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Technology Focus: Keeping the Links in Your Supply Chain Strong

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Maintaining the flow of goods, information, and financials through a supply chain is essential to many types of business.

 

Any business that deals with physical products requires some kind of a supply chain. Controlling a business supply chain is the bailiwick of a class of software products called supply chain management (SCM) applications.

Linkin' Logs

A supply chain is concerned with directing the flow of products or their components; information about the products; and payments between suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. Product information can include data about raw materials, product components, product features, services connected to the products, payments, and procedures. A typical "flow," taking for example a manufactured product such as wood paneling, can start with logs being made into wood chips, which move to a materials supplier that sells wood materials to a fabricator, which makes finished paneling and ships it to a lumber yard, which sells it to a consumer.

 

Supply chain parlance uses the analogy of a river. Flow moves "downstream" from manufacturer to consumer, and the manufacturer is considered to be "upstream" from, say, the lumber yard. And although goods generally flow only downstream, information and money can go in either direction.

 

Supply chain activity basically consists of planning the supply chain, obtaining suppliers for the goods and services that make up a product, manufacturing the product, delivering it, and operating a system to handle financials and returned goods. It's helpful to understand that supply chain activities function at three levels. Strategic-level tasks include such actions as creating and optimizing an entire supply network, managing product lifecycle activities, and making sure your IT infrastructure can adequately support supply chain activity. At the tactical level are planning and overseeing the various processes of each step, organizing and optimizing the logistics of goods movement, and managing inventories. At the operational level are tasks such as production scheduling, demand planning, accounting, and managing order processes and customer relationships.

 

Supply chain management functions can be handled by an application designed for that specific function, but by SCM's very nature, can also overlap into application software types that handle portions of the flow. This can include, for example, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) applications that help manufacturers guide the process of turning raw materials or component parts into a finished product. It can include EDI systems that computerize the ordering process at any point in the flow and business intelligence systems that manage the information part of the flow. It can embody retail, distribution, warehouse management, and inventory management applications that help track and control the logistics of moving goods at various points in the flow. A small company that specializes in one link of a larger chain may be able to get by with an application that focuses on the function of that link, but midsized and larger companies will need either a broad-spectrum SCM application or a collection of more specialized software products to adequately track and control supply chain operations.

You Never Saw Such Links

It's obviously too broad a scope to consider all those kinds of applications in a single article, so for our purposes here, we'll focus on software for the System i that specifically addresses the larger concept of supply chain management, or applications that, while called something like ERP, incorporate within them elements for managing the entire part of a supply chain with which a particular enterprise must concern itself.

 

Regardless of platform, because supply chains consist of so many different steps and functions, no SCM application is likely to fill all of your enterprise's needs. You'll have to consider which packages have functions and features that best suit the way you do business and which products are most adaptable to your needs—whether by the vendor, your staff, or outside consultants. Another attribute of critical importance will be how well the application handles the flow of information most vital to your supply chain processes. For example, if some link in the chain is confusing to users and encourages them to circumvent it to get their jobs done more quickly or easily, you could find your system operating without some vital information or being tripped up by error-prone manual processes. It's also important to see that a supply chain is a collaborative process among the partners who make up the links, so accurate and timely information upstream and downstream communication is vital, no matter what kind of sausage your supply chain is grinding out.

Pure SCM Apps for System i

There are four major product suites available for System i that can handle nearly all SCM activities for companies of any size, a fifth that can handle midsize and small business SCM, and a sixth that is specifically aimed at companies in the retail and wholesale distribution industries.

 

IBM Corporation and SAP have collaborated on an SCM suite using SAP's mySAP Supply Chain Management application suite and the SAP NetWeaver integration platform, along with elements of the IBM WebSphere, Tivoli, Lotus, and DB2 Universal Database products. IBM Global Services consulting and implementation help is also added in. The suite addresses SCM planning, execution, coordination, and collaboration and runs on multiple platforms besides the System i.

 

Infor offers SSA Global's Supply Chain Management suite, which includes applications for supply chain planning and scheduling, warehouse management, supply chain event and performance management, and transportation management. The planning and scheduling app includes modules for planning demand, inventory, supply and replenishment, manufacturing, and manufacturing scheduling. The warehouse management module covers inventories, labor, work orders and tasks, slotting and optimization, value-added services, order management and billing, yard activity, small parcel shipping, voice-directed distribution, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies. The transportation management module offers help with supply chain design, transportation planning and procurement, route planning, transportation execution, small-parcel shipping, and international trading logistics.

 

Lawson offers two SCM suites. Lawson S3 Supply Chain Management focuses on supply chains for service companies and handles sourcing, contracting, warehousing, procurement, and fulfillment. Lawson M3 Supply Chain Management specializes in SCM for manufacturing and distribution companies, with an emphasis on forecasting, planning, materials flow, and execution capabilities. Both suites use Lawson's Mobile Supply Chain Management app, which helps users deploy mobile handhelds, automated data collection, and wireless technologies for receiving, delivery, and inventory activities.

