Editor’s Note. Andrew Leung a 4th year Graphic Communication student at Ryerson University recently wrote this essay on JDF. The use of JDF-enabled system are becoming widely adopted within the industry. This essay provides a concise review of the technology.
By Andrew Leung
To those who use it, JDF is considered one of the most innovative technologies in the printing industry. It allows workflow to become much more automated and help streamline some of the more cumbersome and repetitive tasks that often can cost printers a substantial amount of money; it was built to help eliminate waste. It costs nothing for printers to use the specifications for JDF, but the systems that incorporates its ability is where the cost lies. JDF is still relatively new, and while there are those in the printing and graphics art industry that have adopted its potential and capabilities, others are still skeptical about it, in the long run, JDF is here to stay.
What is JDF?
To put it simply, JDF is an XML-based file format used as an electronic job ticket. It was designed as a standard for the printing and graphics art industry to catalyze implementation of different applications, systems and workflow by various vendors. A JDF file contains all the information that operators in prepress and print-production would normally need to know from a more “traditional” job ticket, except that it is all done electronically. When one system receives instructions on what it needs to be done, it performs the task, which then, in turn, generate new instructions for the next process down in the workflow. At its core, JDF does what a normal job ticket does, and so much more.
History of JDF
The inception of JDF dates back to 2000 when Adobe, Agfa, Heidelberg and MAN Roland collaboratively created it. However, the former two companies had made their own attempts prior to that year in developing a standard for exchanging job-related data across different graphic applications. Adobe had created PJTF, which stands for Portable Job Ticket Format, a now outdated file format that was used to instruct programs how pages should be processed for workflow systems. It was only limited to imposition applications, such as Kodak Preps. Other than imposition instructions, PJTF also points out other information such as press sheet size and press marks. What limited PJTF from ever being further developed was that it only was able to define prepress data, not a full workflow.
The four companies envisioned that JDF would be able to do the following:
cover all processes related to printing.
go beyond what PJTF was able to do.
to be based on XML, streamlining the accessibility and comprehensibility of the file, as well as making it easier to be further developed using existing technology.
In 2001, they had brought the specifications for JDF to a non-profit standard organization within the industry called CIP3, which today is evolved into CIP4 (International Cooperation for Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress) to have it publicly standardized. In April of the same year, JDF version 1.0 would be published. Initially, the majority of the industry did not conform to implementing such standards to their current workflow, despite the fact that JDF had received immense coverage in trade magazines. Companies would eventually see the benefits of using JDF in their system, and the momentum was building for them. According to the CIP4 organization, today about 150 companies are providing JDF-enabled products – more than 180 JDF-enabled products are available, and nearly 4,000 users are working with JDF-enabled products.
Anatomy and Functionality of JDF
JDF is a collection of industry-accepted XML tags. The reason XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is considered the ideal file extension for JDF is its unlimited ability to define tags for information – which in the case with implementing JDF, information that shows up on a traditional job ticket. This information includes but is not limited to – job name, delivery dates, job parameters, customer data, and production info. Basically, any type of information regarding a print job, from the design stage up until postpress, are embedded in the XML tags.
For a JDF workflow to be implemented properly, it needs to be managed. The most common method utilizes a JDF-enabled MIS (Management Information System). While JDF contains all the detailed specifications about a job (i.e. colour space used, number of pages, etc), The MIS handles customer quotation, order entry and creation of job tickets, job scheduling, and any other tasks that ensures the printing job is done at a timely manner. It also serves as a “command center”, controlling all activities that involves the utilization of JDF. It controls the traffic of JDF files between JDF-enabled systems throughout the workflow, telling it where and when it should move from, for example, prepress to print fulfillment, or from a graphics designer to prepress.
