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It's all well and good to talk about collaboration with supply chain partners and the real-time visibility, decisions and alerting that certain systems promise when everyone is linked together. But actually achieving that hand-in-glove closeness takes some doing, and some money. Too bad, since the benefits are real, including synchronization of supply and demand, better asset utilization, reduced cycle times, lower transportation costs, improved on-time delivery, agile response to changing demands and opportunities, and faster exception resolution.
But this kind of tight-knit collaboration requires access to and analysis of fragmented data locked in silos throughout the supply chain, including portals, spreadsheets, legacy systems, emails, faxes, and ERP systems.
Coverage in the business press suggests that service-oriented architecture, or SOA, has come to the rescue, by "tying" disparate supply chain systems together somehow. However, that requires that each system become XML-enabled and communicate with its peers using a common protocol. Multiple layers of complex XML and Web-services technologies, formats and standards must be discussed, agreed to, programmed, tested and deployed by all system owners for the composite solution to work correctly. Ongoing changes to each connected system as well as to the overall composite solution to reflect evolution of business factors need the same detailed discussion and programming and are similarly complex and expensive to deploy.
What's an enterprise to do? Large or small, companies are desperately looking to collaborate with trading partners in the most efficient-and affordable-manner possible. But the cost of an SOA initiative may be prohibitive. Moreover, SOA does not address pushing and pulling data from Excel, email, PDF, project files, and CAD drawings.
This was largely the situation confronting Dynamic Worldwide Logistics, which very much needed its systems to "read" those of its partners, but needed to ensure that money saved through collaborating wasn't lost on IT implementation.
Dynamic Worldwide is a third-party logistics provider to the apparel industry with locations in the U.S. and China. It's described by Leif Arntzen, vice president of operations, as a global end-to-end services provider that started from a simple trucking operation picking up garments from back-room cutting and sewing centers in New York City. Many of those businesses functioned on streets too crowded to park a truck, he says. A solution in those days might mean sending clothes on hangers down a line from a second- or third-story room to the back of a waiting truck. "If you were walking by, you might see clothes flying down the street," he says.
Today's needs require a somewhat more sophisticated supply chain management solution. For instance, Dynamic Worldwide Logistics found its manual order and confirmation process was no longer adequate. A client in retail required Dynamic to follow a specific protocol in interfacing with its transportation staff and to update its RedPrairie transportation management system.
Specifically, the retail client sends email pick-up orders which contain shipper and destination addresses. Formerly, Dynamic staffers would read the emails, then manually update their AS400, which would create a pick-up order. Dynamic would then update the AS400 that the shipment was delivered and turn around and manually confirm in the client's RedPrairie TMS. In addition to the traditional problems of time, error and expense associated with this manual process, there was also the time-consuming look-up in the ever-growing AS400 shipper/destination directory. The typical industry problem of the directory growing larger and larger is caused by staffers creating another AS400 directory entry when they cannot immediately match the shipper or destination given in the email.
Arntzen says that Dynamic Worldwide turned to Instaknow Inc., which deployed its Instaknow-ACE (Active Collaboration Engine) to automate certain business processes. Those include decision-making and alerting, and they are accomplished with a system that doesn't require writing new code or changing any existing IT system. As described by Paul Khandekar, Instaknow CEO, there is no expensive, drawn-out XML modifications to existing applications. A "friendly" graphical interface guides a user in creating a complete automation that emulates the current manual steps, decision process, and alerting.
Smart visual wizards are designed to allow quick conversion of any business intent into business process automation steps, Khandekar says. Each wizard accomplishes the work equivalent to thousands of lines of conventional code. The solution is built focusing on the "business logic" rather than the technical aspects, which the wizards handle automatically.
After analyzing the data from various sources and the actions that will yield the desired business objectives (e.g. integrated visibility from silos of fragmented data, rapid decisions, actions and presentation), the supply chain solution developer pulls wizards down from a tool bar and arranges them to emulate custom processes.
Khandekar says that Instaknow-ACE wizards can read and write data from virtually any digital architecture, including XML/SOAP web servers, HTML web sites, legacy systems (mainframe/AS400/VT), spreadsheets, emails, faxes, relational databases (Oracle, Sybase, SQL Server, DB2, Adabas, Informix etc.), ERP systems, EDI transactions, GUIs of client-server applications, custom APIs, files, WORD, PDF, and other data types.
Importantly, the "learned intelligence" is then automatically applied to similar business cases from that point on, automatically entering transaction-specific, real-time data into any HTML (internet/intranet), green screen or client-server application and automatically clicking on the correct links and buttons, just as a person would.
Now, Instaknow automatically "reads" the retail client's pick-up order email, containing shipper and destination addresses, automatically updates the Dynamic AS400, and automatically creates the pick-up order. Additionally, upon Instaknow receipt of an email confirmation from the AS400 that the shipment was delivered, Instaknow automatically updates the retail client's RedPrairie TMS with the specifics of the delivery.
The solution resulted in "sustainable savings of four staff a year," according to Instaknow officials.
Another problem for Dynamic involved manually checking on container availability. The 3PL picks up boxes from several piers once they have cleared customs, delivers them to destination, picks them up after unloading and returns them to their respective piers. Demurrage and detention fees result if the containers aren't picked up timely.
Formerly, Dynamic dispatchers would repeatedly check pier web sites for container status and availability and manually track "free time", date picked up, date delivered and date returned, as well as manually update the AS400 with this data and fax the client when the container was delivered.
Significant time was wasted. The Instaknow solution automatically "reads" Dynamic's container pick-up list, (either from a spreadsheet, portal input, or client file), automatically checks each pier web site for container status, and sends alerts to Dynamic dispatch as soon as a container becomes available. It also automatically updates the Dynamic AS400 when a container is available, picked up, delivered, and returned and sends a fax to the client when the container is delivered to them. In addition, three times a day, Instaknow automatically sends a container status report to dispatch listing those containers which have not yet been picked up 24 hours before free time expiry, those that are being held up in Customs and why, and those that have not been returned to the pier within three days of having been picked up.
Instaknow deployed this solution in 16 days, says Armida J. Macri, director of Instaknow's supply chain management practice.
Dynamic also has to manage fuel surcharges, which depend on the price of fuel as published by the Department of Energy on a weekly basis. Before automation, Dynamic administrative staff took several hours to manually calculate each client's surcharge and publish a memo to Dynamic staff. Instaknow provided a portal that has three main functions: 1) entry of weekly fuel prices: national, West Coast, California; 2) management of client accounts; and 3) on-demand: a) calculation of surcharge for all clients, b) email of a surcharge memo, c) update of Dynamic AS400.
"In the last five or six years, information needs have been crushing us," says Arntzen. "But we saw right away that Instaknow could insert its system and take care of the information problem that we had."
Instaknow Inc., www.instaknow.com
Dynamic Worldwide Logistics, www.dynamiconline.com
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