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The loading dock is becoming an increasingly important choke point in the supply chain. It's where the validity of information about inbound shipments, and to a lesser degree outbound ones, is tested and ultimately judged.
Collecting information about outbound shipments is much easier because raw data generally are stored internally, either in the retailer's warehouse management or enterprise resource planning system. Picking the item out of inventory, or doing a shelf check, ideally should confirm the accuracy of reports generated by the underlying software-based planning or inventory management system.
Vendors' success in further integrating transportation management systems with sister warehouse management systems is providing loading dock managers with the accurate information that they need to make more efficient use of their facilities and the workers who staff them. More importantly, having accurate, timely information about the status of inbound shipments gives retailers the opportunity to speed or accelerate replenishment of high-demand products and minimize or avoid stock-outs or-a retailer's worst nightmare--running out of fast-moving products.
Addressing that potential problem is the Integrated Logistics for Retail, a new, enhanced software package that also includes Manhattan Associates' core WMS. Integrated Logistics provides an electronic appointment book that retailers use to schedule receipt of an inbound shipment. Retailers choose a delivery slot--notification is automatically sent to the carrier via e-mail or posted on a corporate extranet or portal - selecting the one that provides the best opportunity to quickly get the product to store shelves.
In turn, the carrier usually will send a reservation confirmation as well as an advanced shipping notice, when the shipment is en route.
A major factor that the software considers when selecting the preferred delivery time is ready availability of dock space, a finite resource.
Yantra Corp. includes a real-time synchronization/event management module in Yantra 7x, the latest version of its core WMS. This module, which provides retailers with visibility of the order as its makes its way across the supply chain and onto the loading dock, is event/exception-driven.
Moreover, Yantra recently enabled its software to accept real-time feeds from a radio frequency identification system. Essentially, the software matches RFID messages against the schedule and prompts the retailer if an inbound shipment fails to meet an important milestone, said Robert Sweeney, Yantra's vice president for product management.
There are a series of milestones within a couple of hundred yards of the loading dock, including arrival at the gate or trailer storage yard beyond the consignee's warehouse and acceptance of the inbound shipment at the loading dock.
RFID automates the receipt of goods at the loading dock or storage yard, says Art Mesher, executive vice president of Descartes Systems. In fact, the RFID-enabled Logistics Network Operating System can automatically attach a priority - red, green or yellow - to that shipment.
"It's real-time command and control of the supply chain," he says.
Descartes software, which has appointment and scheduling features like that in the Yantra and Manhattan Associates products, hosts much of its customer data on its network. Such an arrangement facilitates communication between consignee and carriers, most of which are members, Mesher says.
Descartes software also can do a quality control check/audit of supply-chain partners and vendors. It can apply statistical process control and analysis tools to help determine why certain recurring problems arise and ideally rectify the problem.
Retailers also recently began applying sophisticated analytics software to loading dock operations. A new package from the Teradata division of NCR Corp. of Dayton, Ohio provides updated information that warehouse and loading dock managers use to rebalance inventory levels, in response to current demand.
"What good is a forecast if you can't get the required goods in the store," said Gerald Hill, president of Sage Tree Inc., the Teradata unit that wrote the supply chain software.
Calculating optimal payback, in terms of improved inventory availability and required order fulfillment, determines how frequently shipments are scheduled.
Essentially, the logistics module of Teradata's Supply Chain Intelligence software package readjusts loading dock priorities and schedules. It does so after comparing current sales data with demand forecasts and finding potential disparities. The software then pushes the updated information and new priorities throughout the company's supply network and ultimately to the receiving loading dock.
Updated information received at the loading dock often is quite specific. For example, the location of high-demand inventory can be tracked to the truckload or pallet level, assuming such detailed, underlying raw data are available.
|"[For RFID], each company's physical environment is different, which will require product packaging, technical infrastructure and process change."|
- Christine Overby of Forrester Group
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