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Commentary & Analysis

Transforming and Automating Workflows: It starts with a good infrastructure Part 1

This new series by David L. Zwang focuses on the processes and products that can lead to the transformation of your current workflows and business, to prepare you for the new challenges ahead. This series runs once a month over the course of the year, with the first article appearing in January 2013. Zwang looks at process transformation and automation, and the steps you need to take to be successful. He will also look at some of the current product offerings and how they are being, or could be, used to help you transform your business and strengthen your customer relationships.

By David Zwang
Published: February 5, 2013

In the last article, we looked at the need to do some planning before you jump into transforming your business. It included the need to analyze your current state and project your future state based on your intended business direction. Of course, the reality is that you “don’t know what you don’t know,” so some of those projections may wind up missing your ‘real’ future direction. But that shouldn’t stop you from preparing your infrastructure, since a good infrastructure will be flexible enough to adapt to any change in direction of your business.

The diagram below from the PRIMIR Transformative Workflow Study provides a high level look at what it takes to prepare your business for transformation to support the demands of the new market realities. Obviously, the devil is in the details, but this gives you a good idea of what is possible as well.


Transformative Workflow Reference Model Overview

While this diagram presents an ideal model, it may be overkill in its entirety for many service providers, or at least for this stage of their transformation needs. However the three bottom components; Business & Information Management, Process Management, and Production are at the core of any service provider’s requirements.

Business & Information Management Infrastructure

ERP systems

The heart of a company’s Business infrastructure is a good ERP (aka MIS) system. This system is crucial to any print production business that exceeds about 25-50 people. While a notepad or an Excel spreadsheet, may suffice for smaller companies, there is a point at which it becomes very difficult to manage a company with those tools. And trying to automate using an Excel spreadsheet as a basis is an effort in futility. 

Print-centric ERP systems usually offer different modules that work together to offer information and connectivity that will facilitate the management and growth of the company through real-time analytics and data processing. In many cases, the selection of modules desired are optional, and others can be added as required. However, adding 3rd party ERP modules that have the same or similar functionality as modules available within the ‘core’ system’s own integrated components can present problems. This is important to note, since the more disparate components you add that are already included in the ‘core’ ERP solution offering, the higher the risk there is for breaks in the overall system functionality. These systems usually use their own proprietary structures, even if they use a standardized central database.

It should be noted, however, that these systems do usually offer varying levels of integration potential with outside systems and production components. Most ERP systems use JDF/JMF to streamline integration with 3rd party systems. For the most part, this works fairly well, and production data gets passed back and forth seamlessly between systems. These are a sampling of the standard modules, although depending upon the system, the packaging can vary.

  • Estimating/Order Entry
  • Job Ticketing
  • Planning/Scheduling
  • Shop Floor Tracking/Costing
  • Inventory/Purchasing
  • Invoicing/Financials
  • External Data Flow Integration

Properly implementing an ERP system requires some time and experience. Normally it should be a staged implementation to allow the company to understand how it fits within the structure of the organization. The implementation has to be a close partnership between the ERP vendor and the print service provider. In many cases it may also be beneficial to have an experienced consulting resource assist. Experience and taking the time upfront will ensure that the implementation will be smooth and successful. You can also expect that some tweaking will probably be ongoing after you start using the system and test the settings in your environment.

Alternative ERP

As a disclaimer, I should tell you that I am a strong believer in purchasing and integrating an off-the-shelf solution whenever possible. If you have to bridge off-the-shelf solutions with some scripts, you are still better off than building everything yourself. Remember, your business is probably not software development; it is providing graphic communication services. Most off-the-shelf solutions provide continual development and support, which is very important in an environment of changing requirements.

However, after reviewing the available ERP offerings, and taking my disclaimer comments into account, you may find that the solutions may not be suited to your needs. With that in mind you should still use the PRIMIR transformation model as a goal. You want to ensure that you don’t build your infrastructure on a Business and Information Management platform that creates an island, and inhibits further process integration. To minimize this problem, the first step is to do a gap analysis to see what would be the missing functionality to bring your existing state into alignment with the model. Once you have determined your gaps, it is time to try to fill them.

Since some of the ERP solutions do offer individual modules, that may be a good place to start. There are also many other solutions available that offer disparate components that were designed to be easily integrated into many different scenarios. These include solutions that are bundled with web2print solutions, job ticketing and tracking applications, etc. Some of these are server application based, some are cloud based, so there are many opportunities to build a solution if an off-the-shelf ERP doesn’t meet your needs.

In the next article in the series, we stop for a second to look at available offerings in Business and Information Management infrastructure solutions, and some of the products and services that can be used to develop a forward thinking infrastructure. If you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover, please let us know!

You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com

David Zwang travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. He specializes in production optimization, strategic business planning, market analysis, and related services to companies in the vertical media communications market. Clients have included printers, manufacturers, retailers, publishers, premedia and US Government agencies. He can be reached at david@zwang.com.



By kr suresh on Feb 05, 2013

Interesting article. There is a whitepaper on erp selection and implementation, it provides valuable information on how the right erp can handle current and future growth within the organisation readers will find it very helpful @ http://bit.ly/zSEOXf


By Murray Oles on Feb 05, 2013

I agree with David's recommendation to go with out of the box solutions. EFI is the consolidator in the print space. They have rolled up the major ERP companies quite nicely. CHALEX did a proof of concept integration to link SmartFlo with the e-pace system. The result allows ePace customers to manage BPM workflows and digital assets for project and job in Pace.
The point of integration centers on order entry and finished good product lifecycle management. For the truly adventurous, the open source system worth checking out is OpenBravo. While this has not been optimized for printers, it is a highly configurable ERP system with a large global support network.


By David L. Zwang on Feb 05, 2013

Murray...Just to be clear, I didn't "recommend:" to go with out of the box solutions. I offered it as a alternative for those who couldn't find an appropriate fit in a packaged solution. Although I do concur that in many cases, the out of the box solutions do offer better opportunities for integration of 3rd party tools to further enhance workflows. I will be covering more of those in future articles.


By Robert Johannes on Feb 06, 2013


Not to catch the wrath of ERP/MIS solutions sellers, but over 25 years of experience in the business using MIS systems has served as a painful reminder that it use to be cost prohibitive to try and build your own systems. Not true today. SQL based solutions via cloud or virtual systems are the norm. But our industry providers have proven very slow to adapt these platforms. With good reason: They have millions in sunken cost dedicated to client/server systems that are inflexible in use, unless you are SQL programmer, expensive to maintain and deploy, and slow to respond to dynamic business needs.

Custom written data base software is tailored for your needs and sheds the overhead of stuff that has been developed that you don't want or need.

We've spent very large dollars in the past, only to have the company change direction for their own bottom line needs, basically destroying your return in the system. If you do partner, buy what makes sense: Estimating and Computer Aided Scheduling may be the only modules that designing yourself doesn't make any sense. Job Costing, Inventory, G/L, etc. are pretty mundane tasks that can be allocated to lower end box solutions. The guts of any system are the 20% of the questions that you need answers to that are unique: Customer habits, purchasing patterns, web enabled applications, mobile applications, etc. These you should look at for your needs rather than wait for the blank stare from the ERP sales guy who is years away from the Guy at the top getting it.

My two cents worth....


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