Logistics and warehousing operators are constantly on the hunt for ways to make their operations more efficient. Staff, facilities, IT and transport vehicles are always being examined to ensure they're operating at optimal levels. When you're shifting thousands of items a week, even minor changes can have a big overall impact.
One area in which many operators find they can make improvements is workflow. Often systems that were put in place years ago are still at the heart of the supply chain. They might have done the job admirably, but they're now well past their use-by date. By critically evaluating and improving each process in a workflow, massive improvements can be made both to customer service and the bottom line.
The end of paper
Just as it's been in many areas of business, paper has been part of supply chains since their inception. From customer orders and pick sheets to invoices and delivery dockets, paper has been part of every step.
But the end of paper has arrived. Technology has reached the point where 'bits' can replace 'ball points' at every point in the supply chain. As well as removing cumbersome manual processes, this shift also allows the automation (or semi-automation) of both internal and external workflows.
Until now, many supply chain operators have been hesitant to invest in the technology needed to support such automation and changes in work practices. They highlight two key reasons: initial cost and the potential for business disruption during implementation.
Thankfully, both these reasons are now redundant. Companies of all sizes within Australia's supply chain and logistics industry have access to mature, sector-specific software solutions at a highly cost-effective price. Where once creating such a system would have involved bolting together components from a range of vendors, a full suite can now meet requirements from end to end.
Implementation has also improved. Rather than having to awkwardly jump from existing paper-based workflows to an unfamiliar new electronic system, companies can shift gradually, thereby giving staff time to adapt and become comfortable with new ways of working. By employing industry experts who use tried-and-proven implementation methods, a project's impact on daily operations will be minimal.
Big business benefits
Once a supply chain and logistics company has shifted from paper-based to electronic workflows, the business benefits will be immediate. The new systems will remove all need for double-entry and paper-based processes, freeing up staff to focus on more value-added activities such as customer service.
Having highly automated and configurable workflow processes in place will also streamline company operations, quickly and significantly reducing costs, boosting service levels and raising customer satisfaction levels.
When you consider the day-to-day processes within a supply chain and logistics company, shifting away from paper to electronic systems touches them all. As soon as a customer order is received via EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), it can be viewed and processed on screen. In the warehouse, ordered items can be picked and packed using automated systems. Rather than relying on paper pick sheets, staff can use tablet devices to check the order and match it with outgoing shipments. The time taken to get an order out the door can be slashed and errors significantly reduced.
The paperless revolution can go even further. The addition of RFID (Radio Frequency ID) chips and readers can allow the automatic tracking of cartons and pallets as they move through the supply chain. At each point, the location of the order can automatically be communicated to the customer, keeping them fully informed of its status and estimated delivery time. Indeed, throughout the entire workflow around the customer order, the only manual effort involved is the physical movement of the goods themselves.
For the supply chain operator, paperless workflows mean lower administrative overheads and reduced operating costs in the warehouse. Everything from initial order entry to delivery can be smoothly handled with only the minimal amount of manual human intervention.
There are also big benefits on the logistics front. Automated systems can significantly streamline the loading of trucks and delivery vehicles. Routes can be optimised to ensure the maximum volume of goods is delivered with the minimal amount of driving. Loads can be automatically tracked between warehouses, split and delivered in the shortest period of time possible. Upon delivery, customers can sign on screen and receive electronic delivery dockets for their internal processing.
Just a few years ago, the costs associated with such integrated paperless supply chain and logistics systems put them well out of reach of all but the largest operators. However, constant software development and a reduction in hardware costs now put them well within the reach of all mid-sized operators.
Implementation is also much easier. Careful selection of a technology partner who has intimate knowledge of the supply chain and logistics industry can ensure any impact of making the shift will be minimal. Portions of the existing supply chain can be shifted to paperless operation over time, allowing staff and customers to become comfortable with the new way of operating.
By making the move to an automated, paperless supply chain, operators can significantly reduce their costs, boost their efficiency and provide first-class customer service. A paperless future is very enticing.
Robert Frandsen is the managing director of InfoMotion.