Opinion: Mobile Tech and the Supply Chain

By David C. Rowe

Chief Technology Officer

Echo Global Logistics

This Opinion piece appears in the Dec. 5 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Advanced transportation management systems (TMS) have long provided automation and functionality that help plan, optimize, manage and execute transportation more accurately and productively than — to be blunt — a human being. Today, these systems provide large companies with the operational backbone they need to efficiently move thousands of shipments daily with minimal manual intervention.

Some of these systems can take a shipment or order electronically from your system of choice, whether it’s from a supply-chain management system, an enterprise resource planning system or a warehouse management system.

The TMS uses automated pricing algorithms and routing guides to select potential carriers and automatically tender or offer those loads at specific prices to the carriers electronically, all while providing near-time status — i.e., as close to “real time” as possible — tracking updates and document management to shipping and supply-chain managers.

While transportation, logistics and the systems that manage them are just one part of the complete supply chain, they play an important role because a breakdown in any of these can lead to delays in the overall supply chain. For example, raw materials need on-time inbound transportation to manufacturers’ plants for manufacturing to start, and completed products need outbound transportation for distribution, both of which require transportation and logistical management and execution, typically provided by humans and transportation management systems.

Historically, TMS has improved efficiencies for supply-chain managers. However, accessing the functionalities of these systems means the managers must work from a desktop computer, forcing them to leave the warehouse or the loading dock and return to a work area to have the access and visibility they need — cutting down on productivity.

The introduction of mobile technologies, however, has put the functionality and connectivity of traditional TMS in the hands of managers, giving them full visibility and control wherever they are, at all times of the day. This capability helps to ensure compliance while significantly increasing efficiency.

Today’s mobile applications enable rating, route planning, carrier and price selection, tendering, load board visibility and near-time status updates of shipments.

For carriers, mobile applications can drive an increase in yields by searching for loads in specific geographies and posting available trucks for shippers to fill.

The positive effects of such mobile applications can be correlated directly — and rapidly — to the bottom line. A simple example of this correlation for asset owners and brokers is the automation and process improvements introduced to document capturing and processing for proof of delivery and invoicing. Drivers can start a mobile app, take a picture of the POD, have the receiver sign it and then attach it to a load — all by using a mobile application. This simple process alone can reduce invoicing and days sales outstanding — i.e., days from invoice to payment — by five to seven days and free up millions of dollars in cash flow.

The supply-chain industry still relies heavily on electronic data interchange for systems and information integration, but mobile devices help ease this reliance on an older technology while improving the speed and accuracy of operational and data processes.

The possibilities for mobile devices and the supply chain are limitless. Today, most devices have a dual-core platform — i.e., two processors in one CPU — running a 1 GHz processor, roughly the speed of a laptop just a few years ago. In the very near future, the first quad-core device — four processors — will be launched, further leveling the playing field between laptop and mobile device performance by providing the ability to process more instructions with more horsepower in the same physical space.

It is quite clear that these mobile devices — e.g., iPhones, iPads, Android phones and pads, and BlackBerrys — and their applications are the future of technology and the information they deliver and manage for us.

Our industry already is benefiting from the advantages that mobile technologies provide. Numerous companies, including ours, have started rolling out apps that deliver these advantages to customers around the world, helping them maximize productivity and increase efficiency.

Yet, there are still concerns about their use, primarily around security. There are numerous device operating systems with varying levels of security and encryption.

We believe Apple and Research In Motion provide the best embedded encryption available today, while both Google and Microsoft promise to provide such embedded encryption in the next version of their operating systems.

Another challenge when it comes to mobile technologies is that there is a lack of commonality across the mobile operating systems. Software developers need to address these voids and spend more time and money overcoming them in the applications they roll out.

One additional drawback to mobile technologies is that they generally have less screen real estate available on these devices as well as slower data download and upload speeds. That shortcoming means developers need to give real consideration both to interface design and the amount of data that needs to be transported back and forth between the mobile device and the back-end systems.

While these challenges are very real, they are being overcome rapidly, and mobile applications will continue to evolve, extending supply-chain functionality and allowing managers to keep pace with today’s fast-paced logistics environment — all from the palm of their hand.

Chicago-based Echo Global Logistics is a provider of technology-enabled transportation and supply-chain management services.