Just what is meant by "real-time" visibility today? And how can it be applied to enable greater efficiencies in parcel-delivery networks? Gwen Rhines, vice president of operations with Green Mountain Technology, explains.
SCB: What do we mean by the term “real-time visibility”?
Rhines: It means having visibility with several of your data sources — order information, execution systems, billing systems and the like.
SCB: Companies have been trying to achieve this for years. Are we at the point now where it's a reachable goal?
Rhines: We're finally at the point where the technology is there. The key is looking at this holistically, and being able to label your data. You want to understand the different sources where that data's coming from, to know that it accurately represents your network.
SCB: We’re in the age of big data. Aren’t companies challenged with simply making sense of it?
Rhines: That's right. The key then is marrying it from all these different data points. It's not just understanding when the package starts at execution, it's looking at it from the scan data, the order data and the transportation data, and knowing that you've got to fill in those gaps. If you start with only one single source of data, you could be missing things that are going on in your network.
SCB: What must companies do to achieve real-time visibility?
Rhines: You've got to look at the problem holistically, to start with a way to label data from different sources, so that the business rules are consistent across all the different data points that are coming in. Whether it's from your execution system or fthe scans from a carrier, you need to understand how it’s represented within your network. So data labels are critical. For an omnichannel solution, you've got to be able to marry all that data together.
SCB: What’s the challenge involved in getting all of your supply-chain partners to participate in this effort of consistency and standardization?
Rhines: It's absolutely a challenge. Whichever system you’re using to build real-time visibility, you need to be able to plug and play with partners that are willing to participate in the solution.
SCB: How do you even get started?
Rhines: Think of the lifetime of your parcel network. Where does it start? From the time the order is placed, to the execution of that order, to where it's on the delivery route with the carrier, then finally bringing in the transportation cost.
SCB: All of this assumes that your partners are providing you with the data in the first place, on a real-time basis.
Rhines: That's right. There are definitely challenges in that area, but the large parcel carriers are able to give you a tracking feed on an hourly basis or a web API [application programming interface] to access that information. You’ve also got to know when you need that information.
SCB: What are the challenges of funneling information downstream to your customers?
Rhines: The key to this solution is being able to act on the information — communicating with your customer-success team to let them know that you've missed a promise date. Real-time visibility means you can see your shipments in action, and you can visually tell when you're going to miss a date. Then you can proactively notify the customer, and start rerouting packages or sourcing inventory from different locations because of congestion in your network.
SCB: Do you want to be monitoring this on a minute-by-minute basis, or should the system be based on exception management?
Rhines: Depending on what type of product you're shipping, it might be something that you want to monitor on an hourly basis, because it's a very high value item. For other orders, you might just want to manage to exceptions, with alerts that anomalies that are occurring.
SCB: The presence of so much data raises the necessity of technology to handle it all, especially in the form of automation and artificial intelligence. What role is AI playing in this today?
Rhines: AI has to be key. It's looking at the patterns of your shipping and predicting when packages are going to be late, incorporating weather data and other events that might be causing congestion in the network. It can also help you to predict where you might need to source your inventory, or take an alternative route.
SCB: AI is described as a developing or maturing technology. Where is it right now in its ability to do what you just described?
Rhines: We’re in the crux of it right now. AI needs to learn, to watch and see what's going on. The more data you feed into it, the smarter it gets. We’re seeing a ton of potential with that today.
SCB: Can these solutions change the economics of parcel shipping, to make it profitable?
Rhines: Absolutely. In the past, we've had to look it from a historical basis, when you receive the bill from a carrier, which can be two to three weeks after you've shipped. That's two to three weeks of costly routing problems that have gone on. Hopefully the ability to see this in real time will let you make adjustments in your network, and avoid a lot of costly errors.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.