Most successful businesses make promises about the availability of their products through creative marketing programs. The responsibility of delivering on the promise falls fairly and squarely in the lap of the supply chain team. It’s not an easy job to get the right product to the right place, in good condition, just when the customer wants to buy… but someone has to do it.
To meet these business objectives many companies make substantial investments in their supply chain. Whether that be in state-of-the-art distribution centres with purpose designed automation interfaced with sophisticated controls and software, or outsourcing to a third party logistics provider, the desired outcome remains the same: an operation that performs reliably to achieve its targets week-in, week-out over the life of the system.
But as any logistics professional will tell you, there are traps and pitfalls. Unexpected peaks in demand, changes in product profiles, errors in picking or despatch and – despite the fact that most modern systems are highly reliable – mechanical, electrical, controls or software malfunctions can adversely affect results.
Logistics practitioners place great emphasis on finding new ways to increase uptime, optimise system performance and ensure they meet their customer’s highest expectations. Your logistics and distribution systems can be a powerful competitive strategy and there are many new ways in which your ongoing performance can aid in the creation of a more powerful brand and a more respected position in the marketplace.
In this article, we explore what you can reasonably expect of a service organisation and how they should ensure that your system is finely tuned and highly responsive. We also consider the changing capabilities of a modern service organisation and how advances in processes and technology can give you an extra competitive edge, even as product profiles and demand changes in the future.
The changing role of a modern service organisation
Service has evolved from the stereotypical image of the mechanic in greasy overalls. Today’s service technicians are multi-skilled, multi-disciplinary professionals, who use a range of sophisticated tools and software to monitor the performance of logistics and IT systems, responding immediately to any equipment failure and, in many cases, identifying problems which could affect system reliability even before they happen.
The advent of high speed communications means keeping controls, software and IT systems up to date often doesn’t even require service personnel to be present, with security updates, software patches and the like being delivered electronically.
A modern service organisation will be able to provide you with previously unattainable levels of service and support in the following impressive ways.
Field Service and Support is essential
At a very basic starting point, any good service organisation will provide a team of field service and support personnel who are available around the clock, 365 days a year. These highly trained service technicians provide emergency support for those unplanned events that disrupt your systems. They can also maintain your system through regular servicing to maximise availability and minimise breakdowns. It’s during peak demand times that systems failures are most critical to your business. A regular service program will minimise the risk to your operations.
Operational Audits highlight improvements and identify safety issues
Operational requirements invariably change over time. Often the original business and product mix the system was designed for has to be changed as customer and market forces dictate.
Whether it is a full functional audit to assess system and operator effectiveness, or specific safety and equipment-related details that are needed, a thorough and professional operational audit is an economical way to highlight productivity and safety improvement ideas. Any operational audit should include Equipment Condition Assessments and recommend upgrades and improvements to mechanical, controls and IT systems, in addition to safety and productivity reports.
Reliability is the key to achieving service targets week-in, week-out over the life of a system, and many larger distribution systems users – for whom uptime is absolutely critical to meet demanding order turnaround cycles – are taking a new approach to service.
Residential Maintenance Programs provided by the system integrator are becoming more commonplace. They typically provide trained, mechanical, electrical or software technicians who can perform preventive, corrective and emergency maintenance as well as providing operational assistance to ensure systems function at optimum efficiency.
These programs reduce operating cost and improve system performance by providing a systematic approach to service. Additionally, KPI reporting provided under a Residential Program can give management insight to other benefits, such as reduced parts usage and increased system longevity.
Remote Monitoring & Diagnostics
Today, the internet and high speed communications networks mean that service centres don’t need to be located on the actual DC site. Monitoring can take place at a remote location.
Centralised teams of skilled engineers can significantly reduce the impact of faults and the time taken to rectify them, and ensure systems are fully supported 24/7. Trained operators have the expertise to provide immediate advice about the best course of action to respond to any issue, or to actively intervene to correct system faults often before they become a problem.
Remote access, help desks and programmers can be on standby to ensure software and IT systems meet operational needs. Software support programs can include regular database checking, server architecture and software applications.
Seeing into the future with Early Warning Systems
Sophisticated software has enabled the development of predictive tools to further improve system performance. Diagnostic software has the capability to monitor systems performance, look for potential malfunctions and analyse events and issues that could affect system reliability.
The aim of early warning system software is to optimise DC performance improving delivery, accuracy and reliability. But there are added advantages. Unscheduled stoppages are reduced, maintenance cost is lowered and system working life is maximised.
Modernising your Distribution Centre operations
With supply chain demands changing at a faster pace than ever before, keeping your distribution operations up to date – even if they’re only a few years old – is vital to responding efficiently to changing customer and market demands, including regulatory requirements.
Systems may have provided many years of excellent service, but should performance levels fall, or business model and requirements change, then a modernisation program can breathe new life into an existing system at relative low cost.
Older systems can also become expensive to repair and maintain as parts and software become obsolete. Alternatively, and without scraping the whole system, performance can be enhanced by introducing automation and new technologies.
As businesses grow and develop, so too can systems, especially when the initial design is based on modular and scalable components. As no two logistics operations are the same, a range of options can be evaluated and a modernisation plan tailored specifically to suit business requirements and timescale. Proven modernisation and upgrade technologies can transform systems and deliver increased efficiency, ease of maintenance and reliability, quick smart.
Updated controls, software and mechanical components are also available, and they may be all that’s needed to increase operating efficiency to meet current needs.
Service can no longer be looked at as a necessary evil. It plays a crucial role in fulfilling the delivery promise. An unreliable supply chain can quickly bite into profits and, more importantly, business reputation.
The high cost of disruption to the supply chain means keeping logistics systems operating reliably is a key driver for all DCs. Advances like remote monitoring and early warning systems, and constantly evolving IT connectivity, are revolutionising the approach to service, enabling users to achieve high uptime levels while lowering total distribution costs and optimising service levels.
Michael Jerogin is the general manager, customer service at Dematic .