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When we talk of a booming economy, and growth and development across all regions, the story can not be complete without dwelling on the role played by infrastructure in taking all this development from the manufacturer to the end user. Your mind starts counting all crucial means of transport, power grids, roads and railway lines, air links, telecom networks and so on. Intertwined somewhere are carriers who act as pivots from where all the action actually starts and without whom the whole activity would come to a stutter. These are companies who transport goods from production factories to the end-users, criss-crossing innumerable distribution points-warehouses, wholesale markets, retail outlets, airports, railway stations, etc. Thus, the importance of having a smooth logistics network for goods and services goes without saying. In this age of supercomputers and all pervasive telecom networks, tracking consignments and providing point-to-point information on the movement of goods and services is not only feasible but demanded as a matter of right by customers. IT has helped ease matters by providing a multitude of options. Apart from the online shipment booking and tracking services available on websites of logistics vendors, we are witnessing an increased shipment tracking activity through mobiles, which is in sync with the massive penetration of mobile phones in India. A more detailed and efficient analysis can be carried out through the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which together with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) based technology, not only help in keeping a tab on the movement of goods and services through different points in the logistics chain but also in devising the most efficient routes for movement of goods vehicles.

Another hot area is the adoption of SOA and we are actually seeing vendors exposing Web Services for clients to embed them into their internal applications. This means clients can not only carry out routine tasks such as booking orders, tracking shipments, filing acknowledgement receipts and so on, from the comfort of their offices but also access critical information that makes their production cycles and warehouse management tasks more efficient. Let's look at these in detail.

GIS and vehicle routing apps
When we talk of managing operations of a logistics company, routing of vehicles across a very large geographical area is a very complicated task. Thanks to GIS, this task can be reduced in complexity. The technology helps by analyzing discrete geographic patterns and building complex, mathematical relationships, so that analysts can take accurate decisions. The various components that form part of a good GIS include Vehicle Tracking and Dispatch, Route Analysis, Warehouse Operations and Fleet Maintenance.

In India, a GIS system can be made more fruitful if traffic density figures are available off the shelf across all regions. This data could be used by the route analysis application within the GIS system to advise on the best possible routes for transporting goods. It can even be integrated with a standard inventory control part of an ERP system to create a dynamic system of inventory packets for delivery taking into account the destination assigned to a particular vehicle and its loading capacity.

However, one of the hurdles that has impeded successful GIS implementation in India is the lack of availability of requisite data at all locations. Once a successful GIS system has been deployed, reasonably accurate decisions can be taken and in time.

To get a complete picture of how GIS can be applied to logistics management, let us closely look at how the movement of goods takes place from a manufacturer to the consumer. The manufacturing company (customer) would approach a logistics vendor or visit their website to book their consignment. Once the consignment has been booked, a unique transaction ID is provided to the customer. This contains the details of the goods to be delivered and the payment details. A bar coded tag is placed on the consignment that contains details of the consignee. The consignment is temporarily stored in the warehouse, before being loaded on to the carrier vehicle for delivery.

This was a brief introduction on how logistics operations kick-start. For the sake of brevity, we're not going into the details of supply chain management, inventory management and the routing of goods vehicles. But the key lies in cutting costs at each step. And enabling efficient vehicle movement based on geography is the key to cutting costs.

It's easier said than done as it requires a great deal of calculations and analysis. So, GIS makes it easy to determine crucial parameters such as the time taken to deliver new stocks to a retail outlet and the quantity of goods that can be loaded onto a truck on a single trip.

Vehicle tracking through GPS
Apart from GIS, GPS is at the heart of any vehicle routing system. And with GPS applications becoming cheaper and more efficient, their use in carrier vehicles and the whole of array of mobile devices is only increasing.

Many trucks today come loaded with radio transmitters and GPS navigation systems. These devices send details about the vehicle's location at specific intervals to the central control room where a GIS software interprets the signal and displays the current location on the online tracking application.

Not only does the logistics company keep a tab on the movement of their vehicles but the client can also be provided details about the status of his consignments in real time. An interesting extension of this system would be the integration of real time traffic monitoring applications with the GPS devices. This would enable the company to divert their vehicles when confronted with adverse traffic conditions on a particular route. This can be further enhanced by incorporating meteorological forecast applications so that rain, snowfall, landslides, cyclones can be kept at bay and delays avoided.

Expose Web services to clients
We can see a lot of successful SOA implementations around us. The most omnipresent being Google APIs. They provide services for blogging, email, imaging, maps, news feeds, searching (one of the first services that made them immensely popular), video and more. They followed a very simple approach. Collect a lot of data and publish them as a set of web services. And most of the data is in public domain that can be used by individuals.

Just imagine the type of composite applications that could be built if your bank, retail mart, airlines, hotels, logistics providers, product manufacturers and cell phone companies all exposed services. Let's take an example.

Suppose on your way to the airport you suddenly realize you forgot your daily diabetes pill. With such a setup, you can program your phone to alert you when you're within 100 mtrs of a drug store that has the pill or if you've already reached the airport, get Fedex to deliver the medicine to your destination hotel and charge this to your bank account! You'll not find a better vertical than logistics to highlight the need to switch over to Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). The need to integrate internal applications with those outside the company (with your customers and business partners) will always be the primary driver for SOA adoption. The logistics sector provides ample opportunities for such kinds of implementations.

