By Melissa Donovan
Production printers rely on sophisticated digital front ends (DFEs) to interpret information for output. Both original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and third-party DFEs are available on flagship electrophotographic (EP)/toner-based production devices. The options are limitless when it comes to print providers looking to purchase DFEs with their latest digital production presses.
The best match for the press and print provider is influenced overwhelmingly by integration capabilities, support for an end-to-end automated workflow is a continuing trend. Features include faster job processing and management of special inks and coatings. The future of the DFE is dependent on industry demands and the applications that drive it. Because of these drivers, DFE manufacturers plan to focus on productivity and integration improvements over the next few years.
When selecting a new digital device and which DFE to drive it, a print provider should consider integration and what that means in the long term.
“Customers demand fully integrated communications from print service providers (PSPs) within marketing campaigns that include all types of media and use various production processes. PSPs should evaluate connectivity options in any DFE to their existing or planned software/hardware acquisitions. An open and flexible DFE will trump any proprietary solution by providing for the most flexibility and deliver a better return on investment (ROI),” says Chris E. Yanko, workflow solutions manager, North America, Xeikon.
He explains that XML is traditionally the glue that allows multiple systems to communicate using a common language. Integrated JDF/JMF support enables the DFE to understand incoming and communicate outgoing messaging. This is used to send production metrics from a running press to a print management information system (MIS). Older systems may utilize SQL to extract similar information.
“Support for JMF and JDF protocols are the backbone of automation solutions. These industry standards allow for two-way communication of job programming and job status. The better the communication, the more productive the solution. Other industry standards around file formats and job programming are equally important,” agrees Kevin Horey, VP/GM, workflow solutions, Xerox Corporation.
According to Bob Raus, North America category manager, HP SmartStream and Partner Programs, HP Indigo & Inkjet Press Solutions, AMS, Hewlett-Packard (HP), when the DFE offers the ability to integrate with any MIS or shop floor management system, the print provider avoids being locked into working with one workflow provider.
“We recommend that printers consider the DFE as an integral part of their uptime/downtime job management functions and a critical factor in managing operations for their business. A true DFE will go beyond file control and extend into planning and analysis,” adds Kevin Abergel, VP of sales and marketing, MGI USA.
“Print providers should ensure that the DFE they select meets current workflow requirements. Supported date formats, imposition, color management, and queue management are important features that must be considered,” says Wayne Lemmerbrock, director, controller development, Eastman Kodak Company.
The benefit of integration, suggests John Henze, VP, marketing, EFI Fiery, is better accuracy and efficiency in everything from job submission, estimating, and scheduling, through to print production, fulfillment, and client billing. EFI launched a Fiery application programming interface (API) to make it easier for customers to integrate homegrown workflow solutions with the Fiery DFE.
“A growing number of PSPs are interested in working to build their own custom integration and features, or just creating a tighter integration between the Fiery DFE and the homegrown workflow solutions they have been using for years,” admits Henze. “By offering the API, EFI provides the investment protection a PSP is seeking, all with a more efficient, automated workflow.”
OEM and third-party DFEs are equipped to handle the latest advancements in digital print, including speed, variable data handling, and specialty inks and coatings.
“We are primarily concerned with the speed at which the DFE can process pre-RIPped layouts, and facilitate bi-directional JMF communication with prepress,” explains Mark Gallucci, manager, technology marketing, Agfa Graphics.
Keeping up with speed demands, companies like Kodak are releasing new server hardware that supports up to a Dual Xeon processor with ten cores, significantly reducing RIP time and improving print performance.
“There are demands on today’s printers with personalization expected, advanced file formats, and extremely large file sizes with very short run lengths. Performance is always top of mind as the production engines continue to increase in speed and productivity. The latest DFEs are meeting these requirements with scalable hardware and processing power,” shares Horey.
Specialty inks and coatings are of growing interest, he continues, citing support for clear toner, gold and silver inks, and specialty imaging fonts as increasing in importance.
MGI’s DFE “offers a variety of innovative interface and job management features—such as being able to control the thickness of each pixel being varnished or foiled in a single pass. The DFE also allows you to apply a myriad of different textures that can be uploaded and applied to specific areas of the file,” explains Abergel. Examples of textures include woodgrain, paisley, bubbles, alligator skin, snakeskin, and leather.
Henze believes creating new DFE products sold and developed for major production press manufacturers—like EFI does—centers on maximizing the capabilities of new printing technologies coming to market. “When a press manufacturer develops a new engine offering clear, white, or metallic toners, a specific DFE developed for the press will include the Fiery core imaging enhancements along with custom-developed features needed to drive the special capabilities of that particular press,” says Henze.