Part of the reason why JDF is such a powerful tool is due to the way JDF-enabled systems communicate with each other. There are varying communicating methods and they depend on the sophistication of the workflow. There are various star topology, point-to-point connection, and hybrid configuration systems that are available to choose from. All have their advantages and disadvantages, and each of them may or may not meet the needs of a company and their workflow. The bottom line is that all parties involved use the Job Messaging Format (JMF) and if one party requires a change in the XML data entry tag, that device can be reached on a ‘need to know’ basis.
Pros and Cons of JDF
The biggest advantage with companies using JDF-enabled technology revolves around the concept of automation. Job parameters are transferred and accumulated using a industry-accepted standard, which streamlines communication at every moment of the process, from the entry of a job to final delivery and billing – all being done electronically. Because the technology is a industry-wide standard, those interested in purchasing JDF-enabled products do not have to purchase them from one particular vendor. Printers can purchase certified products, without having to worry about any operating issues with JDF on their machines.
Implementing JDF technology can be a way of saving money for printers. Costs produced by any unnecessary redundancy and human errors can be eliminated with JDF. However, if the cost of a JDF-enabled workflow is greater than the ROI, then implementing JDF is not recommended. Therefore, printers with very limited capital spending are restricted to their existing equipment that are not able to “talk” to the rest of the workflow like the way JDF does.
JDF has its limitations too. Printers cannot just suddenly switch to a JDF-enabled workflow overnight, and they cannot simply add on a JDF-enabled product. Unless their current workflow is compatible with JDF, a complete revamp is required. It does not make sense to have a robust front end prepress system, if a printer’s current system are all analog; data would be rendered useless because the equipment downstream cannot communicate with the rest of the workflow.
Considerations for JDF: Is it for Everybody?
Technically, JDF is within everybody’s reach. Its quality and abilities can benefit all types of workflow, no matter how simple or complex they are. However, it seems that medium- to large-size companies will most likely benefit the most out of using this technology, because they are the ones that have a greater spending capital to invest on JDF; not only in the technology, but also being able to maintain it by hiring IT personnel. Because the ROI with implementing JDF-enabled systems into a workflow can be lengthy, smaller companies that decide on utilizing it may face financial distress. It also depends on the types of job that the printers are using with their JDF workflow. Long-term contract work such as publication printing may see a faster return on investment.
It is not suggested that small companies would not benefit from investing in JDF technology. In fact with careful purchase planning, they can acquire some sort of JDF-enabled workflow that would allow better and efficient data handling. Smaller companies can also benefit against their competitors that do not offer web2print and other automated print solutions.
Thorough planning must be implemented for all stages of a company workflow. According to the publication ‘JDF: A Guide for Managers’, the following questions should be asked before adopting JDF:
Does integration fit with our business strategy?
What are our expectations? Are these expectations achievable?
What is our capital spending plan for the next 5 years? 10 year?
Do we have the people/resources to make it happen and the commitment to follow through it?
Do we have buy-in from key decision makers and team members?
What is our competition doing? Will this help us keep up or set us apart?
At what point might we have to rethink or rework more of our workflow than makes sense for implementation?
Again, only invest in JDF if your company’s workflow needs it and that you have the capital expenditure to do so. Better yet, money should be spent on maintenance on presses. My contact, Dixon Fan, gave an example regarding that statement: “it would be counter-productive for a printer if they have a perfect ink zone data, but the final print turns out to look horrendous because their rollers were not functioning properly. They could have had the money to replace for new ones, but instead spent on JDF-enabled equipments.”
JDF is here for the long haul, no doubt about it. Because the motivation in conforming towards greater automation in the printing industry is so great, it is just a matter of time before JDF becomes even more recognized. It cannot be stressed enough that, although the benefits with JDF are countless, they do not happen overnight. More importantly, printers should not expect to see a sudden influx of profit from the immediate implementation of JDF. Even if printers cannot conform to a fully JDF-integrated system as their workflow, they can still do partial implementations. Ultimately the printing industry must seek to automate to stay in business.
About Andrew Leung
Andrew is a 4th year student at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he is completing his major in the Graphic Communications Management program, as well as his minor in Marketing.