FedEx and DHL have already exposed most parts of their applications as Web services. Others are following suit. One of the core applications that needs to be exposed is online consignments tracking. As discussed earlier, the customer can be provided real time information about inbound, outbound and third party shipments. This is quite beneficial for customers with large volumes of shipments. They could readily consume a service that could be as simple as printing airway bills and integrating it with their ERP applications rather than frequently logging in to the logistics provider's website searching for information. Such a move would also improve production efficiency as a manufacturing company that imports raw materials can benefit from information regarding the delivery date and time of such raw materials and streamline their production cycles accordingly.

What are the challenges before the Transportation and Logistics companies?
These are the days of cut-throat competition. Customers are extremely unforgiving both in terms of costs and delivery deadlines. So, we need to ensure that our processes are extremely efficient and even better than our competition.

How does IT fit the bill in alleviating your problems? And what vistas does it open up for customers?
IT has eased a lot of pain in servicing customers. In the pre-IT era, telephone was the only means of communicating with agents and customers, making it very cumbersome to stay in touch with agents across different transit points. This in turn made it difficult for us to convey accurate information about goods movement to our customers. Plus, our staff had to make do with continuously ringing phones across the office. Ever since we deployed an online tracking system, things have become quite hunky-dory. It keeps a tab on goods vehicles movement through different points in real time. In fact we have integrated a GPS-based application that regularly updates us on the movement of various consignments. Customers can login to our website and check the status of their goods at regular intervals. We also have a mobile tracking application that enables customers to know the status of their consignments through mobile devices.

SOA has become a very hot topic in the service industry. What are your plans?
Through our X-net application, we plan to expose the goods tracking application on client systems so that they can integrate it with their SCM applications. This would help them in getting automatic updates on the status of their order booking, tracking of goods, proof of delivery (PoD) receipts and so on across different depts in their organization. Such a move would nullify the hassles of collecting information at different stages, thus saving productive time of employees.

Logistics companies have to deal with lots of document processing. Anything innovative to speed things up?
Providing electronic proofs of delivery (ePoD) to clients in real quick time was a major pain area, as we generate millions of them each month. If we go about scanning PoDs and resizing images, it takes about 5 mins to complete the entire process. So, we devised a unique ePoD system that comprises a simple Web cam and a light source. It takes the image of the PoD and uploads it on the network in two mins flat! The same receipt is mailed to the client as well. This saves a lot of precious productive time for us and is extremely convenient for the customer.

 

 

Watch out for these
A logistics management solution invariably comprises of the following five components:
l Vehicle Tracking and Dispatch: You should be able to track the location and the inventory on board every vehicle and have the latest information on its position and operating status.
l Route Analysis: Devise the best possible route for a goods vehicle based on inputs from a GIS based system.
l Warehouse Operations: Probably the biggest part of any logistics process. The movement of goods within a warehouse requires accurate inputs in terms of production cycles and availability of transport vehicles, more so in case of perishable commodities.

l Facilities and Depot Management: Structures that are used to house goods and vehicles are mammoth in size and require a great deal of maintenance. Careful planning based on geographic details, the available capacity at godowns and the amount of inventory, goes a long way in waste reduction.
l Information Dissemination: Once a company receives consignments for delivery, it is their duty to keep all stakeholders informed about the status at regular intervals. Having an effective online tracking system that keeps the customers updated through various means, goes a long way in satisfying customers.

 

Prasad Dhumal
Head-IT, DHL
With increasing business activity, how do you ensure that deliveries are timely and hassle-free?
The information on a confirmed booking is automatically dispatched to couriers on field who carry handheld scanners that are GPRS and GSM enabled. Once the shipment is delivered, they scan the shipment and put the relevant information on to their systems, which is then published on our website within 15 to 20 mins. We have an application which sends images and the copy of invoices to the destination country where custom clearance is involved. By the time the physical shipment arrives there, it has already been cleared on ground, cutting short the transit time by almost two days. Each and every leg of the shipment is mapped through IT systems, so that we have updated information at all points of time. For customers who have large volumes of shipments, we provide DHL's own application through which they can print airway bills and upload details on to our network.

How can a customer keep track of the movement of his consignments?
Firstly, there is web based tracking. Then there is e-mail based tracking system, where the customer can send 20-30 bills at a time and get the shipment status. There is also sms based tracking where a customer can send an sms to our number and he will get an update on the status of his shipment. We also have an option called as “follow me track,” where a customer can register himself to be regularly updated on his shipment progress via the various tracking options available, such as sms, email and through fax. They can also call on our call-centre which is operational 24/7.

How do you ensure uptime of your IT network across different regions, countries, etc?
All our offices in the country are hooked to an MPLS network. We have a centralized data center in Malaysia where all our core applications reside. We have two international links, from Mumbai and the back-up link from Chennai. The main call-center is in Mumbai and the DR call centre in Chennai. As we have an MPLS network (multi-protocol layer switching), the routing is dynamic. The third level of redundancy is point to point backup. In case, all routes fail there is ISDN back-up, so the system automatically fires the ISDN links.

Any new technology that you are planning to deploy?
We are eagerly waiting for RFID standardization and its deployment across the world. This would prove to be extremely useful to the logistics and distribution industry.


Adeesh Sharma and Jasmine Desai

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