Programming / General
Depending on whom you ask, distribution, warehousing, and trucking applications may or may not also be considered "supply chain" apps.
One of the many technological issues that seems to be in flux today is the question of whether or not software product types such as distribution, warehousing, and trucking (D/W/T) apps are included when we speak of "supply chain applications."
Traditionally, supply chain apps have been considered more pertinent to the process of moving raw materials to some facility where they are processed, either into finished goods or goods that are later made part of some other finished product. The classical view is that then distribution, warehousing, and trucking apps are concerned with the movement of these finished goods to retail outlets. This, of course, is regardless of the fact that to the average retailer or consumer, the entire process is part of a supply chain from their point of view.
Let's further stipulate that distribution apps generally have to do with the logistics of moving goods from one place to another. Warehousing, or warehouse-management apps, have to do with housing and retrieving goods efficiently from large storage facilities. Trucking applications refer to apps for handling the distribution of goods by truck as opposed to rail, air, or some other means.
Members of the Club or Not?
What might be surprising is that vendors of D/W/T apps don't themselves all agree on whether or not those kinds of software fit under the "supply chain" umbrella. When asked if it's a valid distinction to separate D/W/T from supply chain apps based on whether or not they deal with finished goods, several polled vendors of IBM i apps in this market segment gave differing answers.
"In our experience, I would say this [differentiating D/W/T apps from supply chain apps] is a very fair categorization," notes Dan Kiefer, vice president of sales and marketing at King III Solutions, maker of a warehouse-management app. "In dealing with our customers as well as prospects, this is exactly the way they normally view it as well."
"We do distribution and warehousing apps. I feel these are supply chain apps. I'm not sure why there would be a differentiation; there's not a valid distinction. These are all part of the supply chain," disagrees Greg Neal, director of product development at Mincron.
Lane Nelson, president of HarrisData, which specializes in distribution, splits the difference: "If you consider 'supply chain' to be one end of the spectrum and the logistics of moving finished goods to be the other, most businesses live somewhere in the middle, leveraging a blend of techniques and technologies that optimize their system for their businesses. In our opinion, creating distinctions between the two is how software companies attempt to create niche markets they can dominate. Business people don't look to buy one or the other; they look for solutions to solve problems, reduce costs, and grow profits."
So it appears that whatever your opinion on this question might be, you're going to find others who agree with you. Should you want to take a closer look at non-D/W/T supply chain apps for the IBM i, please see "Technology Focus: Keeping the Links in Your Supply Chain Strong." For a more detailed look at enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications for IBM i, please see "Technology Focus: ERP Software for IBM i Offers a Smorgasbord of Features."
Challenges in the D/W/T Market
Regardless of how we define supply chain, D/W/T apps, like many others, face constant challenges from a changing market.
"Our customers are still focused on eliminating the time and effort required to track goods," HarrisData's Nelson observes. "Many have achieved a level of accuracy in inventory that provides key insights into their businesses. Now, they are looking at reducing the cost of recording the information involved in tracking goods. Recent enhancements [to our product] have focused on such areas as data collection."
"One of the areas that consistently comes up [in customer feedback] is an area we call metrics. The executives are looking for ways to make sure their company and employees are getting the maximum benefit from our tools. Are their buyers using it properly? Is there still room for improvement, and if so, where?" reports King III's Kiefer.
Mincron's Neal similarly points to data analytics as an important customer concern, highlighting "mixing and summarizing data from everyday transactions, identifying trends, and making smart business decisions from what they can glean from their data."
He also notes that e-commerce is playing a bigger role. "The lines are blurring between warehouse and retail," he observes. "Some of our customers are venturing into B2C" and interfacing directly with consumers.
Kiefer also puts a spotlight on support and training. "The reality is that the new generation entering the workforce will not show the same loyalty to a company that previous generations have. This creates a huge obstacle for our customers. How can they get new employees trained and knowledgeable on our application as quickly as possible? For us, this has meant continuous improvement to our interfaces to ensure ease of use, but also providing them access to continuing education and training so their internal staff is not solely responsible for getting a new employee up to speed."
Technology Improvements on the Horizon
When asked what technologies will have the biggest impact on their software, Mincron and HarrisData both point to integration with mobile devices.
"The pervasiveness of these devices is a critical issue," Neal emphasizes. "We need to extend our apps to work with Apple iOS or Android primarily, and also smart phones."
