that tells me what my job ticket is, who the customer is, how many I have to print, what my color mode and resolution are – they’re all contained in that XML file,” says Jon Minion, product manager for EFI’s Pace print-management system. Theoretically, any JDF-enabled component can read the information it needs from that file without requiring an extra round of data entry or human intervention.

It’s important to realize, though, that JDF is not a product in itself. “It’s just the plumbing,” says Minion. “It’s up to the individual applications to add the automation features.”

Thomas Kirschner, managing director for ColorGate Digital Output Solutions, echoes Minion: “JDF is nothing that gives an end user direct value out of just having the module. It's an interlink, an exchange format that allows you to connect other systems.” A single JDF-enabled component is like a single fax machine – not very useful until there are other components to talk to.

JDF first arrived on the scene in 1999 but really began attracting attention at Drupa in 2004. “Every other booth was talking about JDF,” recalls Kirschner. Since then, it’s been widely embraced in the commercial and industrial printing markets but has lagged in gaining a foothold in digital wide-format printing. “At this moment, in the sign and display market, JDF is really in its infancy,” says Lieven Plettinck, EskoArtwork’s director of software engineering. Part of the reason, he says, is that this market has so many small shops with their own individual workflows.

HP has noticed the same thing: “We found that JDF is not used at all in the wide-format market,” says José Abad Peiro, worldwide program manager for DesignJet Web. “So we started doing an analysis of why and reached a number of conclusions. One is the differences you find in specific workflows at small firms.”

But JDF has been unsuited to wide-format printing for other reasons, too, starting with inappropriate measuring units. The JDF specification calls for measurements in points, but “when you have a very large element, you have to have other kinds of dimensions,” says Peiro, “or the numbers get too large to make any sense.”

Change is coming
While the use of JDF has been relatively rare in wide format printing up until now, that’s likely to change in the near future. “Economic and business forces are pushing it into this arena,” says Peiro. “It’s a sign of a maturing market that shops are now starting to look at automation to reduce overhead.”

Kirschner agrees: “It's more crucial,” he says. “Margins are shrinking. There's less ability to just redo a job if something goes wrong. With JDF automation, it can be fully automatic.”

And Danielle Mattiussi, Onyx Graphics director for product portfolio and business development for Onyx Graphics, points to other factors changing expectations among wide-format shops. “Conventional printers have reaped the benefits of automated workflow systems for years,” she says. “Now they are adding wide-format devices as a way to diversify revenue streams, and they expect nothing less from their wide-format workflow. Furthermore, there’s a large talent pool of people who may have worked for companies that weren’t so successful at diversifying their revenue streams. Many of those people landed in wide format armed with knowledge of and experience with JDF.”

Minion adds, “Our customers are demanding this. It’s becoming a very hot topic for them. They want all the advantages that JDF brings, and they want it now.”

They may get it soon. Last summer, HP was selected to head up the Wide Format Workgroup of The International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press, and Postpress Organization (CIP4, cip4.org), the group in charge of managing the JDF specification. HP’s stated goal is to define standards that are appropriate to wide-format printing workflows, from digital front ends to finishing devices. This past January, HP introduced a certification program under which partner products can be labeled “HP Certified for Wide Format Printing JDF Exchange.” Certified products should be able to properly share information via JDF. Partners in the certification program include Caldera, ColorGate, EFI, EskoArtwork, Four Pees, GMG, Onyx Graphics, and Printable Technologies.

According to Andrew Cuzner, HP strategic partner marketing manager for Designjet Business, “What HP has done has been to pull together a number of key players in the wide-format printing space and make sure they’re using the correct descriptions and schemas in their products. When those components get put together in a customer site, they have a better chance of operating with one another if they all use the same JDF descriptions.”

Onyx’s Mattiussi supplies an example: “The changes we are working on make JDF more powerful for wide-format printing, such as automating processes that don’t exist in other print markets (and therefore were not previously included in the specification). One simple example is the flow from a RIP to the press to a flatbed cutting device. The unique information exchange concerning the media type and cutting requirements, you would never see in other print markets.”

