The outbound logistics of shipping, delivery and order fulfillment services are often the most complex part of any supply chain transaction.
Moving goods between warehouses in large quantities within pre-set workflows is straightforward. Branching out to customer locations to deliver varied batches of goods represents an entirely different challenges. With the e-commerce industry growing quickly and more consumers expect rapid delivery to their homes - Amazon has set a standard for two-day shipping - organizations need to innovate within the supply chain. Mobile technologies are emerging as an essential tool within this period of disruption, particularly as connected devices allow for greater transparency and coordination through the final phase of the supply chain.
According to Logistics Management, the rise of mobile devices is changing expectations within shipping and delivery processes. In particular, there is more collaboration between drivers and dispatch and more effort being put into optimizing routing and similar processes. Bob Hood, a principal at the consulting firm Capgemini, explained that smooth data workflows are a key component of the mobile innovation underway.
"The days when drivers used radios or onboard terminals to communicate their moves (i.e. pickups, drop offs, adjustments) back to home base are fading quickly," Hood told Logistics Management. "Today, all of that data is continuously fed into dynamic optimization engines that not only help create the most efficient routes, but also give the shipper insight into vehicle and driver performance."
Mobile technology is transforming the supply chain as a whole, but its value is particularly evident when it comes to the final processes that impact customers. Whether these are field services tasks or simple deliveries, increased connectivity is changing how people work. Three of the most notable disruptions include:
Verifying that customers have received goods has historically meant depending on drivers to accurately document what they are dropping off at a given location and submit that data properly into centralized files. From there, paper records from throughout the business reside in file cabinets that only authorized users can access to track an order. Digitization began changing this years ago, but basic handheld devices still often lacked network connectivity or were an alternative to paper, but not a major process disruptors.
Mobile data collection tools that can integrate with backend enterprise resource planning are allowing for near real-time updates of databases pertaining to orders and inventories. As such, a driver can hop out of the truck, drop a package off, scan the barcode and have the system do all of the clerical work.
This type of efficient operational climate is particularly important as the distribution sector embraces more individual shipments in place of pallet-based deliveries. Industry expert Ajay Agarwal told Crain's Chicago Business that the move toward direct shipments is already taking hold in the freight sector.
"The notion of distribution is being reinvented," Agarwal told the news source. "For the last 50 years, it's been built around pallets. The problem is consumers now want stuff shipped directly to their house. With that level of velocity and customized demand, you can't deal with pallets."
Shipping and fulfillment giants had long had some degree of digital functionality on the road. While these outbound logistics solutions may have been more limited that state-of-the-art solutions today, they offered value that smaller competitors couldn't match. Widespread mobile device use and a growing digital marketplace are coming together to make advanced solutions more accessible. Applications and services can be delivered over the cloud. The internet can be used to send data to backend enterprise resource planning and warehouse management systems. Data can be encrypted for security and a phone camera or dedicated barcode scanner can be used to log transactions.
David Krebs, president of enterprise mobility and connected devices at VDC Research, told Logistics Management that mobile technologies are making robust solutions available for any sized shipping or logistics organization. He anticipates that adoption will increase considerably now that mobile systems are more widely available.
If delivery drivers or field workers don't have a mobile connection back to the office, they have limited information when assisting customers. For example, if a client answers the door to receive a package and asks for an update on another order, a driver probably couldn't have provided an answer in the past. Either the tracking was happening in a system that couldn't be accessed on a simple barcode scanner or the driver only had a clipboard with immediate orders and had to refer the client to customer service.
With modern mobile solutions in place, a driver facing a customer query can simply pull up account details and provide the relevant information to users. All of the integration work is done in the backend, allowing for a much better customer experience.
Responding to customer issues is only part of the situation. Mobile supply chain solutions, particularly in field services, allow organizations to track drivers with telematics tools, update inventories in real time and provide order updates in real time. If a customer needs something quickly and dispatch wants to make it happen, the team back at the office can view delivery schedules, routes and driver availability to reroute users in the most efficient way possible.
The final miles of a product or field service worker's journey to a customer have historically been the least visible parts of the supply chain. If a driver was out of a certain part and needed it for an upcoming service call, there wasn't an easy way to find out and avoid an unnecessary trip. If a driver dropped off the wrong package and recorded it incorrectly, nobody would find out until the customer called in with a complaint, or records were checked back in the main office.
Except for the largest and most advanced shipping organizations in the world, most businesses have lacked visibility into the final phase of the supply chain. Even firms partnering with leading shipping providers may have run into data transmission gaps that made it difficult for them to keep track of customer orders. The changing mobile climate is driving innovation here.
As mobile devices, specialized barcode scanners, ERP systems, warehouse management technologies and similar solutions are all increasingly able to communicate with each other. organizations can use this data transparency to set a foundation for greater insights into shipping processes and procedures. Companies that do so can improve what has long been a difficult-to-measure aspect of the business and create better customer experiences. Data-driven change is coming to the supply chain, and it is time to start extending that positive momentum to outbound logistics operations.
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