Supply chain managers need real-time data to effectively manage operations. While supply chain software companies offer solutions that come with analytics solutions, the data used for analytics is usually archived data. Archived data is not in real time. There is a new technology that can provide real-time visibility. But implementing it means overcoming the objections of the IT department.
Longbow feature has real time vision solution
Longbow Advantage held its first user conference in Nashville, Tennessee, last week. Longbow Advantage’s main business has been the implementation of Warehouse Management System (WMS) applications. But this conference focused on a near-real-time analytics solution they developed called Rebus. “Semi-real-time” is defined here as an update of key metrics every five minutes. They believe that within the next year or so they can get the update for a minute.
A few years ago, Longbow customers started asking them to fix the problem they were having with their warehouse management systems. WMS generates huge amounts of data. According to Alex Wakefield, CEO at Longbow, 3 months of warehouse data, including real-time data, generated across multiple warehouse locations for just one customer over just three months is roughly half the volume of all data generated. Combined by a very large public cloud resource for transportation management systems across all of their clients!
The WMS system uses RF guns to perform scans of picking sites, to verify that the pickup is in the correct location. Product barcodes can also be scanned to verify that the correct number of products have been identified. This improves the quality of work. But all these checks across all the selected sites and products selected generate really big data.
It was not possible to try to get close to real-time analytics, so that warehouse managers can run their warehouses more effectively. This is because WMS has a production database as well as archived data. Archived data used in the analytics is not in real time. However, having access to a production database may result in poor performance for floor-level workers who are given guidance on what work they need to do next.
Despite covering the WMS market for over 20 years, this wasn’t an issue I was aware of until about a year ago. Last September, I spoke to a supply chain manager at a manufacturing company that had implemented Rebus. This manager told me that they have replaced ERP’s WMS solution with one of the best leading WMS solutions. The manager told me “We got all the jobs we expected. There were a lot of jobs – things like interleaving tasks and supporting merchandise distribution. But we had a gap in seeing the work being done. Real-time reporting on work was weaker than expected.”
Longbow now has about 30 customers who use Rebus for things like labor management, improving visibility for pending and nearing inventory, improving visibility of what’s happening on the warehouse floor, and “tools” that their customers have developed using the Rebus toolkit to highlight other critical operational activities. Clients at the conference included very large food and beverage companies, the largest 3PL in the world, and companies from other industries as well.
Overcoming IT objections
But obtaining this data was not easy. Warehouse professionals may need to overcome IT objections to using Rebus. Indeed, part of Mr. Wakefield’s presentation included training potential clients on the arguments that could be made for IT.
To solve this problem in real time, Longbow developed Rebus using a NoSQL database. I won’t try to explain why using this technique can generate real-time analytics from a huge amount of data hundreds of times faster than a traditional database; I’m sure I can’t. For me, checking that it solves a real pain point and that it works from listening to Rebus customers describe how they were using the solution.
But the point is that this technology is unfamiliar to many IT professionals. IT professionals do not feel comfortable implementing and supporting technology that they see as advanced and unproven. NoSQL database technology has been around for over 15 years. But many IT professionals, like me, are not familiar with it.
A WMS project manager at a large food company said that when he initially suggested Rebus for IT he got a “No.” “Everyone said ‘No, it was a Nous trip.'”
This manager had to patiently describe why the current solutions didn’t work. Attempting to get real-time data from a WMS production database created performance risks.
They use SAP as their ERP. Also, creating analytics in SAP will not work. Although some of the WMS transaction data moved back into SAP, it didn’t move back at a precise enough level to do things like track how platforms moved through the repository.
Tableau or PowerBI techniques have been very consistent. Furthermore, the PowerBI team will have trouble creating the right kind of tables because they lack experience with warehouse operations.
Using a data lake was very expensive, required data scientists (who also don’t understand repository operations), and could have placed limits on which users could access the data.
But in the end the objections were overcome, and Mars Wrigley got real value out of the solution. In fact, going forward, they want to pull data from demand planning, ERP, plant, and transportation to create a real-time view of the supply chain that extends beyond the warehouse.
Overcoming IT objections and implementing a sophisticated solution may be easier. Some IT departments now believe that operational departments are their customers; Their job is to please their customers. Public cloud solutions, which don’t require a lot of in-house IT support, helped facilitate this change.
And I’ve heard supply chain executives say they used to be “fast followers”, but now they believe that competitive differentiation depends on being early adopters.