Almost every business that imports or exports goods has felt the impact of pandemic-related disruptions in the international supply chain. These disturbances have raised the stakes for warehouses around the world to perform at a higher level.
Even in our brave new world of pandemic disruptions, the most important steps to improve import and export performance are the ones that focus on the fundamentals. Following are eight tactics for streamlining import and export operations.
Consider whether EDI or API makes more sense for your business. Warehouse performance depends on the seamless exchange of information such as bills of lading between business partners. Electronic data interchange (EDI) has been a cornerstone of many businesses’ international supply chains for years. However, application programming interface (API)-based systems have gained considerable popularity as a replacement.
Both options have pros and cons. EDI is more widely used and standardized, although partners outside the U.S. might use different protocols. API is more flexible and offers new technological tools for certain business models. Its cloud-based nature encourages real-time collaboration across borders and time zones.
Consider whether your import/export operations need a separate facility. For some businesses, it might be time to move import or export operations into a facility of their own. If your current logistics facilities regularly experience delays in domestic operations because of international operations, consider your options for more space and flexibility in a dedicated import/export facility.
The facility could be on the same campus as your domestic operation, or even in the same building. Some businesses find it more cost-effective to outsource importing and exporting operations entirely to a third-party logistics provider with their own warehouses and infrastructure.
Consider whether replacing barcodes with RFID might be right for your facility. Barcodes have been a standard element of supply chain systems for decades, but radio frequency identification (RFID) is an increasingly strong competitor. These tiny transmitter tags can be attached to packages or equipment, and then scanned using an RFID reader. Each tag is rewritable and can store far more complex information than a barcode.
RFID has numerous advantages over barcodes for some merchants. In addition to the aspects just discussed, a scanner can detect multiple tags simultaneously, and it doesn’t need a line of sight to read them. Such advantages are especially important for smooth importing and exporting, where it’s crucial to establish transparency by documenting every stage of the cargo journey.
Implement cloud workflows to improve global collaboration. The global economy now requires communication with suppliers around the world. Businesses that can execute this communication in real time through the cloud will have an advantage. Now, more than ever, international supply chains rely on the ability to respond quickly to unexpected conditions.
Cloud workflows can take many forms, but many involve logistics software-as-a-service (SaaS) deployments that allow the business to collaborate with international partners through common platforms. This helps avoid miscommunications and delays, and creates transparency in the supply chain at the most critical points.
Work with a reliable 3PL. Almost all businesses with international supply chains use third-party logistics providers at some point. 3PLs often provide the expertise necessary to maintain compliance in an international supply chain, as well as the required logistics infrastructure. So whether it’s ocean freight carriers or air freight brokers, choosing the right 3PL is possibly even more important in importing and exporting than it is in domestic business.
The chosen 3PL should have experience in international logistics, preferably in the countries that you export and import goods to and from. By providing the business with the expertise and resources that it needs, 3a PL can help you manage your operations in a way that improves productivity on the ground at the warehouse level.
Make sure that workers understand compliance responsibilities. Compliance is the most difficult and costliest part of importing and exporting for many businesses. Errors leading to rejected shipments cost money, time and productivity in the warehouse. These mistakes are often rooted in workers’ or managers’ misunderstanding of their compliance responsibilities.
It’s important to remember that standards aren’t uniform around the world. What’s known in the U.S. as a NEMA 1 enclosure, for example, would need to be rated on the IP rating scale in the EU and elsewhere. Spotting and addressing compliance misalignments before they happen will yield benefits in warehouse and logistics efficiency, so focus on training people to intervene if they see a mistake about to happen.
Streamline picking and packing processes. Picking and packing are where the rubber meets the road in a warehouse. Unfortunately, they’re also often the source of bottlenecks that reduce the efficiency of an international supply chain. Many businesses have chosen to focus on improving picking and packing to boost warehouse performance in both domestic and international trade.
Numerous methods exist for improving pick performance, and there’s no single right answer. Some warehouses choose to re-evaluate their slotting system or implement automated systems that direct pickers to the correct bin. In warehouses that frequently handle exports, goods packaged to a specific international standard might be located in a different area to make them easy for pickers to find without worrying which is which.
Use a WMS. Last but not least, a warehouse management system is practically a requirement for operating an efficient 21st-century warehouse. These software suites typically include tools for functions such as packing, receiving, picking, putaway and other critical tasks. A WMS is particularly important for warehouses that handle imports and exports because of the organizational advantages they provide.
If your warehouse doesn’t currently have a WMS, now is the perfect time to shop for one. Look for a system that includes strong features for automating compliance and simplifying information flows. Many of today’s WMS applications are based in the cloud and could aid in harmonizing international workflows.
Katherine Began is director of marketing and e-commerce with Polycase.
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