Customers Benefit from Forms Software in Different Ways
January 27, 2004 Alex Woodie
If your company is like most OS/400 shops, it’s not using a centralized document management system. It’s using a good old reliable line printer to generate the checks, invoices, reports, and other documents that your business requires on a daily basis. But many OS/400 shops around the country have stepped up to more advanced forms processing systems that give them better-looking documents that can be delivered electronically, while cutting costs and improving customer service along the way.
Industry insiders say the penetration of document management software in the OS/400 space is increasing but is still somewhere below 50 percent, and is probably closer to 30 percent. “A lot of organizations out there are still impact printing,” says Tom Gearing, district marketing manager with Integrated Custom Software. “There is a huge majority that has still done nothing. Maybe they’ve implemented a document or two, but they haven’t been integrated into the organization’s document production scenario.”
Some companies are simply resistant to change, even if it could save them money, says Gregg Church, vice president of sales and marketing at ACOM Solutions, one of the oldest and largest players in the OS/400 document management space. “But lots of companies,” Church says, “are being forced [to implement document management software] by budget cuts.”
Companies in a variety of industries are finding that offloading document creation from their OS/400 applications to specialized document management systems gives them greater flexibility in how they interact with employees, suppliers, and customers. Cadillac Products Automotive Company in Michigan, for example, has found the barcode capability of its document management system to be an excellent source of quality control in the supply chain. The Farmers Cooperative, on the other hand, appreciates how its system allows it to send highly tailored statements to its 4,000 members in Iowa. In Las Vegas, the Venetian Hotel and Casino found the software gave them a way to escape Lexmark printers no longer supported by the software it had been using.
THE BARCODES OF CADILLAC
Cadillac Products Automotive Company makes inner door liners for Ford, GM, and Chrysler. The company is upgrading its four factories to an iSeries-based PeopleSoft EnterpriseOne ERP system from a custom-built manufacturing system running on an RS/6000.
EnterpriseOne is unique among ERP systems because it incorporates Adobe‘s PDF as the standard document format. While the PDF is versatile, EnterpriseOne’s PDF design tool is not. “You can change a PDF with a Report Writer design session, but it might take three days,” Hughes says. “It’s so much easier to use a forms package to take the data, move it around, and put it into production that day.”
Hughes looked at the forms packages from three vendors, Create!form International, FormScape, and Optio Software. Each of those companies, he says, seemed to have strong partnerships with PeopleSoft, and J.D. Edwards before the acquisition. “I can’t say I did an exhaustive test, but I got the best responsiveness with Create!form,” Hughes says. “Cost-wise, there was not a big difference.”
Last September, Cadillac installed the core Create!print package, along with the Create!fax module. The Create!print engine was set up to run on a dedicated Windows 2000 box, even though it can reside on the OS/400 server. Hughes says this was done because the company requires a Windows box to run its fax, e-mail, and archive engines.
Overall, Cadillac spent $35,000, which included installation and training services. Today, the company is printing its payroll and accounts payable checks using the Create!form software, and it’s sending out purchase orders with its Create!fax module, but it’s too soon to determine any kind of return on their investment in the system. However, Cadillac expects to avoid a considerable amount of pain with the new barcode capability from Create!form and EnterpriseOne software.
“We didn’t realize until late in the game that we needed to put barcoding in place to do two things: error-proofing and traceability,” Hughes says. In the automotive supply chain, customers are notoriously tough on their suppliers.
Cadillac Products Automotive Company now uses Create!form to generate barcodes that get attached to each pallet. As the pallet gets prepared for shipment, Cadillac’s employees use barcode scanners to ensure that the pallet matches the order and that the customer is getting the proper parts.
A BUDGET-MINDED FORMS PACKAGE
The Farmer’s Cooperative Company in Farnhamville, Iowa, sells a variety of grain, feed, chemicals, and other products to more than 4,000 member farms, ranches, and wholesalers. The company tracks sales from 52 offices with a custom-developed application running on an iSeries Model 820.
Each month, the cooperative sends a printed statement to each of its members, a substantial print run that can top 55,000 pages. In 2001, the cooperative started looking for a more flexible package that would allow it to move away from preprinted forms, as well as allow it to more easily insert the various pieces of information it wished to communicate to its members, says Barbara Strait, a programmer analyst with the cooperative.
“We’re unique because some customers buy feed, some customers buy seed, some buy information,” she says. “Each customer has a different type of statement. The last page of the statement is a customer information page, which gives them a summary of information. That takes an entirely different form.”
