E-Forms Keep Pace with the Paper Chase

Analysts call it the "global paper chase" -- the growing, insatiable demand for document management and creation capabilities. The AS/400 electronic forms marketplace has been part of this soaring growth, driven by the growing popularity of ERP packages, intelligent forms, laser printers, workflow and the promise of the Internet.

"We're seeing a lot more awareness of the advantages of electronic forms printing," observes Ron Cohen, president of Create!print (Canoga Park, Calif.). "People are telling us what exactly what they want to do, rather than seeking cost justification."

Supporting ERP

Perhaps the greatest increases in activity, are resulting from the growth of packaged ERP applications. Solutions such as R/3 from SAP, OneWorld from J.D. Edwards, and BPCS from SSA may be robust, but the forms these applications generate tend to be unattractive, remarks Denise Partlow, AS/400 marketing manager with JetForm Corp. (Falls Church, Va.).

JetForm recently announced it is offering a suite of intelligent electronic billing forms specifically targeted for SAP's aerospace and defense modules, which runs on AS/400 as well as other platforms. This e-forms solution lets government contractors generate paper-billing forms that comply with U.S. government regulations from R/3. Packaged applications such as SAP have "increased both our market size and marketing activities," says Partlow. "We're custom-tailoring our products to easily fit into the ERP market."

Likewise, Formula One Systems (Duluth, Ga.) is getting a lot of new business from customers buying new ERP packages, says Mark Firmin, VP of sales and marketing for Formula One. These companies need to improve and configure the look of the output from these systems. One issue that many new ERP sites are wrestling with is the fact that standard documents coming out of ERP packages are sized differently than documents the company may have been using. E-forms packages help align ERP output with companies' previous documents, Firmin says.

Third-party e-forms packages make sense, since users "do not want to go back to their application vendor and ask them to change the format of reports," says Yves Blanchette, VP of marketing for Praim Inc. (Portsmouth, N.H.). "People all seem to be looking for ways to make their forms more dynamic."

More Intelligence

The intelligence built into new e-form products coming on the market is increasing, enabling the system to quickly identify series of forms that may have previously taken days to complete. For example, insurance companies used to have "a wall full of pigeon holes that have thousands of different forms," says Cohen of Create!print. "That construction process can be fully eliminated when you have modern electronic forms tools, like the conditional logic capabilities that create printouts," he says. "For example, it will attach a specific rider for applicants from a particular state. Or add an optional disability application for another plan," he notes.

The Iowa Department of Personnel (Des Moines) recently took advantage of the various forms generated through a forms generation program from Create!print. The agency generates retirement packages for 150,000 active and 60,000 retired state, country, city and school employees. The department runs the package on an AS/400 system with Token-Ring-attached PCs and printers. The retirement division uses approximately 60 forms, including a benefit estimate and retirement application packet.

Previously, the estimate took one day to process and the application was not unique to the individual applicant. The e-forms implementation lets retirement counselors immediately generate a personalized packet of information -- a process that previously took up to two weeks. "We have increased the number of estimates from 1,200 to 5,000 per months, says Cheryl Marvin, technology support team leader for the Iowa Department of Personnel.

"Eventually, other companies are going to recognize that they've eliminated entire walls of forms," Cohen says. "Few people even understand the capabilities of a forms print product."

Indeed, today's e-form can figure out where it needs to go, based on the contents of the data that's in it, agrees Daryl Hatton, chief technology officer of Optio Software (Norcross, Ga.).

More Laser Printers

While there are still plenty of impact line printers out in the AS/400 world, the future seems to belong to laser printing, which offers natural opportunities for more graphic presentations in forms. "Laser printer technology is now a given in day-to-day business," says Formula One’s Firmin. "Larger heavy-duty impact line printers out there slowly are being changed over to laser printers. As businesses change from impact to laser, they start to look more at electronic printing."

The market is "quickly moving to laser printers," agrees Carey Horne, president of Pro/Help Systems (Lilburn, Ga.). "HP has driven the cost of laser printers down. HP laser printers can be connected to the AS/400 for far less than an AS/400 dot-matrix printer just a few years ago. A lot of people are using lasers even for their main system printing. And if one printer won't do it, they just put two of them out there."

Blending with Workflow

Some vendors are repositioning themselves as workflow technology providers. JetForm has even launched a separate product line -- In Tempo -- targeted at workflow management. "Workflow processes lend themselves very well to electronic forms," says JetForm's Partlow. "We need to offer the ability to create an electronic form that mimics paper processes."

"We sometimes describe our software as 'workflow for your enterprise applications,'" says Hatton of Optio. "This is how you get the information out of your main enterprise applications, and get it integrated into the business process."

The key part of facilitating workflow processes is the ability of e-forms systems to move documents closer to their intended audiences, industry experts agree. "People are asking for distributed printing capabilities built right into the system," says Cohen. "They want the electronic forms software to do the print distribution."

Gartner Group (Stamford, Conn.) has identified this trend as evolving from printing and distributing to distributing and printing. "Instead centralized production of reports and documents, customers want to move them out closer to the people receiving them, and sometimes even avoiding printing them altogether," says Hatton. Another emphasis is on the ability of e-forms to be tailored to target audiences. For example, a company dealing with a customer in another culture may wish to "change the look of an invoice, depending on the target recipient," Hatton explains.

The Future

While still in the early stages, industry spokespeople see a move toward Internet and Web enablement. "We're seeing interest in e-mail distribution of documents through PDF," says Cohen. "It's kind of like a poorman's EDI, where you can take an image of a document, convert it into a PDF format, attach it to an e-mail, and send it to a client." However, it will be some time before full-fledged forms can be distributed over the Internet in the same fashion as EDI, he remarks. "There's a lack of standards in that area, and there's still security issues."

Optio’s Hatton also foresees more distribution of reports over the Web or by electronic mail. Optio will soon be announcing a Document Access Server, which will deliver e-forms as HTML documents over intranets, and eventually virtual private networks. "Customers will be able to use the Internet as a really cheap WAN delivery mechanism," he notes.

Praim is also following this trend. "If I can produce a document that can be printed, then I can produce a document that can be faxed, and can be converted in HTML to be populated on the Web server," says Blanchette.