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Commentary & Analysis

Transforming and Automating Workflows: It starts with a good business infrastructure Part 2

In this article, David continues the discussion of the business infrastructure by looking at some of the packaged MIS and ERP systems, and how they are structured, with an eye toward building a flexible platform with which to grow.

By David Zwang
Published: March 5, 2013

We see the term Workflow frequently in articles, product marketing pieces, etc. However, if you ask individual people, even in the same company, ‘what their workflow is,’ you will get different answers. This is important to note, since a workflow is just a series of connected processes. That means that perspective and roles offer a differing view of what constitutes a workflow. Each workflow has a specific purpose with specific benefits to your company. The advantage of using the PRIMIR Transformative Workflow model as a reference is that it allows you to see the various workflows broken into a logical hierarchy as well as how they work together within a holistic system. The key here is that they ultimately need to work together in order to give you the maximum flexibility and benefit for growth.

In the last article, we took a high level look at the overall structure of the MIS (Management Information System) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems as they relate to the PRIMIR model. There is an old saying: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” In todays economy, and when looking at transforming a business, this statement has even more significance. While print solution providers rightfully tend to focus on production and the purchase of new and efficient hardware, it is equally important to have a business and information infrastructure that can support your current and future business and production processes. In this article, we look at packaged business management products. We will be covering unbundled business solutions and production workflow technologies and products in future articles. That being said, what are the some of the things you need to know about packaged solution options that can support your business infrastructure?

Packaged Business Management Solutions

Lets start by looking at the difference between an ERP system and an MIS system. Outwardly their functionality may look similar, but they are very different in how they operate internally. In the case of an MIS system, the modules usually maintain their own information and it is exchanged directly between the modules as needed. An ERP system usually has a centralized database, and the individual module processors are connected to it. So the information is exchanged through the database instead of module to module. Having a centralized database ‘usually’ makes for a more flexible system, but also adds cost to the overall solution. Even in some of the product offerings described below, while the ERP/MIS designation is fairly clear, the implementations may not be as well defined. In terms of connectivity with external applications and processes, most of the credible MIS and ERP systems for the print industry include support for JDF/JMF, although you should be aware that not all JDF/JMF support is equal. We will be covering JDF/JMF in more depth in a future article. In addition to JDF/JMF, many also include APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for varying levels of  external process integration.

Varying Designs and Functionality

As I travel around the globe working with companies on transforming, optimizing, and automating processes, I see a wide range of tools and methods being used to manage business processes, ranging from Excel spreadsheets to full-blown ERP systems. It’s good to understand that most MIS and ERP packages in the market were initially developed for ‘a’ specific printer’s requirements and then further extended and developed to support the requirements of a wider audience of printers. Many of the core modules we identified in the last article, are available in some form in all of the available systems; however, the needs of a small ‘quick printer’ are not the same as those of a larger commercial printer, or a packaging printer, etc.  Although you can usually force fit almost any solution into a company, since many systems are tailored and better suited to a certain set of requirements, you need to identify the best fit to suit your needs.

It would be a huge task to discuss all of the print business management solutions available in the market today, but I wanted to highlight some of the key differences and issues you may need to consider when reviewing solutions. So I have described, at a very high level, a select number of representative solutions.

Hiflex has been in the market since 1991. In 2011 HP acquired the German MIS solution provider. Hiflex has been instrumental in the development of the JDF/JMF interactivity specification with CIP4, and as a result, they have been recognized with17 awards to date for their efforts. Another long time player in this space is Avanti Systems, founded in 1984 with over 400 installs around the globe. They offer their Avanti Print MIS solution, a very mature and robust product.

By far, EFI has the largest selection of business management solution packages covering a very wide cross section types and requirements for print service providers. They currently offer PrintSmith Vision, designed for copy centers, print for pay, small commercial shops, etc. Their mid range package is the scalable EFI Pace MIS solution, which is more robust and designed for mid-sized commercial print providers. The EFI Monarch ERP solution is their flagship solution that is designed for mid to large sized printers and multi-site printers. EFI has primarily grown market share over the years through the acquisition of many of the market solution providers, migrating them into the existing EFI product line. One of their more recent acquisitions is EFI Radius . This ERP solution is designed for the business management of a packaging converter, with modules that are specifically tailored to those requirements.

Not all ERP solutions operate the same or have the same levels of flexibility for integration with other systems. Some ERP systems use their own database and platform for development, and some use more standardized and widely used platforms. As an example, there are a number of Print ERP systems that have been developed with Microsoft Dynamics. Having MS Dynamics as the core development platform brings many built-in advantages, including integration with other MS business applications, multi language support, etc. However there are two different MS Dynamics implementations: NAV and AX. In the case of MS Dynamics NAV, the applications are developed ‘on top’ of NAV and generally targeted at small to mid-sized businesses. A good example of an ERP system built on NAV is NovaVision PrintVis. Those developed ‘inside’ MS Dynamics AX are usually designed for larger multi-site enterprises and offer significant flexibility to develop and integrate against. Of course, that flexibility comes with a higher price tag and increased support and resource requirements. A good example of this type of solution would be uxc eclipse DynamicsPrint.

Rent, don’t buy?

Software as a service (SaaS) isn’t new, but it is one of the fastest growing solution segments in the print MIS space. The advantages of this type of solution over an on-site installed solution include reduced initial investment and reduced ongoing support costs, amongst other advantages. Most of these solutions usually are comprised of a subset of the same MIS/ERP functionalities that have been discussed in this series. Many of these offerings were initially developed to support web-to-print workflows in small to mid-sized print shops, so they may not offer the extensive set of modules in a locally installed system. We will cover web-t- print in depth in a future article. One example of this type of solution is a cloud-ported version of the previously mentioned Hiflex. Another popular cloud solution is Presswise, a fairly unique and very graphic offering focused on production automation. And finally, SimpleFlow is a solution that has a strong focus on managing information and processes.

So as you can see, there are many options in determining the best way for you to implement a good business management infrastructure in your business. Just remember that whatever solution you choose does not, and cannot sit in a silo. It needs to be an integral part of the more complete PRIMIR model to get the most benefit and to provide the best infrastructure upon which to build your present and future.

In the next article in the series, we move to production workflow technology and solutions and look at DFE’s. At one time, a DFE was just the basic RIP controller in front of your digital press, but increasingly these solutions include more production workflow functionalities. Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover, please let us know!

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 Chuck Gehman on Mar 06, 2013

Hi Dave,

Good article. This particular paragraph is kind of a generalization that isn't exactly true or correct, though. Perhaps for one particular MIS system, but absolutely not for all or many.

"In the case of an MIS system, the modules usually maintain their own information and it is exchanged directly between the modules as needed. An ERP system usually has a centralized database, and the individual module processors are connected to it. So the information is exchanged through the database instead of module to module. Having a centralized database ‘usually’ makes for a more flexible system, but also adds cost to the overall solution. "

The big difference I have seen between PrintMIS and ERP is that the MIS systems have domain-specific functionality, i.e., they perform activities that are print specialized. Like Estimating and Price Listing. And the JDF integration you speak of, which has become essential. You won't find that in a general purpose ERP.

Also, it's been my experience that, although with some exceptions, ERP systems from large vendors like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP have better accounting functionality.




By David L. Zwang on Mar 06, 2013

Hi Chuck:

You are correct, as I mentioned in the article, the distinction between MIS and ERP system implementations is not as well defined as the general definition would have you believe. People/companies can develop almost anything they want regardless of accepted definitions, and in cases they do.



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