3 Approaches to Printing from ERP Systems

Summary

Enterprise Resource Planning software companies (such as SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics, Epicor, IQMS etc.) provide their clients with great tools to manage and grow their organizations.  Centralizing data and then providing information, in real time, across the enterprise enables the company to act faster and smarter.  It is natural, then, to extend this data to the production floor when products, cases, and pallets need to be labeled.

There are several methods of printing labels (e.g. product, case, and pallet labels) from ERP software.  The three most common:

  1. Integrating with industrial labeling software
  2. Manipulating printer code files
  3. Using the ERP report tools

This article summarizes each technique including some positive and negative factors for each.  Links to articles regarding Efficient Ideas available to each approach are provided as well.

1. Integrating with Industrial Labeling Software

This is the most successful and enduring approach. The label data is segregated from the label designs.  Label data is controlled by the ERP system.  Label designs are controlled by the 'Labeling Server'.

The labeling process is a three step process:

  1. Print User, using a customized ERP system screen, selects 'print labels'
  2. ERP system collects the variable label data and sends it to the Labeling Server
  3. The Labeling Server:
    • Selects the correct label design file and label design version for the product and/or workorder
    • Populates the data from the ERP system into the label design
    • Converts the label design AND data into the correct printer code for the destination printer
    • Send the print job to the correct printer

Positives:

More secure - label data is (from production ERP system) separate from label design.  Label system users, designers, and administrators do not need access to the ERP system.  Label security is typically roles based and can be integrated with Windows Active Directory.  Special label specific security can be applied if needed for compliance (i.e. CRF 21 Part 11 - Electronic Signatures).

Less costly to maintain - label designs (with correct permissions and approvals) can be created, changed, and managed by non-technical users (i.e. quality, regulatory, production, etc.).  Changes rarely involve ERP system changes since standard interfaces are used (XML, TCP/IP, Database Watch, Serial Port Watch, Web Services, etc.).

More flexible - label formats, printer setups, data maps, etc. NOT hard coded in ERP.  Backup systems can be put into place to manually print if ERP system or connection fails.  ERP system upgrades can be done independently so compliance changes do not require ERP system upgrades applied and ERP system upgrades do not require retesting of the labeling systems.

Better document control - document control features specifically designed to meet labeling mandates are included with the industrial labeling software.  Special label approval workflows can be designed to meet unique label requirements.

Greater traceability - label server will not only control label designs, but also track approval history and all labels printed.  Reprints (either with or without watermark) can be generated without having to trigger reprints from the ERP system.  User access, label approvals, etc. are all recorded.  Reports are generally available to easily extract this data.

Easier label compliance - tools to adapt to government, industry, and large customer compliance mandates typically are included and updated to clients on support and maintenance plans as standards evolve and change.  This saves the effort and reduce the potential of penalties for non-compliance.

Vendor label management - Enterprise labeling systems typically have a browser interface.  This can be made Internet facing so vendors can print from the same system.  This helps lower the cost and effort for vendors as well as reduces the risk that vendors are using the wrong label or wrong label version.

Negatives:

Initial setup - Setup of the initial system, although generally less expensive than have the ERP system customized, will be an initial investment in:

  • Licensing
  • Implementation
  • Training

2. Manipulating Printer Code Files

This approach is common in large companies with older labeling systems architecture.  It utilizes label design software to create raw 'printer code files' (aka ITF files, Printer Objective Files, etc.).  The ERP system must then be customized to perform some of the functions embedded in the Label Server above.  This includes:

  • Inserting variable data into the label design
  • Sending the updated printer code to the correct printer

The labeling process can be broken down into four steps:

  1. Print User, using a customized ERP system screen, selects 'print labels'
  2. ERP system pulls the correct printer code file for the product (hard coded in the ERP system)
  3. ERP system collects the variable label data and inserts into the printer code (hard coded in the ERP system)
  4. ERP system sends the updated printer code to the Windows print server (or direct to the printer)

Positives:

Secure - Although very simplistic and manual, the process of creating the label printer code files and storing them in a secure location within the network does prevent unauthorized users from making changes.