The company had several requirements. First, any forms package had to run on its OS/400 server. Strait didn’t want to rely on a Windows NT server to get the statements out on time. It also had to be compatible with its Computer Keyes e-mail system. That was a driving force, Strait says. And they didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg.
The cooperative evaluated several packages but eventually chose the FormSprint document management system, from Integrated Custom Software. As Strait recalls, FormSprint was $10,000 to $15,000 less than the other packages she looked at. For $9,500, the cooperative got the complete FormSprint package, along with installation and some training. A PC-based solution Strait looked at was nearly double. “Price was a big issue,” Strait says.
In the beginning, Strait says, she was faced with a tough learning curve to configure the FC’s complex customer statements correctly. But once she got a handle on the product, developing new forms was easy. “For the complexity of the form we have, it was difficult. But this was my training form. Had I known FormSprint before that, it wouldn’t have been as difficult. Overall, it’s not hard.”
Today, the company is using FormSprint to generate 60 different forms. The biggest print run continues to be the month-end statements, for which the cooperative uses three IBM Infoprint Model 1145s to print statements generated from six OS/400 spool files, which contain about 5,000 pages each. “It’s very intense on the software and on the printers,” she says. “Through FormSprint, it doesn’t take very long: eight to nine hours easy.”
The cooperative made its money back on its FormSprint investment in a year and a half, Strait says, adding that she’s been impressed with the new features Integrated Custom Software has added over the years, such as the PDF support. Today, the cooperative uses FormSprint’s PDF capability in conjunction with the Computer Keyes e-mail system. “Instead of printing out all the day-end stuff, now we send it to a PDF file on the network,” she says. In the future, the cooperative may start posting documents to the Web. Although Integrated Custom Software doesn’t offer a Web archive module with FormSprint, company officials say adding one has been discussed.
VENETIAN AVOIDS “DINOSAUR TECHNOLOGY”
When the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino opened in 1999, its information systems staff had already been hard at work at a nearby warehouse preparing for the grand occasion. With more than 4,000 rooms, the Venetian is the world’s third largest hotel, and it relies on a substantial IT infrastructure, including three AS/400s and application software from Infinium (now owned by SSA Global), Inter-American Data, Advanced Casino Systems (now owned by Alliance Gaming), and Stratton-Warren.
From day one, the Venetian used a proprietary forms package, developed by Atlanta-based Source Technology, to generate its magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) payroll checks and various other forms, says Wes Wunders, the Venetian’s software development manager. The package worked fine for years, until early 2003, when the printers started wearing out. Because the forms package only worked with Lexmark 1825 and 1855 printers, which were no longer supported by the printer maker, a change was in order. Even with the source code for the forms package, it required tinkering with the OS/400 ERP applications to maintain functionality. “Dinosaur technology,” Wunders says.
So the hunt was on for a new forms package. Wunders evaluated OS/400 forms packages from ACOM Solutions and Resolutions, two packages that he considered robust enough to handle the Venetian’s considerable volume. “Some software uses SQL databases, and unfortunately we found that they weren’t able to handle data files with 50 million records in them. The ‘400 is our primary system and is quite able to handle those sorts of things,” he says.
Wunders didn’t see any major difference between the Resolutions and ACOM offerings. “A forms package is a forms package,” he says. However, Resolutions did come to the table with a feature that ACOM didn’t offer: intelligent folio printing. This feature basically eliminates the blank spaces between entries on a spool file, thereby reducing the print output. Since the resort does printing for conventions held there, it would be able to save more money on paper costs, “but it wasn’t a deal breaker,” he says.
The Venetian chose ACOM, which provided its full EZeDocs/400 suite and training for $27,000, Wunders says. Since installing the software last fall, Wunders has come to appreciate two time and money saving features that ACOM has incorporated into its software.
First, ACOM allows the user to update forms on either the Windows-based GUI designer or on the OS/400 server itself; most forms vendors, such as Resolutions, require any changes to be made from the Windows designer. Wunders says this feature has come in handy in production. “It allows us to tweak the form on the fly, and see the results immediately. We haven’t used it a whole lot, but it makes it easier. You can tweak a line or the position of a field by five-thousandths of an inch. It’s a little more difficult to do on the PC.”
Second, ACOM’s software can be configured to use fewer system resources on the OS/400 server. The way the software usually works is to run a batch job that checks the output queues for spool files on a regular basis, Wunders explains. However, this can generate spikes in processor use, especially if there are 200 or more monitored output queues. What ACOM has done is to allow a data queue to be used that will notify the forms software whenever a spool file arrives in an output queue. “It goes asleep, and stays asleep, until something comes into the output queue,” he says. “That’s one of the things I like about ACOM.”