What Are Your Tech Vendors Up To?

Twenty-five years after its initial launch, the annual Distribution Computer Expo is still an important event for previewing the latest in logistics and supply chain technology. The conference is a one-stop shop for catching up with the various providers that power supply chain technology.

Here are highlights from my meetings with technology companies that attended this year’s conference, which took place May 22-24 at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

SAP Spies Provider Opportunities

While SAP has long served a vast number of shippers, it is now grabbing users from the 3PL and carrier worlds as well. SAP’s upgraded, provider-focused product, Supply Chain 6.0, is set to debut this fall.

The application contains a robust transportation management system (TMS) geared toward 3PL, freight forwarder, and carrier users, says Rod Strata, industry principal for SAP’s transportation and logistics segment. Strata has been helping shape SAP’s push into the service provider field.

It is not hard to imagine SAP building on its current success with shippers by appealing to service providers. The increasing complexity of managing transportation has led many shippers to outsource the function to 3PLs; 3PLs, in turn, often need TMS technology above and beyond what they can develop in-house, explains Strata. This is where SAP comes in.

The new TMS product integrates seamlessly with SAP’s existing software, making it a fairly easy sell for the many providers already using SAP’s enterprise management tools.

A bigger challenge for the company is fighting off its best-of-breed rivals, who are also gearing up to win over logistics service providers. Strata cites a “build, partner, or acquire” approach to fighting off competition. “We look at capabilities we are missing, then decide the best approach for plugging those holes,” he explains.

PINC Solutions Makes Tracks in the Yard

While many in the logistics sector have snubbed passive RFID tags in favor of active RFID applications, Berkeley, Calif.-based PINC Solutions is embracing passive RFID as an inexpensive way to deliver real-time yard visibility.

The company, started in 2004 with seed funding from Siemens, delivers the first real-time yard visibility solution free of expensive hardware and significant manual intervention, says Dr. Aleks Gollu, CEO and founder.

The company’s signature application, YardHound, uses passive RFID tags combined with positioning sensors to track trailer location and status, trace yard truck movement, and provide a real-time picture of all yard activities via a web-based application.

The goal, says Gollu, is to offer DC owners real-time, 24-hour access to key yard data such as trailer positioning, check-in and check-out times, fuel status, and trailer temperature readings, among others.

PINC also offers users a complete yard management system through a partnership with Montreal-based C3 Solutions. Combining real-time yard visibility with strategic yard management helps users reduce operations costs, and achieve return on investment in less than one year, says Gollu.

Sterling Commerce Serves Up Services Solutions

Looking to bulk up profit margins, many companies have embraced aftermarket services as a new source of revenue. The problem, however, comes in managing and automating these services as part of a normally product-based supply chain.

One solution comes from Sterling Commerce, a Dublin, Ohio-based software provider. Its just-announced Sterling Service Contracts offering aims to administer and automate the entire lifecycle of service, subscription, and other duration-based products.

The solution, which Sterling gained as part of its recent acquisition of e-business software provider Comergent, integrates order capture, order fulfillment, and CRM applications to help users define, manage, and build service bundles throughout the duration of the contract.

Specifically, Sterling Service Contracts enables companies to proactively monitor equipment warranties, maintenance agreements, and service commitments; automatically notify customers of contract expirations; and manage pricing issues such as subscription, cancellation, and usage charges.

“We manage complex issues that aren’t addressed well by an ERP system,” says Ken Ramoutar, Sterling’s director of applications product marketing. That complexity is playing out in companies’ desire to connect the way they sell products and services with how they fulfill them, he notes.

Sterling’s new solution and its Comergent acquisition have nicely positioned it to support this trend.

Psion Teklogix Steps Back

Moving backward is not usually something businesses are proud of—but it is exactly what Greg Evans, senior product manager for Psion Teklogix, boasts about. “Backward capability” is a key selling point for Psion’s new generation of Workabout Pro rugged handheld computers.

“We are leveraging existing expansion modules from the first generation Workabout Pro, which are fully compatible with the second generation,” explains Evans. This approach provides users an industrial tool that doesn’t need to be replaced whenever new requirements emerge.

A thorough demo of the new tool from the Mississauga, Canada-based company shows off its many add-on capabilities: scanners, imagers, RFID modules, wireless LAN/WAN radios, and even a passport reader.

The new models also possess increased ability to survive multiple drops from as high as five feet, as well as a higher-resolution screen, a new operating system, and ergonomic improvements.

The new handheld is part of Psion’s move to appeal to users outside the four walls—it is expanding with applications for meter reading, ticketing, and livestock, for example.

Best Transport Plays Online Matchmaker

Much like online dating, online freight matching and transportation transacting has gone mainstream over the past few years. The newest entrant to the field is Best Transport’s BestMatch, which bills itself a combination search engine/business-networking site for the transportation industry.

The web-based, on-demand tool, which debuts this summer, grants carriers and shippers access to a community of partners with whom they can conduct real-time shipping transactions and view transportation opportunities. After joining BestMatch, shippers invite their carriers to become members; carriers can then extend the invitation to their other customers.

In a crowded field of web wannabes, what makes BestMatch unique? “Shippers and carriers use BestMatch as a wide-angle lens into optimal service and customer matches, by lane or by load.

BestMatch protects the private shipper-carrier relationship through individual controls over the exposure and use of information, instead of simply publishing that information to a board,” explains CEO Mark Shary.

A demo highlights the simple user experience: shippers search for available trucks by lane or by shipment, and results display carriers with available capacity matching their criteria. Using the site helps shippers optimize carrier utilization, compare rates from a variety of carriers, improve tendering, and match to actual truck capacity, notes Bill D’Amico, vice president of sales.

The capacity shortage of recent years works to BestMatch’s advantage, but with capacity loosening up, will shippers still go the extra mile and check online for freight opportunities?

Even with more available capacity, shippers still want to find the best price, D’Amico notes. “If capacity continues to loosen up, the site will instead become carrier-driven,” he says.

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