Putting It All Together
A couple of years ago the business media — even the non-business media — was gushing with stories about the WebVan Group and similar Internet grocery hucksters. The big news was that consumers would soon be thumping away on keyboards ordering everything from abalone to ziti. On-line shopping, and all the tools to do it, were the talk at Frontlines Solutions — then known as ScanTech.
And this year? This year people were talking about the auctions of WebVan’s estimated $250 million worth of material handling equipment — much of it never turned on. With WebVan, and other dot-coms that have gone belly-up in the past year, there has been much finger pointing and many excuses. It boils down to a lot of unkept promises.
From the perspective of material handling managers, it seems that integration of the data collection systems, information technologies and the hardware were/are the issue. You can buy all the stuff you want, but if you can’t put it together, you’re out of business.
For example, Lockheed Martin Material Handling Equipment & Controls now offers a controls architecture that links material handling equipment and control devices to the enterprise. The supervisory software system allows users to connect machine and processing functions from multiple controls manufacturers as well as enterprise systems, with minimal configuration and on-site integration.
Based on the commonly used object linking and embedding (OLE) application-to-application exchange and communications protocol from Microsoft known as OLE for process control (OPC), this plug-and-play solution integrates multiple application software elements via a single interface. The design enables easy configuration of device-level components, such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and sensors, to the supervisory control level, regardless of the legacy networks in use. An off-the-shelf product, the architecture can be integrated with new projects as well as existing material handling controls systems needing upgrades.
It’s also apparent that putting it together and holding it together are not the same. The truth seems to be that people — and people is what this is really all about — are slow, almost resistant to do something different. No matter how valuable the idea or technology, everyone is not ready to jump on the bandwagon at the same time. And maybe that’s a good thing.
The lesson of the dot-com debacle is that promises made had better be promises kept. It’s humans with feeling and long memories you are dealing with, even if it’s the click of a mouse that places the order. It takes a long time to build a personal relationship and, in turn, a sale. If you don’t deliver, that customer will be gone for good.
There’s been a lot of talk about collaboration as the road to success. It appears that customer service is the true path to success.
Certainly cooperating with your suppliers and channel partners is important, especially when it comes to sharing data. And, while it’s arguable whether vendor-managed inventory and demand forecasting are forms of collaboration or customer service, the concept of serving the customer is most important.
Customer service is easy: just give the customer what he wants. In the world of automatic data flow, giving the customer — your trading partner — what he wants is getting easier all the time. It is a strange reversal of roles. In the case of vendor-managed inventory, instead of your managing your own inventory, your customer takes over the job. Through the exchange of information, your supplier will tell you how much of his inventory you need.
Role reversal or not, it seems to work. Sharing data with your supplier-partners can lead only to wiser purchases of material handling equipment and more productive integration of data flow and equipment.
by Clyde E. Witt, executive editor