May 2001 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Picture This: Freight Info at a Glance

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With location-based software, a quick look yields a wealth of knowledge.

If you've ever grown frustrated trying to fold a road map back to its original shape, you're probably a fan of mapping software. But aside from its practicality, onscreen maps offer more strategic benefits for people who need to track assets or move from point A to point B. Transportation companies and public safety squads have used them for years to monitor their fleets. Onboard navigation systems on rental cars guide travelers to tourist attractions and business appointments. If you're planning a trip, you'll find numerous web sites that generate driving directions and a picture of the route.

ObjectFX, a technology developer in St. Paul, Minn., takes the mapping concept a few steps beyond "Where is it?" or "How do I get there?" Its software certainly can answer those questions—for example, allowing shippers to see their freight move across the country on trucks equipped with satellite positioning systems. But the company's real strength lies in the way it merges data from disparate sources and presents results that viewers can take in at a glance.

The idea behind ObjectFX is "the ability to view information in a way that makes sense to users, so they can make faster, more effective decisions," says the firm's chief executive officer, Mark Tudor. Often, the presentation employs a map. Truckload carrier J.B. Hunt Transport, for example, used ObjectFX software to build an application that helps its booking agents spot regions of the country where trucks need loads. The application integrates data from Hunt's satellite-based vehicle location system with data about customer orders and appointments on the company's mainframe.

The Logical View

Along with images of states or local roads, ObjectFX might also help a company view other kinds of maps—links in a telecommunications network, perhaps, or relationships among trading partners.

In a logistics application, besides watching goods flow across a geographical area, "the value chain can be monitored in a logical view," Tudor says. This graphic would show the multiple paths goods can take as they move from raw material sources to manufacturers to distributors and retailers to consumers.

Supply chain process management solutions provide visibility, alert users to problems, and manage the flow of work for solving those problems, says Adrian Gonzalez, senior analyst, e-business and supply chain solutions at ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass. ObjectFX extends the value of these tools by replacing lists and e-mails with graphics that make the data easier to absorb. "This allows for more intuitive decision support, requiring minimal time to understand the situation and respond," he says.

A flashing icon on a map might indicate a customer whose shipment is behind schedule. A manager viewing the display could quickly find alternative sources for the goods and decide which source can deliver it fastest, Gonzalez says.

ObjectFX was founded in 1994. Its first full-blown product—SpatialX—hit the market in 1997. This was a set of tools that customers could use to build their own applications for client-server networks. In 1999, the company introduced SpatialFX, a product for writing Internet-based applications that employ location variables. Both toolkits were developed in the Java programming language.

For customers who prefer not to grow their own toolkits, the company is creating a suite of off-the-shelf products under the name C-it Software. The first available package, C-it Locate, includes the ability to: view data in spatial relationships; geocode (translate an address into its latitude/longitude coordinates and locate it on a map); perform point-to-point routing; and integrate business data from multiple sources with location information.

ObjectFX provides application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow its software to pull data from "virtually any database, including those developed in Oracle, DB2, Sybase and Informix," Tudor says. Its technology also permits one application to display information on a wide range of devices, from desktop PCs to handheld computers to web-enabled wireless phones.

Matching Supply and Demand

J.B. Hunt purchased SpatialFX because it wanted to give booking agents a faster, easier way to match available freight capacity with customer demand. While Hunt is a carrier rather than a shipper, Tudor points out that its problem is typical among supply chain professionals—matching supply and demand in the most efficient manner possible.

In the past, a booking agent began each work day by scrolling through 40 or 50 communications from the company's mainframe computer system, says Cecilia Gann, director, operational services at J.B. Hunt in Lowell, Ark. These communications provided summary information about orders the company had received, and equipment that was available to carry freight in different parts of the country. Agents used this information when soliciting freight or taking inbound calls from customers. To obtain an update or a detail such as the size of a trailer, the agent had to telephone the load planner responsible for that area.

About two and a half years ago, officials at J.B. Hunt started looking for a way to present this information in a more intuitive format. After also examining products from ESRI and MapInfo, the company chose SpatialFX. Hunt started developing its map-based application in late 1999 and had it up and running by the end of May 2000, says David Lilly, director of application development in the company's information technology group. Today, instead of combing through text-based listings to understand the relationships between supply and demand, agents view the information on color-coded maps.

The software "also allows us to drill down to see the drivers, how many hours they have, and what size trailing equipment they have as well," Gann says. "We can do this without having to make any phone calls, or any internal communications whatsoever."

Another link displays a list of customers in that region whom the agent can call to solicit freight. Managers and executives use the system to get a quick view of sales performance in various regions.

One important reason Hunt chose SpatialFX is that it's written in Java: the carrier wanted software it could deploy on the web in the future, says Kay Palmer, Hunt's chief information officer.

Currently, only Hunt's employees can see the information carried on the company's intranet. In the long run, however, Hunt expects to give customers a view of available capacity and allow trucking companies that serve J.B. Hunt's logistics business to see where freight is available.

More Options for Customers

Another ObjectFX customer, FedEx Custom Critical, uses the software to provide map-based tracking information. The time-definite, expedited truckload carrier has offered freight tracking on its web site for three years, but still provides text-based tracking and load status information on the phone—the preferred medium for most FedEx customers, says Joel Childs, vice president of marketing at FedEx Custom Critical in Akron, Ohio.

The company turned to ObjectFX because it wanted to offer yet another option, so customers could retrieve information in whatever way they found most convenient, Childs says.

SpatialFX met all the company's requirements for architecture, speed, reliability, security, and cost-effectiveness, says Larry Chapman, e-commerce manager at FedEx Custom Critical. The firm spent about six months building the tracking application and integrating it with its Customer Link shipment control and tracking system.

On the map display, a customer can see the freight's origin and destination, any points in between if there are multiple pickups or deliveries, and the truck's current location. There is also a "bread crumb" trail showing the route the truck has taken. The Qualcomm satellite tracking system polls the fleet once an hour, but a service agent can contact a truck at any time to get a real-time position.

Further detail is also available. "You could pick the truck and drill down to the street level to see exactly where it is," Childs says. While customers don't necessarily need street-level tracking, such precise information might make them feel more comfortable when they are moving critical freight, he points out.

Customers can also drill down to the tabular display of tracking data for further details, such as the load's distance to its destination and whether it's running on time.

C-it in the Future

ObjectFX is working on two other packages in the C-it Software suite. C-it Move will integrate location-based displays with users' existing software, such as fleet dispatching and warehouse management systems. A third package will allow companies to track inventory levels and monitor inventory as it moves, Tudor says.

Adding visual understanding to supply chain management helps close one of the major gaps in business-to-business commerce, Tudor says. "If you have the ability to see your inventory moving between the manufacturer and retailer, or between two manufacturers, you build greater trust and confidence in the level of replenishment."

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