Fortune 500 Subsidiary Leaps Legacy Reporting Hurdles with AutoMate
Software Systems Consulting Inc.
Bob Strunk, Systems Manager
Until 2006, remote salesmen for the industrial supply distribution division of a Fortune 500 company were handicapped by the way daily reports were disseminated. Each 30- to 40-page report was manually printed and circulated by snail mail or fax, causing inevitable delays between report generation and delivery. The process also wasted tens of thousands of dollars a year in paper, postage and human resources. Then Software Systems Consulting Incorporated (SSCI), developer of the distribution company's proprietary ERP system, turned to Network Automation's AutoMate Professional business process automation platform to help orchestrate a series of steps enabling reports from its client's minicomputer-based system to be converted and emailed as PDF files. SSCI simultaneously began using AutoMate to email purchase orders and order confirmations to the distributor's vendors and customers. All automation sequences were assembled in a single day with AutoMate's drag-and-drop task builder, eliminating the time and expense of coding.
Expedite Legacy System Processes
For SSCI, the process of eliminating manual distribution of daily reports, pricing updates, purchase orders and order confirmations for its client was complicated by the architecture of its legacy business software. The software is built with a proprietary Alpha Microsystems operating system called AMOS that outputs data as a PCL5 data stream and sends print jobs to a physical printer that supports that version of HP's Printer Command Language, utilizing the Line Printer Daemon/Line Printer Remote (LPD/LPR) protocol. Since PCL5 documents cannot be easily printed by the average email recipient, switching to an email delivery strategy would require that print files be diverted to a computer that simulated the PCL5-capable printer, scraped for email-related information, converted to PDF files, and then attached and emailed – all without manual intervention.
"We're dealing here with a custom-built AMOS-based ERP system that runs as an emulator on Windows XP. Reprogramming it to enable email transmittal of these documents wasn't practical either from a time or money perspective," said SSCI Systems Manager Bob Strunk. "We needed enabling technology that would perform all of the necessary steps and automate the entire workflow without having to write the programs ourselves."
SSCI found the answer by linking AutoMate Professional with two point solutions designed to perform LPD and PCL-related printing and viewing tasks. Today:
• HP PCL5 print files are "printed" on RPM Remote Print Manager, an LPD print server program from Brooks Internet Software that intercepts print data ordinarily sent to a printer and instead writes it to disk. RPM saves the data as a text file that is placed in a folder on one of the distribution company's servers.
• AutoMate polls the RPM folder continuously throughout the day looking for new documents, including daily reports that are generated automatically at midnight as well as other files sent randomly by hundreds of users who are logged on to the distributor's computer system.
• Whenever there is a new file, AutoMate retrieves it; scrapes the data to extract subject, destination and source information for use in creating an email cover page; and transmits the cover page as well as the full report data to RedTitan's EscapeE, a PCL viewer that converts the data stream to a PDF and sends it back to AutoMate.
• AutoMate then attaches the PDF to an email body and sends it to the distributor's customers or remote salesmen, based on the data it found in the document's cover page. The PDF contains the entire contents of the original LPD file as processed by the EscapeE program.
"AutoMate is a critical link in this chain," Strunk said. "If it couldn't scrape the email data from the RPM folder, we couldn't have gone any further with this project. Its role in getting these files to EscapeE and then getting the emails out the door is equally important. It's like the conductor in an orchestra. It holds everything together."
No Coding, No Business Delays
For SSCI, the power of AutoMate extends beyond the broad functionality of the platform to the vital issue of rapid development. Being able to create the necessary automation routines in one day by simply dragging and dropping pre-programmed menu commands into the proper sequence – all with a single software package costing less than $1,500 – eliminated weeks of programming as well as ongoing code maintenance and associated expenses.
For SSCI's distribution company client, in turn, the resulting ability to distribute key documents by email rather than manual methods has produced substantial business benefits. Remote salesmen around the country now receive daily reports and updated price lists almost as soon as the computer spits them out, with no more need to wait for overnight printing, morning faxing, or delivery by the U.S. Postal Service. The most recent sales data, inventory updates, pricing changes and other information is at their fingertips as soon as they log on for the day. The email strategy is also saving hours of work for customer service representatives by eliminating the need to print and circulate paper-based purchase orders and order confirmations for most customers.
As an important fringe benefit, the PDF output enabled by the combined AutoMate/RPM/EscapeE solution is also allowing the distribution firm to print files from its Alpha Micro computer on any printer in its offices around the world without needing a special PCL5-capable machine. In addition, when needed, printed documents can now be faxed without overlaying a digitized copy on a special form that was previously required to meet the 200-dots-per-inch fax standard.
All of these changes have helped streamline operations for the distribution company, which sells products ranging from packaging and shipping supplies to janitorial equipment, cleaning chemicals and foodservice disposables to enterprises around the world. The new functionality has also helped the company meet the demands of today's email culture while maintaining its decades-old legacy software investment. For SSCI as well as its client, teaming AutoMate with RPM and EscapeE has proved to be smart business.