Management at Bavaria NV, one of the largest independent breweries in Holland, had a clear picture of what it wanted when it abandoned its old, homegrown business applications in favor of SAP's R/3 enterprise resources planning (ERP) package.
Bavaria NV, with headquarters in Lieshould, Holland, is a family-owned company that has been producing Bavaria brand beer since 1719. The company currently has about 750 employees and annual revenue of roughly $700 million Dutch guilders ($370 million U.S.). It distributes its beer, which includes a recently released brand called Millennium that Hoogendoorn describes as "fresh and hip" throughout the world. In the U.S., Bavaria beer is sold under the Swinkels brand name, which is the name of the family that owns the company.
Bavaria NV wanted to enable individual system users to quickly retrieve the precise data they need to perform their jobs, which includes providing up-to-date information to both customers and company management. It also wanted users to present that information - particularly its customer correspondence - in an attractive format.
The R/3 package has helped Bavaria accomplish its first objective, improving its efficiency in every area from sales and distribution management to warehouse management and financial reporting. Delivering information in an appealing format was another story, however.
"If you look at the typical report, or any document that comes out of R/3, it looks horrible," Paul Hoogendoorn, Bavaria NV’s Network and Systems Manager says rather bluntly. Hoogendoorn adds that the thought of sending R/3-generated invoices to customers was particularly unappealing to Bavaria NV. "We didn’t want our customers to see the ugly standard SAP invoices. We wanted a nice, professional-looking invoice instead."
For that, Bavaria NV turned to StreamServe, a Swedish software company that recently established a North American headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. StreamServe develops and provides intelligent output management software, a class of technology that is gaining in popularity as businesses the world over increasingly find it necessary to improve their ability to communicate with customers and other business partners.
Output management software helps businesses create documents that meet their specific business needs, and then distribute those documents via numerous devices and channels. Usually, the output management software formats documents or data produced by ERP or other business systems for publishing via multiple devices - including printers, fax machines, e-mail, and Internet and intranet sites.
"We definitely are seeing a trend toward greater use of output management software," says Lance Travis, Research Director for Enabling Technologies with AMR Research, a Boston-based information technology consulting firm. "The primary reason is you have a growing number of companies out there installing large enterprise applications packages, such as SAP's R3, and they are finding that the output and reporting capabilities embedded in those applications are not meeting their needs. So, people are looking for additional tools that will help them make better use of the information they have in their enterprise applications."
Travis says the most visible suppliers of output management software, at present, are well known enterprise systems management vendors, such as Tivoli Systems, Austin, Texas; Platinum Software, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.; Computer Associates, Islanda, N.Y.; and Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif. However, he says these companies tend to view output management primarily as directing traffic for high-volume print jobs to ensure that documents get to the right printers or other devices, while StreamServe takes the concept a step further.
"StreamServe places more emphasis on the post-processing capabilities - things like providing additional formatting, or even creating custom formats for the different devices before documents are released," Travis says. The StreamServe software has these capabilities because it takes raw data from the business applications and creates the documents itself before distributing them to various output devices. By contrast, Travis says, most other output management programs take already formatted documents from a print queue and simply make sure those documents contain the proper coding to be distributed by the appropriate output devices.
"The big advantage to the StreamServe approach is the flexibility ...," Travis says. "By inserting themselves into the output stream at an earlier point, they give users more choices in terms of what they can do with the output. They allow for doing things like eliminating graphics for copies of a document that will be going to an old, non-Postscript printer, or removing confidential information from copies that will be going to printers located in a front office, where you are not sure who might pick them up. They also have translation capabilities, allowing, for instance, users to take output and translate elected parts to another language (for example French), depending on the receiver's location."
Hoogendoorn says this flexibility is what caused Bavaria NV to select StreamServe for its invoicing application. "We could have created new invoices with SAP-script - a programming language embedded in the SAP R/3 application - but that is a fully programmable language where you don't see what you are getting until you print it," Hoogendoorn says. "We also considered some other output management programs, but they all either did not accept raw data from a business application, or they were linked to a particular brand of printer. In order accommodate all of our needs for a good-looking, professional invoice, we were looking for a flexible layout program which could use the raw input from SAP and use all of our current printers, as well as be able to handle any new printers we might purchase in the future."
All of Bavaria NV's beer is produced at its main facility in Lieshould, which also houses the company's sales, marketing and distribution operations. The company also has a series of warehouses spread around its native country that distribute its products to neighborhood bars, or "cafes" as they are known in Holland, and another small factory that produces malt, the main ingredient for beer. Along with its beer, Hoogendoorn says Bavaria NV delivers roughly 1,400 invoices to customers every day.
Those invoices can be printed on any of the 60-plus printers scattered around the plant. The printers are part of a plant-wide network that is anchored by an IBM AS/400, which houses the SAP R/3 application. The AS/400 is in turn linked to 15 PCs that act as servers for Lotus Notes and various other communications and printing programs. One of these PCs - a Pentium II, 300 MHz machine - is the server for the StreamServe program.
