As the power and potential of new technological tools becomes increasingly evident, more companies are making a concerted effort to use those tools to enhance their supply chain processes.
When utilized correctly, the right technologies can streamline processes, introduce significant new efficiencies, and ultimately bolster the bottom line. An effective transportation technology system should have the capability to track large amounts of targeted data – from freight and fleet status and movements to carbon emission reductions – in order to provide both a high level overview of where supply chain resources are being spent, and a detailed breakdown of granular data that can help avoid or address specific pain points.
But, to fully leverage these technologies in the context of a transportation management system, executives and decision-makers in this space need to be fully conversant with not only their potential, but also the key factors that need to be considered in order to maximize their impact. Effectively designing and deploying transportation management technology demands a working knowledge of the accepted tips and best practices for creating a more efficient logistics technology platform: a system that provides detailed data and invaluable feedback for clients.
Nuts and Bolts
The first step in the process of successfully applying technology solutions to transportation management systems is understanding the full scope of features that every good system needs to be effective.
A good system has to be strong in the “center,” designed to simultaneously integrate and monitor the carrier’s preferred method of tracking shipments, and also accommodate the customer’s shipping systems. Good systems must also deliver end-to-end visibility, from manufacturers and suppliers through to the final location.
Effective systems should have a high degree of usability that fosters seamless adoption through ease of use, a shallow learning curve and straightforward functionality. If a system is not “low friction,” people will find a way to circumvent it. In extreme examples, users will actually stop using a system and will switch to a basic spreadsheet because they perceive the functionality to be too cumbersome.
I have even come across situations where users who are operating under a clearly stated mandate to use a system will still avoid it during actual operation, and take the time to backfill the information into the system it at the end of the day. Such an outcome is obviously unacceptable.
Hurdles and Hesitation
While some in the transportation management and logistics industry have been quick and eager to adopt promising new technological tools, others have been slower and more reluctant. Part of that is a wariness of how new ways of operating will mesh with established practices. Some customers tend to have very strong ideas about how they want shipping handled. Carriers have their own methods – as well as existing systems that offer varying levels of sophistication. To break down that inertia/reluctance, the right tech tools need to be able to bridge those gaps and accommodate everyone in an efficient and effective fashion and at an affordable price point.
The most difficult hurdle that has faced logistics and supply chain tech management is rigidity: some providers will literally ask users to change the way they do business to fit their system – which is typically not well received or easy to do.
Advances and Sophistication
Despite what has been at times an inconsistent approach to adoption, there is no doubt that technology has had a profound impact on the transportation and logistics landscape. The most important advances have come in moving toward plug-and-play adaptability with virtually any existing system at both ends of the supply chain. Great systems are agnostic to the ends they are touching, while still effectively managing the data.
The ability to flexibly and seamlessly integrate with client enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems is particularly important in an industry where transportation providers can range from extremely sophisticated national operations with advanced billing and track and trace capabilities, to little more than mom-and-pop operations.
In terms of specific functionality, the technological advances have been profound. Perhaps most important is the ability to utilize the virtually unlimited precision mapping and location data available through GPS technology.
The transition from street addresses to precise latitude and longitude coordinates has dramatically increased the quantity and quality of sophisticated analyses that can be performed on your data. Data that used to be enormously difficult or impossible to mine is now available at the push of a button: clients can use the best systems to access the precise freight burden of a specific item in real time, simply by calling up the information by SKU number.
Users can also experiment with different schedules and shipping details to optimize logistics by taking advantage of backhaul opportunities and other efficiencies. This is freight optimization at a level that was previously impossible. New technology can track variables like true mileage and precise drive times, as well as things like dollars saved, carbon emissions, and detailed timelines.
Other benefits include delivery during precise windows, customized alerts, receipt confirmation, and the ability to break down financials and analyze patterns over time. New, easy-to-use apps provide track-and-trace capability through a simple interface that can be used through a cell phone. This makes powerful new logistics functionality accessible for all carriers – not just the biggest players – helping to democratize the industry and drive down the overall cost structure for everyone involved.
For industry decision-makers looking to optimize their technology investment, recognizing the characteristics of the best new systems and understanding what is important for your operation is key:
- •Prioritizing a custom user experience is essential. The best systems today utilize modern website development technologies that allow customers to have a highly customized data interface without changing the core architecture.
- •Ease of access should be another priority. Recognize that different people in your organization are interested in different pieces of the transportation and logistics puzzle, and design your system accordingly.
- •Accommodate different needs. Boardroom executives will want to be able to pull up big picture metrics and high level perspectives, while a manager at the loading dock will need much more granular and specific data. The best available tech has dashboards that provide custom tools and insights to make both experiences possible.
- •Don’t develop everything yourself. It will age and your operation will not adapt. We see too many people clinging to outdated, clunky tech just because they invested in it.
When designed and implemented correctly, the result can be transformative: torrents of detailed information, all flowing seamlessly and providing enormous supply chain benefits. Consider that an electronic data interface (EDI) gateway for a transportation management system used to take days to set up. Today, a customer interface takes 15 minutes and can be configured simply by glancing at an invoice and adjusting a few key variables accordingly.
Transparency. Visibility. Flexibility. Efficiency. For an industry in which those characteristics are so central, the degree to which technology makes those aspirational goals an everyday reality is nothing short of remarkable.