Supply chain execution (SCE) systems have been expanding over the past few years and now go way beyond the boundaries of the ‘four walls’ where they originated. Whereas in the past a WMS would have operated relatively autonomously and a warehouse manager typically had limited information on a company’s inbound logistics, things have changed. Warehouse systems are now integrated with other commercial systems, for instance transport management, manufacturing execution and ERP systems, to create an integrated supply chain execution platform. Information is being shared across multiple functions in the business – and perhaps even with stakeholders from outside the business – with transactions happening and being monitored in real time.
Feeding a connected supply chain
Today’s warehouse manager needs to be able to contribute to smarter organisational buying decisions. They want information on the wider supply chain, for instance, seeing order forecasts from customers and having visibility of expected outgoings, or visibility of the production plan. Conversely if goods are being manufactured overseas, they’ll want to know where a particular batch of items is at any point in time in the 10-week order cycle. Some SCE systems are even smart enough to be communicating at a cellular level, transmitting precise location information back into the organisation while products are in transit. The Trans-Siberian Railway for instance does this, informing users about when they can expect receipt of different scheduled stocks.
Integration supports a ‘mix and match’ approach
The breadth of functionality we now see under the general umbrella of supply chain execution systems has been made possible thanks to efficient integration and the advances of mobile communications. Over the past 5 years or so, companies have started moving away from the era of big ERP solutions and their inevitable functionality compromises, towards investing in best of breed ‘point’ solutions. Whether it’s for sales forecasting, transport management, financials, or a WMS system, users are understanding that it is better to implement the best dedicated software possible for a particular function and make sure it’s all well integrated. They also expect to mix and match solutions from lots of different vendors. In effect, the IT world seems to have gone full circle in its departure from big ERP.
Integration between systems is becoming easier all the time and data exchange is so fast that devices can communicate at tremendous rates. It’s under a second between a transaction happening and information being shared between systems, so companies are able to buy the best solution possible for the task at hand without worrying about integration capabilities. In contrast, big ERP solutions can only offer a ‘veneer’ of functionality compared with specialist solutions, which deliver much better value for money.
As end users, we all order online and expect to have our goods immediately, being informed at every stage of the delivery process. Thanks to integration, features that were fanciful a few years ago – like texts telling customers where their goods are in the supply chain – are now expected as standard. Smaller suppliers are having to become ever more agile to cope with the increasing demands of a very whimsical customer and the SCE software they use needs to be agile enough to cope with these ever-changing needs – whether it’s information on order status, details on the provenance of a product or simply coping with e-commerce delivery volumes.
Managing data intelligently
Information is king and if you can measure something, you can almost certainly improve it. As a result, utilising big data and having the ability to distil large volumes of data to generate meaningful information is a key aspect of supply chain execution systems development. To put this into perspective, whilst a lot of companies may be data rich, they are information poor. They have all the data they need and more, but it’s not necessarily telling them what they need to know in order to improve efficiencies. In response to this, the big data revolution and increased usage of smart dashboard tools means users can more easily access the information they need that is relevant to their business decision making.
This is especially the case for warehouse management systems which manage event level transactions, for instance, a pallet put away event or single pick line event. A busy fashion warehouse might have upwards of £14K plus pick line events a day and without the relevant information, all the company really has is a bucket load of data. The increase in smart dashboard creation tools means users can have a view of the information available in the right format to support decision making.
In the future, agility and flexibility will be key requirements for supply chain execution systems. Companies have been forced to offer more and more to compete, whether that’s lower prices, free delivery, or value add services bolted onto transactions in the warehouse. These extras have become the norm for end users and the only way companies can finance the extra costs is by using technology to gain efficiencies.