There is not only tremendous pressure from the Web and e-commerce for companies to deliver traditional truckload and LTL deliveries, but also a dramatic increase in the requirement for direct shipments of individual parcels to businesses and consumers.
This demand has created increased complexity for shipping and has become especially difficult for high-volume parcel shippers. Considerations for both the aggregate and larger segment ship points are necessary to take advantage of speed of delivery and discounts. This challenge has created an opportunity for massive paybacks in your companys shipping department.
Market complexity is driving more companies to seek specialized shipping software rather than use a traditional WMS to satisfy e-commerce requirements. Third-party shipping solutions have increased functionality to handle the intricacies of integration to a host or third-party WMS, material handling/sortation devices and carrier networks.
The selection and evaluation of shipping software providers should follow 10 steps in order to ensure current functionality, technology and experience to achieve the highest level of payback for your project.
Define macro and micro goals and objectives
The first and most important step is to understand the long-range goals of your management. Once you understand these goals, determine the elements of the project to be executed and corresponding timeframes. If timeframes allow for a comprehensive and strategic execution of all goals, they should all be included in the project scope and executed. If timeframes are inadequate, a phased approach should be identified for managements approval. The technical and operational micro-goals should be identified by your project group and used as a requirements matrix to validate your choice of software and integration vendors.
Identify data integration points and capabilities
Create an architectural drawing of current integration points between systems for data objects and material handling. This will become an important document with which software integrators should comply. During this process, it is important a company knows its own limitations and understands its technical migration capabilities. The simplicity of FTP (File Transfer Protocol) to real-time COM objects is more related to the existing in-house technical experience than to the technology itself. The reverse is also true of your software vendor. You dont want to be its beta test site. It is important, at minimum, that a vendor has the existing capabilities and experience in the chosen data integration path to migrate your system on your companys timetable.
Define workable data transfer models
Understand the data objects necessary to drive the full features of the shipping software product to receive the total benefits of shipping automation and to reduce customization to compensate for deficient elements. For example, it is difficult to drive carrier compliance issues in the absence of available package level detail (PLD). Your software vendor should be able to provide you with a document showing the standard data objects that drive all the functions included within its software packages.
Define current and projected volumes
Identify current and projected volumes for your software vendor. These committed volumes may change the view of your vendor, as high-volume shipping is a much more complex world than is medium- to low-volume shipping. As a company escalates its volumes, there are many opportunities in todays shipment market to reduce cost with sortation and shipment planning into carrier compliance-based networks. Although many warehouse management systems in todays market are able to integrate with in-house developed and limited third-party shipping products that are not full-featured, given the complexities of high-volume shipping and carrier compliance requirements, choosing a system of this type may limit your operational and functional flexibility. This potentially can limit future opportunities for shipping system expansion, versatility and unit shipping cost reductions with expedited delivery.
Use current technology
Use technology that guarantees a continued migration path with expanding platforms. Choose a technology platform that is moving toward increased function sets with supply chain integration opportunities and the reduction of cost through distributed and scalable models. The use of unproven, non-industrial shipping technologies might prove to put your business at risk, as your company becomes a test case for real-world integration and a high-volume test bed.
Seek a vendor that has integration experience at your current and projected volumes, a feature-rich product and one using current technologies. This is the only way to ensure deployment of a full-featured product with no risk. Validate the software by seeing it in use at a facility that represents your volumes and your distribution business model. This is paramount.
Identify the project team
Balance your project team with a combination of management decision-makers, a steering committee and a daily project management group. The steering committee is responsible for resolving contract scope issues and ensuring that goals of the overall project are met. The daily project management group is responsible for vendor selection and managing the day-to-day project issues and events. This daily project management group should include a core of technical and operational individuals who have the ability to work out design and technical details with the WMS software vendor. A parallel model should exist with your shipping software vendor.
Assign a dedicated project leader
Assign a dedicated project leader with the authority to manage all required internal resources for the committed timeframes to meet the project schedule. This is of great importance in the success of any software integration project. In addition, the project leader should be the single point of contact for the software vendor and should be responsible for maintaining the project schedule, controlling scope changes, holding weekly status meetings and managing the flow of deliverables/information to and from the software vendor. This project leader should also be an advocate for the software and project to both management and operational users.
Provide internal technical and operational experience at decision points
When identifying the how to of running your business, it is important the technical and operational executors be involved in the project to validate their specific areas of responsibility and expertise. This will avoid any virtual third-person discussion and interpretation of specific functionality execution points. This also enables the highest level of absorption of the new product for internal support and user training, as well as easier system acceptance by the users and technical support group.
Dont mutate the project
When a project is set for a fixed time and budget, it is tempting to create new requirements that may seem like a simple set of change orders, but that, aggregately, can put your project at risk from a time and cost perspective. Avoid the trap of attempting to execute these changes within the scope of your original project. Identify that these internal discoveries may best be handled at another time with a future project.
If necessity dictates business model changes and re-configuration or customization of a software product, these issues should be identified during and up to the conference room pilot process (system review) and minimized by the project steering committee. These out-of-box moves hold many unknowns for both your company and your software vendor providing the last-minute changes. Creating requirements on the fly can be dangerous to your budget and the ultimate successful outcome of your project.
Off and running
Start your project with reality-based goals and objectives augmented by a strong vendor-software requirements functionality matrix. Next, choose software that is full-featured from a software vendor using current technology who has experience with your volumes and distribution model. Make sure the technology chosen is balanced with your companys existing technical expertise. Assign a project leader and create a project team that has a mix of technical and operational expertise. Define the system integration points between WMS, material handling, operations and shipping compliance networks. Determine the data sets that need to be passed between systems to take full advantage of the products feature sets. And, once your project is underway, dont mutate the process with a lot of on-the-fly requirement changes. Using this proven approach can achieve not only a substantial ROI, but also increased service features for your companys customers.
John Dalton is president of ScanData Systems. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact ScanData at