System Integration: Be The Link

Nov. 16, 2010
Merging logistics hardware and software into a system is getting easier—as long as you keep a hand in the process.

System integration may not be as stressful a project as it used to be, but it’s not quite plug and play, either. Whether your company is large or small, it helps to have a project champion on staff who knows what’s needed to make disparate system components come together.

Take Brian Hatfield, for example. As vice president of supply chain for KPSS, a beauty care company specializing in hair color and hair care, he helps his mid-size company compete in a big world. KPSS is a $500 million global supplier with distribution centers in Fresno, Calif., Toronto, Canada, the U.K., Finland, Australia and New Zealand. This company is in the midst of deploying Psion’s Mobile Integration Suite (MIS), as well as Vocollect’s Voice picking system, to standardize workflows in those sites and therefore improve order accuracy and reduce labor.

KPSS is working with Psion and Vocollect to integrate their systems with its SAP enterprise system. Psion MIS, an enterprise-wide middleware package, integrates SAP’s Warehouse Management System (WMS) with Vocollect Voice, enabling pick and ship information to be automatically converted into speech commands that instruct distribution center workers. It also includes a speech process analyzer dashboard and reporting tool, which provides KPSS with a real-time view of productivity and operational metrics.

This is a template approach to system integration, according to Hatfield. That means very little programming and customization is allowed at its sites.

“Most of our DCs have the same tasks and activities standardized in SAP,” he says. “That helped us bridge the gap between Vocollect speaking with our SAP system. Psion handles project management and any customization in Vocollect to tailor it to the individual warehouses.”

That doesn’t mean KPSS leaves everything to Psion. Hatfield believes in devoting resident talent to system integration as well. During a project, to minimize any customization, two KPSS people go to the site to determine what’s different from the previous integration projects.

“By having consistency with people in integration and implementation it’s helped us knock down a lot of challenges you’d have with different groups doing it throughout the world,” Hatfield says. “A supervisor from the original implementation has supported every single implementation, doing the training and setting up the profiles.”

After successful deployments in Fresno, Calif. and Toronto, Canada, KPSS will expand this rollout to other key sites in the U.S., the U.K., Finland, Australia and New Zealand over the next two years. It has already improved order accuracy by more than 75 percent and reduced picking and replenishment labor by more than 20 percent.

Operational Visibility

KPSS has also increased visibility for its workforce. It can now offer feedback to its workers via a monitor in each warehouse so they can see their productivity.

“That has created a competition which contributes to the growth of quality and productivity,” Hatfield concludes. “You hear a lot more in the lunchroom about how they’re doing today compared to standard and compared to other people.”

The focus of system integration has changed over the years from hitting financial targets to achieving performance metrics. That’s because advances in technology have made those metrics more visible and actionable in real time. That, in turn, takes care of the financials. However, to hit the right targets, end users must play an active role in the integration from the start of the project.

“In meeting with a customer we sit down with their operations team, their WMS team, and their business system teams—which includes the transportation management system folks—and we map out where information resides,” explains Tom Brady, vice president of solutions development for Intelligrated, provider of automated material handling systems. Intelligrated maintains a network of authorized third-party integrators throughout North America.

“We capture information from other systems to provide a way for that customer to make more intelligent decisions,” he adds. “If we can map to that information and grab it, we can create reports, metrics and notifications to help them improve visibility.”

These days that visibility extends throughout a supply chain—which means on the road, as well. That helps companies improve operations inside their four walls. For example, Brady’s team thought it could improve one client’s operation by offering better visibility of when product was going to be scheduled so that client could determine how to receive it.

“They tended to only schedule work based on the product that was in the yard vs. the product that was on the interstate five miles away,” Brady explains. “The technology is there to track product in the overall supply chain. Getting the systems in place to make that information actionable is an area that has a lot of benefit from a network perspective.”

Managing Through Mergers

Networks are subject to change, especially as companies get acquired or merge. Mergers and acquisitions are common triggers for system integration projects, and according to Jim O’Leary, vice president of product management for Extol, a B2B system integrator, the goal is to reduce duplication of resources as much as possible to take costs out. That involves hardware, software and data systems as well as people.

“For each application that gets replaced there are integrations with other applications and data resources and external partners that also have to be replaced or modified at the same time,” he says. “You get rid of the old ERP system and all of a sudden you have all these connections that have to be reestablished with the new one.”

In M&A situations, a new pecking order is established and that applies to information systems, as well. To further complicate matters, most companies are members of multiple value chains and they have multiple sets of customers and intermediaries to deal with and they have separate standards for B2B interactions. In that kind of situation you’re not only re-implementing connections with one partner, but with many partners at the same time.

“The key is to look completely at all the connections an application system has before you put your plan in place to replace it or merge it,” O’Leary says. “The other thing is to consider what might come in the future. There are types of EDI documents new clients may ask you to support that your current systems may not be capable of handling. Aside from traditional ones like the 204s [load tenders] and 214s [shipment status], there may be non-traditional ones like proprietary flat files and spreadsheets.”

Supply-Side Integration

Where WMS is concerned, M&A activity on the software provider side has actually made system integration a little easier, according to Bryan Jensen, vice president and principal of St. Onge Co., a material handling and manufacturing consulting firm specializing in system integration.

“We’re coming closer to plug and play, because the outlets and plugs are fewer than they used to be,” he says. “Look at the number of WMS host offerings that were out there 20 years ago and how they have consolidated. Four WMSs represent a much larger percentage of the installed base than any four companies would have 20 years ago.”

Because there are fewer but bigger players in the WMS world, material handling automation providers are lining up to be compliant with their systems. That means there’s less likelihood that custom interface applications have to be written, and chances are the middleware will work well with the host software and the equipment management software.

At the same time, the service offerings of the leading system integrators are becoming fuller, including the incorporation of material handling hardware like robotics. That means they can bundle their services with systems. That can certainly reduce project timelines, but again, it shouldn’t relieve you of the need to be an active participant. That means making sure that when an integrator offers you a package that they have installed that package at a few other sites and they’re not just making phone calls to engage subcontractors. That’s a no-value proposition.

Bottom line, make sure you and the other participants in any system integration can work together as one merged entity. Just because industry mergers and acquisitions have narrowed down your choices doesn’t mean the research into provider background and capabilities is any less important.