ERPNext at McLean Images, Australia

McLean Images is a small business located in Laidley, Queensland about 1 hour west of the State Capital, Brisbane.

 · 7 min read

Background

McLean Images is a small business located in Laidley, Queensland about 1 hour west of the State Capital, Brisbane. They offer a wide range of promotional and printed materials from large signs and billboards through printed textiles and traditional printed paper items like business cards. The business began trading 23 years ago and has grown into an operation which supplies to customers throughout Australia and overseas into the Pacific. While maintaining a traditional small business feel the company is large enough to need a capable ERP system to manage customer sales and production processes. That’s where ERPNext comes in…

McLeans already had a computerised system specifically tailored for the print industry. However it lacked a number of key features and flexibility which meant the business was hamstrung in expanding into new products and managing the production process. Order production status was lacking and areas like customer stock management and customisation of reports and print formats was extremely cumbersome or not available.

 

The Decision

A number of print focused ERP systems exist in the market, many of which have some specific features that suit the production of printed matter, textile printing, etc. However McLeans’ breadth of products offered means no one of these “focussed” systems had all the features we desired. The next step was to consider a “full-blown ERP” system. Traditionally these are expensive, require a LOT of customisation to fit the business and take a long time to implement.

Open source ERP options abound these days – names like Odoo, OFBiz and xTuple are prominent in the market. On further investigation some of the supposedly “free” options lack support and upgrades, or the licensing is quite expensive. Enter ERPNext, a fully working online free trial for 30 days (which was generously extended by the guys so we could really put it through its paces), hosted plans starting from less than the price of a cup of coffee each day and enough modules to satisfy the most demanding of businesses meant our choice was quite easy in the end.

Skills Required

Our business is quite small (12 employees full time and some seasonal/casual staff) so we have one “IT Person”, that’s me ☺ and while I have been extensively involved in implementing ERP systems in the Transport and Logistics industry for 15 years, I am not a programmer or particularly technical person by any means. My job is also only ½ to ¾ of the time true IT/Systems as the business requires everyone to be somewhat hands on in the production areas.

Given the usually daunting task of implementing a complete new system from the ground up we were understandably cautious with our implementation timeframes and milestone project dates. Using the guides online I was able to setup a fully working locally hosted installation of ERPNext on Ubuntu server but we quickly realised a hosted solution would suit us best and be more cost effective – as well as remove the necessity to maintain dedicated servers and related infrastructure.

The Community

Lacking the skills to be able to write my own scripts and the like ERPNext’s support community has been invaluable in assisting us to configure and customise the system to suit our needs. Along with the traditional “customer support” provided by ERPNext themselves there is the online frappe discussion forums where like minded people can share ideas and assistance in addition to the dedicated Gitter chat for erpnext as well. Many hours were spent there getting very useful advice on scripting, general configuration and even troubleshooting. There are some very experienced guys across this community and it is invaluable in helping a person of any level achieve what they need within ERPNext.

The Modules

Currently McLean Images uses the following modules

  1. Selling – used extensively for:
    1. Quoting
    2. Sales Order management
    3. Sales Order completion progress tracking
    4. Pricing and Billing (Invoicing)
  2. Stock – used for maintaining a small inventory of customer textile stock
    1. Stock is assigned to Sales Orders
    2. Viewable by customers via a limited permissions logon
  3. Buying – recently implemented and currently used for:
    1. Raising and tracking Purchase Orders
    2. Price history for purchases
    3. Matching Sales Orders which need stock ordered in to the PO

The Challenges

With any new system there are invariably challenges and pitfalls along the journey. And like any new system we found the most were typical of any similar project – data and change. Data invariably is your biggest task – to clean it up and format it to a state it can be imported smoothly into a new system and be useful. The import feature in ERPNext is both intuitive and simple to use. CSV format is great as not only is it human readable but it also a simple file to work with and many applications are compatible.

Key Customisation

As with any new system the balance must be struck between customisation and usability. While ERPNext allows a lot of customisation to the level of creating your own modules we stuck with mostly vanilla wherever possible. The main areas of customisation were around Print Formats as we require specific documentation for customer approvals prior to work commencing.

ERPNext already has a plethora of customisation options within forms and fields. These proved very useful and the ability to add custom fields was paramount for us as we have very detailed requirements for our Sales Order items. In the end we added nearly 40 custom Sales Order Item fields to accommodate the wide range of products we supply and print. The Frappe framework not only allowed this but kept the management of these fields simple and often “one click” to hide, link to other tables, etc.

The rendering of a barcode on our printouts was essential to allow input via scanner rather than typing numbers to find and modify sales orders. An inability to install/use barcode fonts on the remote server meant an API solution was the simplest and quickest solution. Utilising barcode4me and their service meant we could easily render the barcodes on any print format with a simple line of code.

Being completely new to Python and Jinja meant a steep learning curve for me to create custom print formats. I am very grateful for the help given by contributors like sbkolate and the ERPNext team lead by Rushabh. It was easy to get discouraged early on in the process staring at a blank text box wondering where to start with a custom print format but thankfully the help was available. These days with further improvements like a dedicated custom print format builder it is even easier to get started in your journey within ERPNext.

With no programming experience other than basic SQL, Javascript for custom scripting on forms and in-system was going to be a big challenge. Thankfully the ERPNext/Frappe community once again came to the fore and I was able to gain the knowledge I needed to perform the basics – populate fields with a set value based on other values, force on-save and on-load events, etc. I also learnt a lot about browser Java Consoles and debugging my own code. While we still have a long way to go and lots more customisation is possible, the ability to get simple customisation up and running quickly was invaluable for a timely go-live.

The Approach

Being a small business we were able to take some liberties with our implementation project. We defined set dates and milestones for key events like data cleanse but we were able to move these if necessary without major impact to the overall timeline.

Lessons Learned

Testing can never be too thorough. Test, test and test some more. Then re-test if in ANY doubt. That was the biggest lesson to come out of our project. Due to the short timeframe of 2 months from trial system to go-live (Selling module only for initial go-live) we under-tested and consequently got found out on a few occasions post-go live. While this was not a major problem for us as we do not process huge volumes of transactions it still set us back and resulted in a lot of re-work to retrospectively get the system back on track.
While the learning curve was steep for the IT person (me), the staff were able to easily adapt to ERPNext from the old system due to it’s flexibility and ease of use. The browser based GUI coupled with the “iPhone app look” (as one user described it) meant it was intuitive and easily transitioned to from the cumbersome previous system which was overly complex with a difficult to navigate UI. The fact all data is cached until a refresh is a huge advantage to our staff who are used to “losing” data whenever the browser BACK button is pressed.

In Summary

For a small to medium enterprise ERPNext appears to be a great option to manage a business. The product itself is constantly being improved, the growing user community is helpful and the ERPNext team is very positive and forward thinking. Overall we have benefited from the implementation of this system and expect to gain more advantages as we move forward and utilise more aspects of it.

Liam Taylor

Liam Taylor a.k.a "monojoker" is an active ERPNext user and community member. Liam works at McLean Images a printing business based in Queensland, Australia

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