Visibility tools range from simple to complex, from those that require you to access them on a delivery company or third-party logistics (3PL) provider's Web site, to those that proactively sift out the information that's most critical to you. The information is then delivered to your inbox or imported directly into a desktop spreadsheet or database application.
The most basic visibility tool is a tracking function. Based on the purchase order (PO) or stock-keeping unit (SKU) number in the smart labels and optical scanner technology mentioned earlier, tracking — of packages, pallets, or freight containers — is really the basic building block of visibility services, and is offered by most shipping companies.
You can get an idea of how quickly the demand for visibility has grown and of how much the process has shifted to the Internet by looking at the numbers of online package tracking requests UPS receives.
In December of 1995, during the height the holiday Peak Season, UPS first received more than 100,000 online package tracking requests in an entire month. In December 1996 the carrier surpassed 1 million online package tracking requests in a month. In December 1997 the company surpassed 1 million online package requests in a week, and in December 1998 it surpassed 1 million online package requests in a single day.
UPS still hasn't reached a million online package tracking requests in an hour, but the numbers continue to increase. On December 23, 2003, UPS received 12.6 million online tracking requests in a single day — a 23 percent increase from the busiest day in 2002.
Many of these tracking requests are generated by people who go to UPS' Web site to track their packages. But increasingly, these requests are coming directly from the Web sites of online retailers and other companies that offer package tracking on their own sites as a service to their customers — and as a way to generate more visits to the site.
Other visibility solutions are more advanced and more specialized. But like online tracking, they often are available as value-added services. And the goal is the same: enbabling shippers to easily monitor package movements within their supply chains and to use that information to improve customer service.
For example, R-Biopharm, a manufacturer of diagnostic products for the detection of residues in food, ships its testing kits Next Day Air across the United States. The company uses one carrier for its importing and shipping needs. It benefits from a Web-based application by learning of any delays that are due to severe weather or incorrect addresses. This information prompts the company to proactively alert customers such as hospitals, food manufacturers, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Homeland Defense when the product will arrive.
So what are some of the steps that your company can take to improve supply chain visibility?
1. If you use a major delivery company to move your goods, whether documents, small packages or freight, request a meeting with your account person to ensure you're taking advantage of the visibility services that best fit your company. Many of these solutions are available as value-added services.
2. If you plan to use a software application to help run your business — from enterprise resource planning (ERP) to accounting, customer relationship management (CRM), shopping cart and e-commerce systems, look for one with visibility tools built in. Many prominent software companies work with major shippers and 3PLs to strengthen their applications by integrating tracking functionality and other shipping tools.
3. Don't limit visibility information to the shipping department. For example, the finance department can use a confirmed delivery notice to automatically trigger invoices, cutting days off payment cycle times. And it can use electronically generated information about who initiated a shipment to easily assign billing charges to clients or internal departments at the end of the month. The customer service department can proactively contact customers when it receives information that a shipment is in route, or that it's been delayed due to weather or a customs issue, enhancing customer relationships.