By Pat Taylor, President of Proactive Technologies February 2, 2004 -- As your basic computer geek, I would rather tweeze hairs from my nose than spend time watching cable channel D.I.Y. Home Improvement shows. But, to my surprise, I sat down last night to watch a short 'brain-drain' featuring the famous Winchester House. It is the legacy of one of my favorite eccentrics and a tribute to architectural anarchy. An seemingly endless residential construction project resulted in a structure containing so many unexplained oddities that it came to be known as the Winchester Mystery House. It struck me as a colorful analogy for the way technology has been deployed in the printing and publishing industry. The Winchester Mystery House remains a timeless curiosity and draws scores of tourists. Yet its "cost per square foot" exceeded that of the Pentagon. The unpredictable expense and disjointed design of the house was the result of Mrs. Winchester not having a plan. She sketched out her ideas on paper and tablecloths, making incremental changes or improvements as they became necessary or even as they came to mind. It is not unlike the way we in the print business began stacking Macs and all kinds of storage, and finally a server to network it all: not very efficient, at least in hindsight. The Gospel of Efficiency This industry is in transition again, and those to whom we turn for guidance are evangelizing the Gospel of Efficiency. One way to increase profits is to decrease costs, and technology can create efficiencies that decrease costs. For example, increasing efficiency via Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) is a popular mantra in 2004. It relies heavily on the successful adoption and deployment of Job Definition Format (JDF) which in turn relies on the implementation of Extensible Markup Language (XML) specifications. What remains unspoken, however, is that these technologies require a digital infrastructure in order to function as designed. It's a little like buying a laptop computer with wireless networking technology only to find none of the places you go have hot spots. Intuitively, you know you will need a cohesive foundation on which to build your digital operation "brick-by-brick". Before a digital foundation is established, you will need a plan for construction. Otherwise, you run the risk of building a printer's version of the Winchester Mystery House. Look at Your Own Foundation Overly dramatic? I don't think so. How many shops have you seen where 'technology' is a hodge-podge of old computers, mismatched applications, and cumbersome processes segregated by human beings and old, often bad, habits? I've seen more than a few printing facilities that proudly demonstrate a six-figure job management system that grinds customer info with vendor pricing, G&A and margin to churn out estimates that convert into orders. And when an order comes in, it prints out a paper Job Ticket that is carried down the hall to prepress (which is, of course, a digital operation). Operators write on the job ticket with a pen or pencil, and staple supplemental information to the paper. At the end, it goes back to be re-entered into the six-figure job management system by a person who is paid to enter redundant data into a system from a different digital department down the hall. These are isolated--not integrated--technologies. Digital Printers need Digital Infrastructures. Before investing in a platesetter to implement Computer-to-Plate (CTP) or a press is engineered for CIM, establish the appropriate foundation. The first step is an assessment of your own Digital Infrastructure. You need a plan to help you utilize the new technology investments in the most efficient ways, rather than adding layers of complexity and exception processing. Before adding new hardware and software, take a look at how it fits and how it will work in your organization. Have a plan. Otherwise, you'll have stairs leading up to a ceiling, or windows that look out at walls. Without the appropriate infrastructure, investments in technology are dollars wasted on some forgotten add-on to your own Mystery House.