Print, Prinect and paranoia, the long roots of Zaikio’s open promises

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

In early August, Printweek.com ran a story on Zaikio, a new open print connectivity technology being launched by a German company that previously had the wonderful name Crispy Mountain. It led to that month’s longest chain of reader responses on the Disqus comments section below the story. It seems to have struck a particular nerve because last year Heidelberg bought Crispy Mountain (now Zaikio).

Prinect network vision: one workflow to rule them all
Prinect network vision: one workflow to rule them all

Heidelberg has a certain history in connectivity that many people remember. At the turn of the century it developed its own proprietary connectivity network, intended to link all aspects of production using its own equipment. That wasn’t unusual – then as now most big press and finishing systems makers were creating networks to allow their equipment to talk to control systems, MIS, platesetter RIPs and so on. However, Heidelberg’s Prinect network was the only one that put the wind up its competitors.

This is because 20 years ago Heidelberg really did seem to be taking over the world of print equipment. It was rapidly reaching the point where it made, or had control over, leading edge products at pretty well every stage in the product process: MIS, film scanners (still big business in the 1990s), RIP-workflows, litho platesetters, sheetfed and web offset litho presses, digitally imaged litho presses in cooperation with Presstek and Creo, a digital toner press project with Kodak, and finishing lines via long-standing alliances with Polar and Stahl.

One-stop shop

It was beginning to look like if you were starting up a print factory, you could write Heidelberg one big cheque and it would provide everything you’d need except the kettle and the loo rolls.

Heidelberg got to that position partly as a result of two enormously significant takeovers, plus some clever alliances. The first big takeover was the US/French web offset press manufacturer Harris Graphics in 1988 – before that Heidelberg was sheetfed only. In 1996 it made three more take-overs: Stork Contiweb (web offset presses and ancillaries); Sheridan Systems (newspaper mailroom and commercial bindery systems); and, most significantly of all, Linotype-Hell.

Linotype-Hell was struggling financially but it had a huge user base and world-class in-house expertise in digital pre-press and networks. This was all inherited by Heidelberg, which carried on developing its scanners, RIPs, platesetters and networks.

There were several digital press projects on the go too. Heidelberg and its partner Presstek sold 1,300 of the Quickmaster DI digitally imaged SRA3 litho presses between 1993 and 2003. At Ipex 1998 it followed this with the B2 Speedmaster 74DI though only about 35 were sold. Drupa 2000 saw Heidelberg and Kodak reveal details of their jointly developed high-end digital toner press, called NexPress. It had also been investing in a US inkjet maker called Dimatix with a view to integrating its heads on Heidelberg’s web offset and sheetfed presses.

The Prinect network it was developing to link all its kit all together seemed destined to lock customers still further into buying Heidelberg, rather than go through the compatibility agonies of trying to plug in third- party kit.

Rivals cooperate

This didn’t go unnoticed by the other big players and it spooked them so much that they started co-operating. They set up the multi-vendor PrintCity Alliance that appeared at Drupa 2000 and several Ipexes and Drupas thereafter, demonstrating working network links between co-operating parties. Agfa, Esko, Canon/Océ and Man Roland were originally the leading lights. Others joined and dropped out over the years.

At the same time JDF (Job Definition Format) was already being developed by another multi-vendor (and multi-user) alliance called CIP3 (too long to spell out) as an open system to allow data interchange between practically anything. The origins of JDF were a 1999 initiative by Adobe, Agfa, Heidelberg and Man Roland but they handed it over to the independent multi-partner committee CIP4 at Drupa 2000.

Another contender at the time was NGP (Networked Graphic Production), with each system backed by different sets of suppliers. The JDF and NGP parties decided to combine their efforts at Drupa 2004.

Around the same time Heidelberg agreed to open Prinect for integration with third parties via JDF. So the scary prospect of a closed all-Heidelberg network went away. By the mid-2000s Heidelberg had gone past its high point and started to divest itself of bits and bobs. The DI presses had been dropped by 2004, the year that the web offset division was sold to Goss. The next year Heidelberg sold its share of NexPress to Kodak for $1. Scanners had been wiped out by digital cameras, while Heidelberg was buying its platesetters from Screen rather than building its own, though it still developed its own RIPs. Prinect was continued as the heart of an increasingly automated production network and is its leading edge enabling technology to this day.

The shrinkage of Heidelberg’s ambitions defused the fears of its rivals. Although PrintCity continued for a few more Drupas and Ipexes, the big players gradually dropped out. Today PrintCity still exists as a small German co-group of mainly consumables suppliers.

Meanwhile JDF has grown ever more complicated while never delivering its initial promise of easy plug-and-play DIY connectivity. In recent years many of the MIS and other people who want to integrate just say “sod all that one-to-many stuff, here’s an easier proprietary API for you to write a one-to-one link with”.

So, back Zaikio. Heidelberg, via its Crispy Mountain developers, seems genuinely determined offer plug-and-play connectivity that’s open to everyone, including rivals. It runs in the cloud because, well, everything has to nowadays and anyway it fits in with Heidelberg’s rental ambitions.

Given that Heidelberg has spent this year pulling out of its digital and flexo interests – and who knows what its plans are for CTP – the openness of Zaikio may well be vital to its future.

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