 

Oracle's JD Edwards EnterpriseOne Supply Chain Management suite consists of applications for supply chain planning and supply chain execution. The overall suite provides specific applications for food and beverage producers, as well as general manufacturers, and offers additional applications for logistics and procurement. The execution application includes modules for bulk stock inventory and inventory management, transportation and warehouse management, RFID processing, product variants, and stock valuation. It also integrates with Oracle's transportation management offering.

 

The fifth product group, aimed more at SMBs, is American Software's SCM e-business solutions. This is a suite of integrated applications for financials (A/P, A/R, G/L), logistics (order processing, inventory control and accounting, purchasing), planning (demand forecasting, inventory planning, distribution requirements planning), and manufacturing (master scheduling, material requirements planning, production scheduling, shop floor control, manufacturing accounting, capacity planning, bills of material, engineering change, product costing, item management). The suite supports flow manufacturing processes, interfaces to American's e-intelliprise business intelligence and AsIRecall document-management systems, and supports automated Internet communications between supply chain partners.

 

The sixth application is Business Computer Projects Ltd.'s Accord suite, which is specifically geared to retail and wholesale distribution companies. Accord provides complete head office and branch functions for actions such as purchasing, inventory, warehousing, point-of-sale, and accounting. The Accord suite also includes versions customized for food and beverage wholesalers and retailers.

Other Application Types with SCM Features

Some of the more comprehensive ERP applications for System i contain enough features to be useful for SCM planning and processes, although most are aimed at specific industries rather than being general-purpose.

 

Apprise Software offers a variety of applications aimed at designers, manufacturers, and distributors of consumer goods. The company's offerings can help with the three functions already mentioned, as well as e-business, EDI, RFID, risk management, and professional services.

 

HarrisData ERP Manufacturing supports MRP2 environments using lean manufacturing techniques and includes modules for such functions as activity-based costing, paperless shop floor, Kanban replenishment, and variance analysis. HarrisData's integrated product line includes apps for manufacturing planning (scheduling, material requirements, capacity requirements) and manufacturing execution (shop floor scheduling, data collection, online dispatch, time and attendance, labor management).

 

For retail chain companies, Island Pacific's MERCHANDISING and CHAIN MANAGER suites offer supply chain functions. MERCHANDISING suite members include applications for replenishment, events and deals, sales auditing, and warehouse operations. CHAIN MANAGER is an application tightly focused on companies handling sales across multiple retail outlets.

 

LANSA's LANSA Commerce Edition is primarily a Web-enablement solution that installs on top of custom or third-party ERP apps. When combined with one of those and other LANSA products, such as the LANSA Integrator Web services solution, the LANSA Data Sync Direct trading-partner messaging system, the LANSA EDI Direct EDI document-transmission system, and LANSA Composer design and execution platform for integrating business activities, user-company developers can create a system that supports many SCM processes.

 

Companies concentrating on the wholesale and distribution links in a supply chain might be interested in OZ Global Software's ODYSSEY/Stockman application. It provides SCM features across accounting, pricing, warehousing, transportation, product maintenance, and purchasing activities. It also supports foreign currency trading.

 

Service Information Access (SIA)'s Common Sense leverages IBM's WebSphere, DB2 Universal Database, Lotus Workplace, and Rational project portfolio management tools to provide an ERP solution that incorporates SCM functions for distribution, manufacturing, retail, transportation and logistics, and project services enterprises.

 

Solarsoft offers warehouse management and other supply-chain extension modules for other companies' ERP systems. The modules provide help with barcode automation, RFID, logistics, and supply chain integration activities.

 

Xperia COMPREHENSIV ERP provides an ERP suite with some SCM functions for manufacturing and distribution companies. Individual apps include production and sourcing, customer service, EDI, and management apps for warehousing, inventory, procurement, distribution, and financials.

Snapping the Padlock on Your Chain

A number of other applications claim SCM capabilities but provide them only to narrowly focused markets that are usually links in a larger supply chain, such as warehouse management or distribution applications, logistics and RFID facilitators, shipping and transportation software, and general-purpose EDI or value-added network applications. While these can provide outstanding features to companies working in the specific market segments these products cover, or offer information and financial services to a supply chain, they are out of place in any survey of products that can provide the broader scope of SCM functions the products already mentioned deliver.

 

Obviously, the alternative to packaged software is a custom-built system that's completely tailored to your specific enterprise. But forging and maintaining a supply chain is a complex task that includes many detailed steps, any important one of which is easy to overlook. The expense of mistakes or oversights and the potential for going down costly blind alleys is heightened when you're trying to engineer something as critical to your cash flow as an SCM system. Unless you're armed with knowledgeable staff and a big pile of cash with which to tackle a project of this nature, particularly on your first attempt, packaged software is a safer, saner alternative.

 

And as always when looking for products or services, be sure to check the MC Press Online Buyer's Guide.

 

 

John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. He is currently CEO of John Ghrist Agency, a marketing communications firm for technology companies. You can reach him at ghrist@comcast.net.

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