The international print media fair Drupa, held in May this year in Düsseldorf, saw the launch of many new products - from digital presses and wide-format inkjets to advanced Adobe PDF solutions. But the main buzz of the show was undoubtedly generated by JDF, the Job Definition Format. A brand new version of the industry standard for automated print production workflows was released at the event to an almost rapturous reception. If you believe the tone of the literature currently being pitched at the print industry, JDF is going to change the world.

If this is the first time you have heard of JDF, you are probably scratching your head and wondering what the fuss is all about. Hype aside, it looks as if you will be hearing a lot more about JDF in future because it may end up reaching directly onto your desktop. In fact, you could already be using JDF-enabled software without realising it. But let's start with the basics: what is JDF, where did it come from and what does it do?

The origins of JDF
Printing press manufacturer Heidelberg originally set up a study forum called CIP3 which created a proprietary software system called the Print Production Format (PPF) for handling press operations digitally. Soon afterwards, Heidelberg hooked up with Adobe, Agfa and MAN Roland to create the basis of an electronic job ticket for press work, which the gang of four decided to call 'Job Definition Format' (JDF). CIP3 was duly dissolved and in 2001 a new independent, not-for-profit organisation dubbed CIP4 took its place. CIP4 now comprises 239 member companies from the graphics and print industry, and its core function is to develop JDF as an open standard.

JDF is a technology for binding together digital workflows for graphic design and print. Since most workflows comprise lots of different software programs, various hardware, a choice of output RIPs and so on, the key attribute of JDF is that it be open to all these systems. To this end, JDF is based on the flexible and thoroughly open XML language. In principle, as long as all the job definitions are in XML, the various manufacturers simply have to ensure their products can speak XML too; more specifically, they need to be able to handle the workflow schema (XML tag definition validations) that JDF lays down.

This is probably as clear as mud so far, so here's an example taken from the latest JDF 1.2. This latest version of JDF contains definitions for five different kinds of staple folds that can be applied by a wire staple stitcher. You can use JDF tags to tell your JDF workflow which staple folds each stitcher unit supports. In turn, a JDF workflow can use this knowledge to instruct a JDF-enabled stitcher to apply a particular kind of staple fold for a particular job. There's no need to get bogged down with proprietary drivers or coding to operate the stitcher from the workflow: the workflow and the stitcher communicate automatically through the independent, XML-based medium of JDF.

What JDF does
You might like to think of JDF as a 'job ticketing' system, but that's just the start of what JDF can do. With an electronic job ticket, your instructions for how a page layout should be output are attached to your files when they are submitted to a printer or bureau. Unlike Adobe's Portable Job Ticket Format (PJTF), JDF does not embed the instructions in the production files themselves, although it does let you map PJTF data into a JDF workflow, so ensuring compatibility. With job ticketing, anyone at any point in the workflow between design and output can find out where a job came from, where it is going, what was done to it and so on.

JDF also establishes a structure for automating production processes. It might be used for preflighting jobs and carrying out required changes automatically. For unfixable problems, such as missing font, a JDF system can be designed to contact a designated person automatically while putting the job on hold. JDF allows for the automatic emailing of recipients, sending of SMS messages to mobile phones and so on.

Because JDF is employed to communicate with devices, as hinted with our stapler example earlier, it lets a printer or bureau quickly determine which equipment is available and which is appropriate for each job. It can then deliver the job to those devices and instruct them what to do next -- again, automatically. This lets the print manager juggle resources and ensure capacity is being filled more efficiently, while keeping close tabs on what is happening to every job in the system. The job trail is recorded automatically too, allowing for instant and accurate final billing to the customer (that's you).

How will JDF affect me?

The people who are writing JDF support into software and production devices, as well as those building JDF-enabled workflow systems, work with XML code and so on. But as a user ? a designer, a production manager or whatever ? you will never have to touch XML. Instead, JDF systems appear on-screen just like any existing application; the workflow handling takes place under the hood. You may be surprised how many products are already JDF-enabled, from PostScript RIPs (Best Designer, Harlequin) to existing prepress systems (Apogee, Vio), and even HP DesignJet printers and proofers.

As printers and bureaus begin to implement JDF, their workflows will begin to encroach on your own. You may soon be required to fill out a detailed electronic form for every job submitted, assuming you aren't already, and the submission itself might take place through a Web interface. More printers will instigate automated preflighting at the point of submission, so expect bad files to keep being bounced back until you get it right. On a more positive note, as your own design software becomes JDF-enabled, you can automate your own internal workflow and take a certain amount of control over production externally too. Publishers, print buyers and ad agencies should find that they can achieve quicker turnarounds thanks to more precise scheduling. Communication breakdowns, missed corrections and client-supplier misunderstandings due to illegibly scribbled instructions on bits of paper which then get lost will be problems of the past.

Well that's the theory, anyway. No doubt there will be technological stumbling blocks before we achieve this level of press production nirvana. But by this time next year, expect 'JDF' to enter your everyday work lexicon alongside 'ICC profile' and 'PDF/X'. JDF will reshape the future of print design, and it's a revolution that has already started.

White papers explaining JDF in detail can be downloaded free of charge.