Easier initial label design setup - Since the initial label design is done with the labeling software, the label design user can use the GUI to quickly and easily create and/or update existing printer code files.

Some document control - If the label design user creates a manual process for document control (e.g. naming old design files with a version number, storing them in a special 'archive' folder, etc.), the secure location of these printer code files can prevent other users from making changes.

Label compliance tools - This process still can take advantage of the built in tools provided by the label design software since the software is used to make the printer code file.

Negatives:

Difficult and costly label maintenance - Label maintenance is a multi-step manual process.  It requires finding the most up-to-date label design, making changes, testing the changes, inserting into the ERP system, testing again, and then deploying.  Since there are two set of testing, if the label fails the second test, it often needs to start the whole process from the start again.  Also, since typically only users with admin access to the ERP system are allowed into this part of the network, it requires very high level (i.e. expensive) resources to make even simple changes.

No automated version control - Controlling label design versions will only be as good as the ability of the design user / ERP admin to remember and replicate the manual process.  There is nothing preventing the user from accidentally saving the file with the wrong version number or creating the printer code file from the wrong version template.

Hard to troubleshoot label problems - Since the ERP system is adapting the printer code file directly and then inserting it directly into the print queue, there is no software to monitor, control, and track the progress of the label printing process.

No label history or reprints - There is generally no history of the label approval process nor of who printed what labels and when they were printed.  If labels were lost or damaged during the printing process, the user must rely on the ERP system attempt to generate an exact copy.

Information about how to set this up in BarTender can be found in the Efficient Business Integrators On-line Knowledge Base (EOKB): http://support.efficientbi.com/knowledge-base/create-bartender-printer-code-templates-bartender-instructions/ (requires registering with the site).

3. Using ERP Reporting Tools

We see this approach with smaller companies that have limited and simple label requirements (i.e. fewer products, fewer clients, non-regulated industry).  No professional label design software is used.  The ERP report writer (either embedded or a third part such as Crystal Reports) is manipulated to create small scale 'reports' (i.e. labels).

The labeling process can be broken down into five steps:

  1. Print User, using a customized ERP system screen, selects 'print labels'
  2. ERP system prompts user for correct printer
  3. ERP system merges data into report template
  4. ERP system creates printer code (Windows only)
  5. ERP system sends the Windows printer code to Window print server (or direct to the printer)

Positives:

Software cost - No additional software required.

Negatives:

Printing barcode - Since ERP reporting tools generally do not have the logic built into them to support the algorithms to create the different barcode symbologies nor enforce the data construct rules, it is very difficult to use them.  2D barcode is nearly impossible to use.  The Code 39 barcode can be generated using a font but all other linear barcodes are very difficult to render without labeling software.

No version control - Typically the reporting tool built into the ERP system does not have tools to control or enforce version.  Nor do they have the ability to control or report on the approval process for auditing purposes.

True reprints not available - Usually there is no history maintained for labels (i.e. reports) printed.  Thus a print user cannot reprint a label.  If a label is to be reprinted, it must be recreated from scratch.  Great care needs to be taken to reproduce the data entries and formatting exactly.  Without version control, label reprints in previous versions of the label simply cannot be done.

Error prone - The myriad of tools available in industrial label design and printing software will not be available.  Thus you can expect a higher incidence of human error.

Label compliance more difficult - Complying with regulatory control standards, such as CFR 21 Part 11 electronic signatures, will usually require customization of the reporting feature or some sort of manual process to supplement it.  GMP for labeling must be developed and maintained manually as well.  Rules for standards of data stuctures (e.g. UDI labeling requirements set by GS1 and HIBCC, GS1 128 Shipping Labels, UID DoD requirements, etc.) will not be enforced to extra care needs to be taken to double check these manually.

Related Labeling Concepts

Why ERP Systems (SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics, etc.) Are Not Good at Making Labels

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