Missing Link Found

Missing Link Found

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

New advances in information networks are giving transport operators the chance to centralize computer systems that once were as far-flung as the trucks and shipments they manage and to deliver data and freight faster for shippers.

Before the advent of the Internet, companies used distributed computing platforms. If a warehouse operation had more than one location, it often had more than one management software program.

With improved communications networks, companies now can link information and data in ways that were not previously possible. And they can link up locations under one system, with one complete and accurate data set, versus many that may need to be reconciled.

The Internet and wireless communications play a major role, tying systems together and allowing remote users to exchange information with data hubs, a capability critical to regional operators and global enterprises alike.

These data hubs anchor just about every transport and logistics network and are used to control the flow of goods.

"The network is the one place where everything is centralized," said Susan Alt, president and CEO, Volvo Logistics North America, Greensboro, N.C. "I don''t know how you could survive without it."

But what if a crisis pulls the plug and shuts an information network down? A few years ago "there was always a concern that the operation would stop and the boxes wouldn''t move or the trucks wouldn''t roll" if networks failed, said Domenic DiLalla, Exel''s chief information officer in the Americas.

That concern has abated as technology becomes more reliable and new methods of monitoring network performance hit the market. Now that networks are more secure, companies can centralize information and make sure everyone globally has that same information.

Watkins Motor Lines, the nation''s seventh largest less-than-truckload carrier, is a transportation company that has been able to centralize its technology operations through computer networks. Jack Mendell, network analyst for the company, remotely manages network service levels for the company''s 132 locations from its Lakeland, Fla. headquarters.

"We can provide (customers) with immediate information rather than have them sit there for a minute and a half on the phone waiting," Mendell said.

Watkins wants to do that consistently and "set expectations and service levels," said Mendell.

The network impacts customer service in other ways as well: it connects the drivers, the dispatchers and those on the dock. In short, everyone is connected back to headquarters.

The same is true at Exel, an international freight forwarder and logistics company based in the United Kingdom. Not only are Exel''s employees connected to the network but so are its customers. Exel manages operations for a customer in Brazil with over a million square feet of warehouse space. If that company''s warehouse management software goes down, a technician in the United States fixes it remotely - over the network. Remote technicians also provide preventative maintenance. It''s a common setup for the company, said DiLalla.

"The benefits of remote administration are significant and again are enabled by networks," he said. Centralized management with a reliable network equates to smaller staff, lower costs and improved service, he added.

There are other reasons as well: competition, for example. "Our freight now is so time-sensitive. We are competing with FedEx," said Mendell. To be competitive, Watkins uses information to determine customer service levels and to give "customer up-to-the minute information on where their freight is. We update freight (movements) no less than nine times," he said. "But if the network is down at that location, then we can''t provide that information. We are what makes it happen in a way."