Nelson agrees. "The impact of mobile devices (and the 'Bring Your Own Device' mentality) [means that] instead of coding for specific devices—bar code readers, RFID devices, etc.—applications must be able to be rendered appropriately for whatever type of device emerges in the warehouse without requiring additional programming. Touch interfaces will become the norm in a few short years…. Imagine a single device that can notify a user of an issue via text message (including a photo of the problem, if appropriate), allow the user to jump directly to the application for more information, and more."
"These devices exist today," Nelson adds. "Applications are going to need to extend quickly to the new platform."
Kiefer sees Web portals and similar ways of accessing data while out of the office as important. "For our company, this has meant developing our software to be browser-based so that employees can run our software from any computer, tablet, or phone with a browser. Being platform-independent means that our users can access the information they need from anywhere, any time."
Kiefer and Neal also cite the impact of cloud computing.
"We've seen far more customers and companies moving toward a hosted environment," relates Kiefer. "They no longer want to maintain servers."
"Cloud apps and computing will play a part," agrees Neal. "Our distributors currently have their own infrastructures. That's where their employees connect to." But if there's a large move to the cloud, "those facilities may not be on premises. It's a change in paradigm in IT infrastructure."
Below are the major players in distribution, warehouse management, trucking, and shipping applications for the IBM i. The product descriptions are simply brief summaries. Be sure to check the links to vendor Web sites for more complete information on each product.
And as always when looking for products or services, be sure to check the MC Press Online Buyer's Guide.
Distribution, Warehousing, Trucking, and Shipping Apps for IBM i
Although part of HarrisData's larger enterprise resource planning (ERP) software suite, HarrisData Distribution focuses on warehouse operations, inventory management, and deliveries tracking.
King III Solutions (K3S)
K3S Replenish focuses on warehouse and store-level inventory control. Features include order-cycle analysis tools; alternative-source purchasing support; ability to handle multiple warehouse locations; and proven-demand, lead-time, and seasonal forecasting.
VisionWMS helps users manage warehouse operations with support for inbound receiving and putaway, labor management, dynamic picking and slotting, RF wireless and voice technology, and inventory and shipping controls.
WCSPlus is an order-fulfillment solution for warehousing companies. A Web-enabled application, WCSPlus automates routing to balance workloads, optimizes picking with visual technology, and issues alerts when conditions exceed predefined parameters.
KrengelShip for UPS is an alternative application for accessing APIs connected with United Parcel Service's tracking system for shipments. KrengelShip validates addresses, compares shipping times for various UPS services, tracks parcels, and lets users schedule or modify pickup times and other details.
Logicor's shipping software provides a solution for outbound logistics that works with multiple carriers and private fleets to ship small parcels or heavy freight loads. Features include support for a browser interface, multiple billing types, multiple rates per carrier, export docs for international shipments, and automated packing.
SCExpert is an application suite written in Microsoft .NET, the applications of which offer supply-chain services such as shipping, warehouse management, goods routing and transport, logistics, inventory, container planning, and billing.
Mincron Software Systems
Enterprise Software Solution is a software application that controls distribution functions for enterprises. Modules include inventory management and replenishment, order processing, warehouse management and logistics, EDI, and document imaging.
Warehouse Manager is tailored for warehouse operations management and includes facilities for inventory control and troubleshooting, putaway, SKU number management, automated cycle counts, EDI, replenishment, paperless operations, barcode label printing, and multiple-location warehousing.
Managed Inbound Transportation is a hosted service application that helps cut inbound freight costs and streamlines warehouse operations. Features include a logistics control center, scalability for different-sized operations, and extensive reporting options.
TMS-O is also a hosted service application that handles shipping and other logistical activities for enterprises using all platforms. Features include cost-allocation protocol options, support for segmented carrier operations, shipment optimization, automatic mileage calculations, and support for all EDI standards.
Innovative Access and Access Plus is an application that handles trucking operations for small to mid-sized carriers and provides a more economical entry point for the company's Innovative IES application system.
Innovative IES is a software solution that helps trucking enterprises of any size administer fleet operations and dispatching. Features include ability to enter orders and master orders; track data on drivers and trucks; coordinate mileage and fuel expenses; and manage taxes, fees, and detention charges.
TL2000 is an IBM i application for managing shipping operations via truck. Features include truckload and LTL planning, accounting, performance reporting, preventive maintenance records, accident and cargo-claims tracking, log auditing, truck dispatch, and customer service.
Varsity offers a suite of shipping-related software applications for the IBM i. These include ShipSoft Parcel for the small-package shipping process, the TransData datamart for acquiring a global view of transaction activities, ShipView Plus for managing shipping-system performance, and ShipSoft Freight for handling LTL, truckload, and rail shipments.