By Pat Taylor, Proactive Technologies March 23, 2006 -- As a business owner, plant manager, or department supervisor, what do you need to know about the inevitable transition of our beloved craft to Computer Integrated Manufacturing? Is there One Important Thing to remember when planning for the deployment of JDF? Do you need to hire a consultant to help you plan for your digital future? No; you don't need a consultant or a full-time computer scientist to help you 'make the change'. However, there are a few concepts with which you should get comfortable before you get too far down the digital road. It helps to know that the desired result of all this evolution will be a selection of digital processes that link a company's divisions and departments into a ubiquitous network of business muscle. You need to know that these digital processes will require computers (servers) to execute them and the processes will drive day-to-day operations automatically and with measured efficiency. Subsystems will continue to change over time. Improvements in proofing, plating, and/or press control will motivate you to modify components of your digital workflow to realize the latest cost- or time-saving feature. You will want the freedom to "plug" desirable upgrades into your system. You want to be free to define your unique workflow and select the sub-systems that best meet your customer-defined requirements. And that requires thinking about what will best serve your needs. This is the One Important Thing to remember as you build your infrastructure: establish and maintain your digital independence. We know that no single company can claim to be The Best in every industry discipline; a press manufacturer may offer [digital] prepress workflow, but companies like Rampage and Artwork Systems offer proven and popular alternatives developed by experts in their specific fields. You may decide to embrace the benefits offered by a single solutions provider, or you may choose to buy from 'the experts'. Whatever your choice, you want (and need) the freedom to choose. This is the One Important Thing to remember as you build your infrastructure: establish and maintain your digital independence. You know that: * Things are going to change. * Most of today's technology will soon be obsolete. * Sooner than later, the whole plant will be one big network. Ultimately, the entire plant can be like a sophisticated machine. It responds automatically when estimates become orders, and the collation of data begins. The immediate result is job information that drives multiple production processes (think JDF). Materials are allocated and inventory replenished, plates are imaged and transported to press, and color is managed from beginning to end. Shipping and invoicing is automated, and CIM (Computer Integrated Manufacturing) hands things off to CRM (Customer Relationship Management). Whether or not these functions exist on your workflow or process charts today, they are the inescapable realities of the future's successful print providers. It doesn't take long for technology innovation to reach the backside of the bell curve, and smaller shops can afford to embrace what the larger, slower companies have not yet adopted. If properly deployed, technology creates an advantage for 'the little guy'. By it's nature, digital technology is scalable --up or down. It doesn't take long for technology innovation to reach the backside of the bell curve, and smaller shops can afford to embrace what the larger, slower companies have not yet adopted. They can customize their workflow to tailor a product for a very specific market opportunity. By making the decision to specialize, a printer can invest in precisely the technology required to deliver the right product to his market niche. Perhaps that custom product (or service) will generate even higher margins than the traditional business line. When a company is digitally independent, it can customize its communication and manufacturing processes to deliver the speed, quality control, and job collaboration desired by the customer. When a customer wants more (and they always will), the company is free to upgrade those components necessary to meet new demands. I know what you're thinking… "My God -- this is hopeless. I'll have to hire an army of engineers to take care of all this stuff. Propeller heads are expensive and notoriously eccentric. And how will I know that what I'm buying is truly standards-based? How do I know if I'm digitally independent?" Depending on your plan to 'get digital', you may want to hire a staff to develop and maintain your infrastructure. Or you may choose to outsource the management of your infrastructure to a specialized services firm. These (and other options) will be covered in the next chapter: Your Digital Independence --Part II. And that's coming next week here on ODJ.