The task of collecting consistent, reliable data in today’s complicated supply chains

Anyone involved in logistics will know that sharing information is vital to running any kind of efficient operation. However, it is unfortunate that the ubiquity of mobile devices to create and consume data, information and media, conspires to give the impression that ‘stuff just happens’. It may therefore come as a surprise to many people just how hard it is to make this stuff ‘just happen’!

Even today, in many companies, the idea of seamless information flow is a bad joke. Where systems have been operating for several years, there resides the opportunity for problems, particularly when data has to enter or exit those systems through mechanisms other than via the dedicated user interface.

This inability to share information seamlessly between different systems is possibly the most significant contribution to both breakdowns in communication, and failures in efficiency in the industry. As the demand for collaboration and information sharing increases, the harder it becomes for older systems to cope. This is not a new phenomena but it is becoming more apparent.

The default option for exchanging data between many mobile devices and consumer systems is usually via what are called ‘Web Services’. Whereas Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), has been the norm for exchanging data across business applications and between companies for decades.

EDI has always been ideal for transferring huge amounts of data in reliable dedicated sessions between a small number of companies. It does take time and considerable effort to set up the mechanisms for EDI exchanges, but once done, they tend to be robust. However they are not usually designed to support ad hoc, flexible exchanges, involving a continuous stream of small individual transactions between lots of different companies.

Web services are designed for precisely this role. Due to the intense media coverage on the growth of mobile devices, cloud services and collaborative systems, the impression is created that connecting systems and sharing data is easy. After all, if you can connect to almost any system on the planet via the Internet, it must be easy – right?

While we all hope that this vision soon comes to pass, it is still not practical in many situations within the logistics arena.

There are many different kinds of data exchanges that take place across supply chains. There are high volumes of ad hoc track and trace requests, as well as an equally large number of related status updates from the order and transport management systems. There are also huge numbers of bulk data transfers that take place between the major operation applications running the business.

For example, a production management system running various assembly lines in a car plant, must be updated on a regular basis by the production planning systems. These data feeds must be consistent, accurate and with bullet-proof reliability. Any disruption to the data flow may cause the production lines to stop, with significant cost implications.

Many supply chains are evolving into complex collaborative networks. As a result of this, how operational data streams can be maintained at a reliable and consistent level is a major challenge. The information services functions have to deal with these challenges at the same time as managing user expectations, which have been defined by their experiences with easy-to-use consumer technology. As a result there is a growing disconnect between corporate IT functions and their immediate internal customers.

It is unfair to compare the vast resources and capabilities of the competing commercial cloud vendors such as Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure, with the internal information services departments of even the largest companies. This capability gap is widening and will continue to grow. The best that internal IT functions can do is try and maintain the core operational systems as reliable platforms, while explaining to the stakeholders that trying to keep pace with every technology advance is impossible.

Offloading or outsourcing many of the client facing systems to cloud platforms will probably make a lot of sense to the hard pressed and resource constrained IT departments. As long as they maintain control of the interfaces to the internal production systems, this approach could provide some breathing space before the tsunami of the ‘Internet of Things’ arrives on the scene.

The best technology managers are adjusting away from managing developers and system administrators towards being strategic planners and librarians. Helping to explain, clarify and guide organizations about the relevance of emerging technologies and how they can be exploited will probably be the fastest route to the executive suite – providing they still exist by then.

Source: Transport Intelligence, 13th April 2016

Author: Ken Lyon

Ken Lyon specialises in the use of advanced information systems in the operations of 3PL (Third Party Logistics), 4PL, Lead Logistics Providers and their trading partner networks. He will be speaking on the role of technology in logistics at Ti’s upcoming Future of Logistics conference to be held in London, 6th-7th June. To find out more about the conference please click here or to register your place click below.

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