What will it mean?
JDF is not a product itself, it’s just the “plumbing” that enables different devices in a workflow to communicate with each other. Given that, the way it will show up in products varies from vendor to vendor. “Software vendors will mature JDF together, and print service providers should expect to see interoperability grow,” says Mattiussi.

“We sell an optional JDF Module for our RIP,” says ColorGate’s Kirschner. “Most of our customers that license the module use it to remotely control the RIP software but also to obtain feedback and info about job status, job flow, and so on. Also, our Web-to-print solution speaks JDF to our production servers, so you're able to set up a fully automatic flow where the end user is actually initiating the production process. Some of our customers even put the shipping and invoicing data into the JDF, from where it's passed onto an MIS system. We're also feeding back from the RIP information like how much ink was consumed and the total media used.”

“Our first implementation of JDF is available in a recent update to our ProductionHouse and PosterShop software,” says Mattiussi. “We want to continue doing what we do best – RIPs and color management – and partner with other systems our customers choose for being best-in-class in their product category.”

Esko’s Plettinck has the same take: “In general, this is one of JDF’s advantages: It allows the customer to build solutions from products from different vendors. For example, JDF capabilities are not yet present on the input side in our iCut Layout; but on the output side, the product can already generate a JDF layout. It’s a generic description of how you’re going to place the different items on a sheet, independent of which wide-format printer you actually want to send the file to. As long as the RIP on that device supports JDF layout, it can take the output of iCut Layout.”

“From the Vutek perspective, it’s going to be bundled in with the latest versions of the GS series of printers, and it’s also being included into the Fiery XF 4.5 version that’s just being released, says Mark Goodearl, EFI/Vutek product marketing manager. “There won’t be anything separate to get, it’ll just be a matter of configuring it to work together. We’re going to continue to build JDF capabilities into future Vutek printers, and at some point we may add it to the legacy equipment.”

How soon?
As said before, one JDF-enabled component isn’t much good by itself, but there’s a network effect: automating one segment of a workflow makes automating other segments easier and more appealing.

”We expect demand for JDF to grow quickly as print service providers learn about the power of automation,” says Mattiussi. “It will be driven by ‘the big guys,’ but the entire market will benefit. The alternative is a proprietary, single-vendor RIP and MIS system, and if we learned nothing else from the conventional print markets, it’s that customers don’t want to be locked to one vendor.”

Part of this process is the CIP4 working group’s efforts to develop Interoperability Conformance Specifications (ICS) for wide-format printing. “Now all the HP partners that are certified provide a level of interaction to our customers,” explains HP’s Peiro. “But once this becomes an ICS, the whole world can interact with those partners.”

As for how soon this all might happen, no one can really say. “We can only make an inference from other industries,” says Plettinck. “When I became active in the JDF world, there was no JDF whatsoever in labels and packaging. By now it’s widely adopted. Once an industry starts using it and seeing the advantages of it, the adoption rate can rise very quickly.”

HP’s Cuzner sees the same parallels. “The JDF standard across the graphic-arts industry and digital production devices appears to be well accepted and used. We see that wide format will adopt a similar path, but it’s very difficult to predict the trajectory. When you’re working with the CIP4, the timeline is rather vague. You’re working with partners coming from different angles with different speeds. We do have specs at HP, and we know what makes sense from the technology perspective.”

“If it takes more than a year and a half, it will be too late—by then something else will have happened,” Peiro chimes in. “Hopefully it will take about a year.”

Kirschner is bullish on the possibilities for his company. “Probably only two to five percent of our current RIP sales are equipped with JDF capabilities,” he says. “But I think that within the next three to five years, all print service providers will have to be able to accept jobs via the Web. We feel that JDF is the best route.”

Jake Widman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Big Picture magazine.

Want to learn more about what JDF entails? Check out the ABCs of JDF: http://bigpicture.net/content/the-abcs-jdf

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