Integrating Systems, End-to-End

Sept. 1, 2004
For the best productivity, data and information must flow seamlessly among supply chain systems. Achieving this can be a challenge when you have multiple programs from multiple vendors. But there are solutions.

To achieve the breadth and functionality needed in supply chain systems, material handlers have usually selected individual "best-of-breed" solutions and attempted to network, or integrate them. "Over the last few years, best-of-breed programs were the only way to go," says Dave Adams, vice president of product development, Irista. This solution, though, involves lots of programming, cost and effort before it eventually works.

"With all the information available, the challenge has been to seamlessly connect warehouse systems to enterprise systems without redoing everything, without repurchasing entire systems," adds Terry Hinton, systems sales manager, FKI Logistex. "Companies have downsized so there is not the expertise for integration that there once was. And for the most part, people know a simple solution will be the most elegant."

"The market is recognizing that the interfaces needed to integrate various programs are anchors," says Dave Healey, director of account management, Lilly Software. "They're expensive and difficult to support."

Material handling suppliers have come up with a solution and are offering complete supply chain systems where the integration and interfacing have been done for you. "People are looking for end-to-end solutions because there is a big expense in interfacing best-of-breed, not only in the first goround, but in handling upgrades, too," continues Healey. "And with disparate programs you've connected, you may not be able to quickly take advantage of any enhancements because you'll have to reintegrate everything."

Like any solution, though, you must weigh its pros and cons. "There are valid end-to-end solutions out there," notes Adams. "But you'll need to find something that fits the vertical you are in. It still comes down to whether the solution provides the ROI you need."

"And there is some loss of functionality with end-to-end solutions," adds Healey. "But that loss is now viewed as better than trying to tie multiple disparate systems together."

The lack of functionality with some systems may not affect you. End-to-end solutions are highly scalable and configurable. There are multiple "subprograms" for any type of warehouse management problem in many of these systems. You configure them to your specific warehousing needs by "turning a subprogram on or off."

"Most complexity in warehouse systems is in how you pick," says Healey. "Receiving, stocking, cycle counting and so on are pretty similar. Picking is where the real complexity comes in. A good end-to-end system can handle all of this; it's just a matter of what you turn on and what you turn off. If your business changes, where you're going from batch picks to each picks, for example, you should be able to turn on the each picking features and turn off the batch in the system you've purchased."

Once you've installed a system and used it for one type of warehousing configuration, it's easy to forget that the system offers many capabilities. Vendors frequently reeducate customers on the features and capabilities of the programs they've purchased. It's important to stay in touch with your supplier as they can advise you as to whether you have the needed features for any business changes you may go through."

Making a connection

Whether you continue with bestof-breed solutions or move to endtoend suppliers, you face certain challenges in ensuring data flow among all the parts. "It's one thing if you're putting in a WMS [ warehouse management system] and want to simply bolt it to your TMS [transportation management system] to just send some freight information here and there," says Adams. "This is fairly simple. It's another thing if you're doing a complex operation where you need both systems to handle combined labeling, for example." Keep in mind that there's a difference between integration and interfacing. Integration is more complex, and therefore more costly. If you need true integration, you may be better off with an end-to-end solution, where that's been taken care of for you.

"How you run your business today will be different once
you install your software.

Whichever way you go, consider the following challenges:

  • One of the biggest hurdles will be the compatibility between architecture databases. This is a complex programming challenge and system offerings vary widely in how this situation is handled. Carefully research the tools programs offer to help establish compatibility.

    In most cases, you'll need to set up some type of portal or interface table that one program can put data in and another program can remove from. "Often, software providers do not want you updating their database directly," notes Healey. "It's a support issue."

  • What hardware platform will the systems run on? Will some systems run on Unix systems and others on Windowsbased systems? If so, integration can be more difficult.

  • Check into data formats. One system may store data in a 12-bit field, for example, and another in a 15-bit. The integration or interfacing team will have to create some type of compromise field length, a process that can be expensive.

  • Know the performance and timing requirements of your transactions. Do the selected systems adhere to these? For example, does the WMS have an off ramp to move data to the TMS when you need it? "Performance issues come into play especially in larger implementations," says Adams. "You will likely need specific integration protocols in place to move volumes of data from one system to another. A table-to-table solution tends to be higher maintenance but it moves data quicker."
  • If you have strong scalability needs, consider an end-to-end system, which tends to offer this feature.
  • How often and how much data will you be passing throughout the system? "Real-time data passing is becoming the favorite tactic," says Hinton. But do you really need it? And how much data do you really need to send in real time; that is, without buffering? "You don't need to send a lot of information. With real-time links into enterprise systems, you can send much smaller amounts of information and it's updated globally. The computer today can store so much data and pass so much data, that people tend to think they should send a lot, but then you're plowing through stuff that really doesn't mean anything to you. If you have legacy systems and a real-time system, you can really go into information overload."

