In a new study, the digital association Bitkom examines potential future scenarios for ERPs. Enterprise resource planning systems are considered in the context of relevant technologies in the “ERP Trend Check 2021” Whitepaper. Although ERPs were among the earliest successes of digitization, the printing industry still has some catching up to do in many places. However, this does not have to remain the case, as interesting use cases can be derived here as well.
While ERP systems are indispensable and extremely powerful in other industries, such as the automotive industry, they are often still treated like a stepmother in the printing industry. This is undoubtedly also due to the traditional nature of many print shops and the structures they have developed from family businesses. Of the many possibilities that ERP systems can offer, two features in particular have been of interest in the printing industry up to now: firstly, space cost accounting, which is used to track target quantities and target times, and secondly, their use as costing programs. However, it is not only in times of pandemics that the control of remote and home office processes is becoming more and more interesting.
At first, it may sound tempting to simply adapt an existing solution from another ERP-savvy industry for your own company. However, the prices of companies such as Oracle or SAP can quickly break a mid-sized company’s budget. In addition, the ERP must send and receive exactly the right signals as an interface in order to communicate effectively with the networked systems. Generally speaking, there is no such thing as an ideal ERP – every company has to be thoroughly rethought and has its own peculiarities. In the printing industry, for example, the packaging sector is dependent on CAD data sets as an important and growing market. Here, a powerful interface should not be overlooked.
Based on the current Bitkom white paper from 2021, we are taking a look into the crystal ball: Which changes in the course of the “digital disruption”, which has been spreading for a long time, does the printing industry have to react to promptly – and how can the advantages be used?
1. Platform economy: “It’s all in the cloud”.
Well-known ERP providers for mostly large companies include Oracle and SAP. Over the past decades, these globally active software companies have developed highly specialized applications for companies that turned out to be downright “octopuses” with far-reaching arms: a highly specialized scope of services and stand-alone solutions reduced adaptability, for instance due to incompatible interfaces. Training and maintenance became a nightmare.
With the rapid growth in the technical capabilities (greatly increased capacity, speed and reliability) of cloud computing, even the software giants are turning away from “on-premise” installed solutions and turning to the “cloud”.
The advantages of this business model can be illustrated in simplified terms, for example, by the practice of Adobe with regard to its “Creative Suite” (Photoshop, InDesign, etc.):
- Scalability: One or more pieces of Creative Suite can be installed anywhere on any computer.
- Flexible subscription: Choose from a variety of subscription options; pay as you go.
- Automatic updates: Maintenance is not the responsibility of the user or on-premise technicians.
- Accessibility: The software can be used regardless of time and end device.
The last point even comes into effect immediately after the subscription is concluded. In addition, a test phase is possible beforehand. The times when an expensive software license had to be purchased before generating even the first euro with it are coming to an end thanks to such models. The scope of SaaS solutions can be dynamically adapted to the development of the individual company. This means that the ROI of the software is directly linked to the company’s own growth and does not become noticeable only after several years.
The use of the cloud may not only be interesting for purchased software, but also for own platforms such as print data servers or web stores. However, this does not mean that the company’s own servers are thereby removed from control. In the printing industry, they are often located “on-prem”, in the immediate vicinity or even directly on the premises of the print shop. What used to be the “extended workbench” is now also floating on the cloud.
When setting up your own platform, it’s important not to create a “monster” that neither employees nor customers will understand in the end. So-called no-code/low-code solutions are also heading in this direction. These platforms enable users to assemble their own software from a functional construction kit, even with minimal programming effort. However, it is important that no parallel structures are created, but that the ERP remains the decisive interface – the “single source of truth”. Used correctly, no-code/low-code solutions can drive your own digitization in an agile and flexible manner.
2. Usability and Mobility: Easy does it
In the past, programmers used to speak somewhat disrespectfully of the DPU, the “dumbest possible user” for whom they were writing their software. More modern and neutral is the term “UX”, or “user experience”. Both are about minimizing user errors of the software through smart user guidance.
In the previous point, the untamable “software octopuses” were already addressed. Such bloated ERPs can hardly be tamed, not only during maintenance, but also during use. The result: unwillingness to use them, possibly self-organized workarounds that can no longer be captured by the ERP. In the worst case, important processes stagnate completely.
In many companies, there are “tool owners” who are the lonely guardians of the Holy Grail and the only ones who understand a certain aspect of the company software. If this employee is absent or unavailable, this aspect of the ERP comes to a standstill. More sensible are situational, role-based approaches that show the user only the information that is relevant to him or her in the individual work step. Depending on the context, help can be faded in to further minimize error rates. The knowledge transfer factor, which is important for continuity, is thus not carried out in a bottleneck, but in an integrative and software-based manner.
Improving the user experience not only makes employees happier but can also be expressed in hard KPIs: If you optimize the user experience, you optimize the ROI of your software. This includes making sure the software is fit for mobile use on a laptop, tablet, or even smartphone or smartwatch, in the home office and on the go. Why should banking or film editing be done at the touch of a finger, but an ERP application require months of training?
3. Business Process Mining: Key Data
In the online print sector, the ERP faces the challenge of linking numerous data collected at different points in the company in a meaningful way. Only in this way is efficient technical controlling possible, and only in this way, for example, can print, customer and logistics data be taken into account for a process. Another difficulty, however, is that the data is not available in standardized formats or programs. The modern merging of order data is automated via the ERP.
So-called “business process mining” is the metadata source par excellence. Event data from the ERP is used to visualize the running processes for further analysis. In order to be able to use this important tool for process optimization, it is therefore essential that the software used in the company is covered as comprehensively as possible by the ERP. Otherwise, blind spots will appear in the business mining flowchart due to processes running in parallel, quasi “under the radar”.
Anyone who seriously “trades” with data must also talk about data and information security. Three basic principles are particularly important here: availability, confidentiality and integrity of the data. On the one hand, data must be transmitted in such a way that it retains its information; on the other hand, it must be protected from access by third parties in the process. Especially when, as in ERP, a lot of sensitive data is stored and aggregated together, authorizations, configurations and uses of the system must be monitored particularly carefully. In this regard, the industry standard for comprehensive information security management systems (ISMS) is ISO 27001 certified.
These forecasts and developments represent a snapshot or, at best, illuminate the immediate future. With the further development of “real” artificial intelligence and the associated possibilities of automation and machine learning, the ERP sector will once again change dramatically. It is therefore advisable to gain experience in the relevant areas now in order to be able to implement truly disruptive technologies at an early stage.
However, this does not mean that human roles in the workflow will be completely eliminated: Important tasks remain, for example, the pre-selection of suitable data and algorithms as well as the monitoring and training of the AI.