Vendors mentioned in this article highlight which DFE options are upcoming or currently available for their latest/flagship presses. These solutions are either OEM or third party, and offered as one, the other, or both.
Agfa’s Apogee Prepress with Apogee’s Direct Print Link can interface as a JDF controller to DFEs from Canon, EFI, HP, Kodak, and Konica Minolta Business Solutions. The connection allows Apogee to prepare and print jobs to a range of digital presses from these vendors in addition to MGI, Ricoh Americas Corp, and Xerox. Gallucci says that integration with Apogee Prepress “facilitates using the digital press as a proofer, pre- or re-printing offset jobs on a digital press, and hybrid jobs—digital cover and offset body, for example.” In addition to Apogee, Agfa resells the MGI Meteor DP8700XL+ press with the EFI Fiery DFE.
The EFI Fiery FS50 Pro DFE is the company’s fastest, most advanced DFE to date. Like its predecessor, the company claims that it carries a 100 percent pass rating in an audit of PDF file processing capabilities conducted by the industry association VIGC. The new DFE includes a next generation parallel processing feature, Fiery HyperRIP, which processes jobs up to 55 percent faster than Fiery DFEs without the parallel processing feature.
HP SmartStream Production Pro Print Server is designed to drive up to eight HP Indigo digital presses from a single, scalable and industrial-strength print server. The architecture provides one place to manage print assets, a single color management system for multiple presses, centralized imposition, and the ability to move jobs from one press to another. HP SmartStream Production Pro Print Server enables the HP Indigo Enhanced Productivity Mode three-color printing process, which increases press speeds up to 33 percent and reduces print costs up to 25 percent.
Kodak plans to release support for Monza 3.4 and CPSI 3020 RIPs with its 700PM DFE later this year. “An internal Kodak DFE, this provides superior RIP performance and functionality. It gives us maximum flexibility in setting development priorities and determining functionality,” explains Lemmerbrock. The 700PM supports industry standard JDF and JMF specifications. It maintains hot folders and allows the customer to automate their workflow and receive status updates on the DFE operation.
MGI developed the DFE for the JETvarnish 3D and iFOIL specifically for spot UV coating and foiled enhancements of print outputs from both digital and offset printing machines. Three special command modules make up the solution—3D HubManager, Spot Varnish Editor, and Production Cost Analyzer. 3D HubManager allows operators to control the process via a touch screen monitor, store jobs, manage data, and export information. Spot Varnish Editor allows an operator to conduct modifications to the actual varnish or foil directly from the machine’s DFE. The Production Cost Analyzer performs ROI analysis on time and materials. MGI also works with EFI to manage its Meteor production systems.
Xeikon X-800 DFE brings together an Adobe CPSI and APPE (PDF) RIP in one package. It is a control center built on open standards such as XML, JDF, JMF, and SQL. The newest iteration of the solution includes plug ins developed in house like VariLane, Vectorizor, ColorMagic, Impactor, Job Optimizer, and Barcode Module.
Xerox offers its proprietary Xerox FreeFlow Print Server (FFPS) and EFI Fiery across its production portfolio. According to Horey, the company offers this choice for a number of reasons. “Many customers built their print strategy with workflow and DFE as integral parts. Offering a choice of DFEs better positions Xerox to be productive in a customer’s current workflow environment,” he explains. Some Xerox users take advantage of the common controller strategy and drive both their Xerox B&W and color production presses with FFPS. Others may look to the EFI Fiery.
Over the next few years, DFE capabilities will continue to advance, specifically in speed and integration to keep pace with evolving hardware.
“Improvement in computing speed and in tandem—reductions in cost—will enable even more powerful software to be modularized and integrated within modern DFEs. As the markets for printed products in labels and packaging and document printing unfold and evolve, new capabilities will be needed to enable them. This is why it is so important for a DFE to be based on open standards,” adheres Yanko.
“The DFE will need to keep pace with the new engine advancements especially around color capabilities and management. Additionally, more personalization will require adherence to industry standards such as PDF/VT,” foresees Horey.
Gallucci predicts greater integration capabilities with enterprise resource planning (ERP), MIS, and production systems; cloud integration; and Web-based soft proofing.
With cloud integration comes mobility. “We know that more users want mobility with tools they can use to analyze, track, and monitor digital printing operations away from their workstations. So on that front, cloud-based solutions will play more of a role in the future, and mobile application development has come to that forefront,” shares Henze.
The Purpose of the DFE
DFEs offer a number of benefits thanks to integration with leading MIS, analytics, and ERP programs. When a PSP purchases a new device, it has the freedom to choose the best DFE for its needs, whether that is an OEM solution, third party, or a homegrown creation. Available solutions offer speed, integration, and the ability to handle the most complex jobs. dps
Jul2015, DPS Magazine