Order management has become a sophisticated process that relies heavily on automated systems, some of which reach beyond the organization. Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and the Internet-based EDI, along with standard protocols such as Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and eXtensible Markup Language (XML), have helped extend the automated ordering process. This results in greater accuracy and timeliness. With the elimination of manual data entry, costs are substantially reduced since companies are effectively outsourcing their order entry functions to their customers at no cost to themselves. In doing so, they also receive the added benefit of spending less time and money correcting errors caused by manual procedures.
Enterprise systems, when combined with EDI, take order entry to the next level. They tie order information to purchasing, billing, inventory and warehouse management systems (WMS). In theory, everything is neat and clean as long as it stays within the well-ordered world of data processing. Computers talk to computers over networks and the Internet.
Sooner or Later You Have to Ship It
But the ultimate object of order entry, after all, is order fulfillment. Unless you�re selling a service or an electronic product such as software downloaded over the Internet, you have to transfer the customer order information to a physical item. It is when information leaves the well-disciplined, all-electronic world of data processing that the system breaks down.
Order fulfillment and shipping, by definition, are concerned with physical items that are outside of the information system. Cases need to be packed and labels printed and applied. The industry has addressed this issue with barcodes, which are the engine that drives order fulfillment and shipping. It is barcode labels that extend control to the physical world. Whether they are paper labels using traditional or 2D codes or Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, barcodes are outside of the confines of the company�s data systems.
Barcodes are often viewed as an �edge� technology that bridges between extremely sophisticated and complex information systems and the real world of physical items. Barcodes translate information so that it can leave the data environment and re-enter it somewhere else � the customer�s receiving operation, for example. This translation is a vital step that will remain as long as you are selling and delivering physical items.
By taking labeling off the edge and fully integrating it into enterprise and warehouse management systems, companies are able to eliminate a major source of errors. The challenge is to mimic the efficiencies of EDI on the shipping side by integrating the barcode and labeling operations as tightly as possible into enterprise systems. The translation from electronic to barcodes should be as automatic as possible with no human intervention. In this way, data integrity is maintained as the information changes state.
Recognizing this problem, designers of some enterprise system suites have added limited labeling capabilities that generally are not flexible enough to handle the complexity presented by typical shipping operations. After all, enterprise suites do a lot of things well, but labeling is not a mainstream operation for systems that handle accounting, purchasing, inventory control and other vital functions. Labeling, if included at all, tends to be an afterthought, and it shows in the range of label designs that can be easily developed. It also shows the lack of Unified Commercial Code (UCC)-compliant label templates, support for thermal printers and the ability to handle high volumes of labels in distributed environments.
The enterprise systems providers understand this fact, and they have developed applications that facilitate collaboration with specialized form generation programs including labeling programs. SAP, for example, has developed a Smart Forms interface, which is a graphical forms creation tool. The interface is designed to �hand off� data to host connectivity software for use with specialized applications for printing customized forms.
Companies that market label design software use the interface to translate the enterprise data into a format that can be directly applied to the labeling process. Then, leveraging the specialized capabilities of labeling programs, you can manage label printing on an enterprise level.
Dual Approaches
There are two ways for labeling programs to interact with enterprise systems: through data downloads or through label design uploads. Using the data download approach, an interface simplifies data formatting and conversions while eliminating the need for custom programming. The enterprise system sends label data to print folders just as it would write to any file. Host connectivity software �watches� the folder, and when data is sent to it, the software collects and �maps� the data to the label design layout. The label or form is then sent to the appropriate local or remote printer.
The advantage of this approach is that no modifications are required in the enterprise software. The information is simply being written to a flat file; then the connectivity software delivers it to the label design/printing application. Development of the application is simple, and it can take advantage of the full range of label designs and templates as well as the full range of thermal printers supported by the labeling application.
The other approach goes in the opposite direction. Rather than downloading the label data to a print folder, label software tools are used to design the labels, and the designs are then uploaded to the enterprise system as print templates. The print template works within the enterprise environment just as any other form set up by the enterprise system.
When a company uses this approach, any printer supported by the enterprise environment can become a label printer. The data for the labeling is driven from within the enterprise system applications so there is an even tighter integration with the source data.
Both approaches have the advantage of enabling the labeling system to work directly with the enterprise system, so there is no need for any manual handling of label output information. This increases speed and accuracy. Additionally, both approaches take advantage of the robust enterprise network for distributed printing anywhere on the company�s network or even over the Internet.
Furthermore, by tapping into the power of the enterprise system, variable information including quantities, individual store addresses, pricing and calculated postal rates can be included in the label output file. This further streamlines operations and saves time and money.
From the time the interface is set up, the entire label and form printing process is automatic. Warehouse or shipping employees don�t even have to know where the label information originates.
If your enterprise or warehouse system is not fully integrated with your order fulfillment and shipping operations, you�ve only completed half the job. There are ways to bring these two worlds together without major commitments of programmer time or development costs. A few refinements are all you need to get your labeling operations off the edge.
Klaus Brockmann is managing director of Global Product Management at Teklynx.  He holds a pre-degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Munich.