    One of the management challenges you'll face involves the way you do business. "How you run your business today will be different once you install your software," says Healey, "because many of the little reports you depend on, which really are 'work-arounds' because you had an incomplete system, will disappear. You're not automating what you're doing on paper; you're doing it differently, and hopefully more efficiently."

Going wireless

"Wireless can simplify integrating and interfacing issues by bringing the paperless information to the user and handling confirmation," notes Peter Morley, senior product manager, Psion Teklogix. "For the systems administrator, wireless integration and interfacing is handled in the same manner as with a wired system."

Watch WIFI for wireless, however. "WIFI interoperability is there," adds Morley, "but often we find that different hardware has different ranges, primarily because of the various available configurations. The problem is establishing a connection with access points. When you get to a fringe area of the range, there can be slight delays in reassociating to an access point and you can lose connection for a minute and, therefore, lose some productivity."

Looking for Mr. Good Solution

If you choose an end-to-end solution, some of the capabilities you'll want to evaluate with suppliers include:

  • Their track record and their philosophy regarding changes to their systems. And investigate the backward compatibility of their systems. Ask how many releases back they support? And do they insist that you install updated versions of their systems as soon as they're released?
  • How much customization is required? "Here is where you can really tie yourself tightly to a supplier," notes Healey. The more changes you want to implement in a system, the harder it can be to integrate, interface and upgrade without expensive vendor support.
  • See demonstrations of the system and talk with customers.

    Make sure your chosen supplier has people familiar with your industry and sufficient industry knowledge.
  • Do they have an implementation process that ensures success-as well as long-term support? Advice from vendors is to know what you have and what you are really trying to do. "Problems are usually the result of biting off too much," says Hinton. "That's when you run into cost overruns."

"Problems are usually the result of biting off too much;
that's when you run into cost overruns."

Show me the money

It's easy to be overly optimistic about how long an implementation will take and how much it will cost. But such optimism will lead to problems. "There's always a need for wiggle room," adds Adams. "And it's no one's fault when a problem or delay occurs. People forget key pieces that are needed, or key people are unable to attend a meeting where critical issues and details are discussed. But the payback is there. The money to be gained will be there."

When setting the budget, don't just budget for your business as it is now; budget for how you see it evolving. For one thing, this helps ensure that everyone understands how the operation works before changing it.

Budget for time. If you have an experienced staff that has gone through a few implementations, you'll have a good idea of how long an implementation really takes. For less experienced staffs, add in some time. It takes people a while to learn a new system.

Don't forget to budget for testing. "That's an area that rarely gets properly budgeted," says Adams, "and you pay for it during your first, second and third weeks of go-live."

Also budget for the proper balance of dedicated and nondedicated resources, such as staff. Not enough dedicated people will lead to problems during the implementation.

The RFID connection

Radio frequency identification (RFID) will also have an effect on your supply chain system. "To be deployed successfully," says William Nuti, president and CEO, Symbol Technologies, "it needs to be deployed as a system — a system that allows customers to capture, move and manage critical information to and from the point of business activity."

But RFID primarily affects the data management aspects of systems. "It's in the infrastructure where material handlers-will see the largest budget impact," says Morley. "And, of course, the major portion of the infrastructure is warehouse management software. Programs that control pallet stacking and location, for example, may need changes to accommodate RFID tag placement on pallets. You may have to change the programs so that they instruct operators on how to stack pallets to ensure accurate and complete reads." Other programs RFID may tie into could be similarly affected.

This is one reason for the delay in converting from bar codes to RFID. Material handlers are finding that it's the infrastructure costs, the changing and integration of multiple systems, rather than the tags and readers, that are the big budget item.

Above all, weigh the total costs of doing it your self versus having it already done. In some cases, insufficient feature breadth may make the best-of-breed decision a good one. But that will be the case for just a few years more. Most suppliers will shortly have products that cover more than 90 percent of warehousing needs.

For More Information

FKI Logistex


Lilly Software

Psion Teklogix

Symbol Technologies

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