Hoogendoorn says this network infrastructure supports about 420 additional PCs, more than half of which are used to monitor and control machines involved in beer production. The remaining machines are available for employees to conduct administrative tasks. "We have about 160 concurrent SAP users daily," Hoogendoorn says, "including the 13 employees who create the 1,400 invoices."
Hoogendoorn says users know the StreamServe software is involved in generating their invoices, but they don't know exactly what the software does, nor is it something they really need to know. "There are a lot of steps involved in printing the invoice, but the whole process takes only 1 to 2 seconds from the time the time the user hits the print command," Hoogendorn says, "so they don't know what is happening behind the scenes."
What happens is users working within the R/3 sales and distribution module enter the appropriate data for an invoice, normally the quantity and price of items to be delivered. They then enter a print command, which includes instructions for sending the invoice to a specific printer. The R/3 program takes all of the invoice-related data - including default data for specific customers, such as company name, ship-to address, etc. - and converts it to an ASCII stream file. The stream file is then sent over the network to the StreamServe server. There, the StreamServe program reviews the data and determines exactly what type of invoice to create.
Bavaria NV issues four basic sets of invoices - one set for product delivered to domestic wholesale customers, a second set for product exported to wholesalers in other countries, a third for product delivered to the neighborhood cafes and a fourth set for products shipped from the malt factory.
Once the StreamServe program recognizes the invoice type, it creates a document in the correct format for the user-specified printer and sends the file to that printer to generate a paper document. Most invoices actually go to two printers simultaneously, one of which prints the original, with the Bavaria NV logo, for the customer. The second printer generates a copy for the company's internal files, with no logo and the word "Copy" superimposed over the invoice's text.
Hoogendoorn says this dual printing process also provides protection against the failure of a printer at a critical time. "If one printer goes down, the original invoice can quickly be rerouted to the second printer, without changing any code," Hoogendoorn says. "In fact, we can reroute invoices to any printer on the network. That was a very strict requirement for us in choosing an output system, that it should be easy to replace any printer that might go down so that invoices still can get out the door."
Users direct any questions relating to the creation of invoices to one of four application administrators within the plant. Hoogendoorn says these administrators, each of whom is designated to handle issues related to a single invoice type, act as intermediaries between the end users and system programmers. So far, Hoogendoorn says users have not asked for anything beyond a few changes to the format of some invoices.
A service contract calls for StreamServe to make any format changes Bavaria NV desires. "We send them a notice of the changes we want made, along with an example of how we want it to look and they usually send us an updated format, via e-mail, within one to two days," Hoogendoorn says.
StreamServe consultants change the format by using StreamServe Tool, a Windows-based layout program that permits the dragging and dropping of both static and dynamic fields into document formats, as well the embedding of rules for generating specific types of output from a document. StreamServe can create documents in numerous formats, including PostScript, PDF and HTML. It also will feed documents to printers, fax machines, EDI translation programs and Web sites.
The original format and rules for printing invoices at Bavaria NV were established by a three-person team consisting of Hoogendoorn, a StreamServe consultant and a programmer from the systems integration firm that assisted Bavaria's R/3 implementation. "The first thing we did was talk to users to determine what they wanted on the invoices," Hoogendoorn recalls. "Then we matched that list with what was available in the R/3 database. Once we knew where all the data would come from, including some data that had to be calculated, we wrote a program to extract the relevant data from R/3, format it into a ASCII stream file and transfer it to the StreamServe server."
That entire process took roughly four weeks. It concluded in May of 1998, at which time both the R/3 and StreamServe programs went live at Bavaria NV. And Hoogendoorn is pleased with the results of both programs.
"One of the big things management wanted from R/3 was updated financial figures eight days after the month has closed," Hoogendoorn says. "With our old systems, it took eight weeks to produce these figures, and we could only do them at the end of each quarter. Now, we can provide them within eight days of closing the books on a single month. That has been the biggest achievement from the R/3 implementation."
As for StreamServe, Hoogendoorn says, "What I like most is that it is independent of any type of printer. We have some very old laser printers producing the very same output as our newest printers. That is the type of flexibility we wanted."
He says StreamServe also is saving Bavaria NV both time and money, in addition to enhancing its public image. The savings come from two sources: elimination of the need to purchase special forms for printing invoices, because all header and footer information can be embedded in the stream files, and the end of a long-standing practice of users designing their own invoices.
Not having users design invoices also contributes to the improved public image. "Our previous invoicing system was one of the native programs that we wrote for the AS/400," Hoogendorn continues. "It printed out to an impact printer and the results were not very readable. We also had users creating their own layouts for invoices, which resulted in our sending a lot of different-looking invoices to customers. When we designed the invoices in StreamServe, we tried to integrate the best feature of all the user-generated invoices, and make all invoices as uniform as possible."
Hoogendoorn says Bavaria NV is looking forward to further savings by activating an archiving feature within the StreamServe program. "Once we implement archiving, we won't have to print copies of invoices. Having the copies online will save time when there are questions about an invoice, as well as when the when accountants come to review them. This feature should save us the equivalent of one full-time employee." And Hoogendorn doesn't believe the potential benefits end there.
Sidney Hill is a freelance business writer based in Albuquerque, N.M.