Do You Want Real-time Visibility? IT is the Enemy
Supply chain managers need real-time data to effectively manage operations. While supply chain software companies offer solutions that come with analytic solutions, the data used for the analytics is usually archived data. Archived data is not real-time. There is a new technology that can provide real-time visibility. But getting it implemented means overcoming the objections of the IT department.
Longbow Advantage Has a Real-time Visibility Solution
Longbow Advantage had their first user conference in Nashville, Tennessee last week. Longbow Advantage’s main business has been doing warehouse management system (WMS) implementations. But this conference was focused on a near real-time analytics solution they developed called Rebus. Here “near real-time” is defined as a refresh of key metrics every five minutes. They believe that within the next year or so they can get the refresh down to a one-minute refresh.
A few years ago, Longbow’s customers started to ask them to fix a problem they were having with their warehouse management systems. WMS generates massive quantities of data. According to Alex Wakefield, the CEO at Longbow, 3 months of warehouse data, including the real-time data, that is generated across several warehouse sites for just ONE customer over the course of just three months is nearly half the size of ALL the data collected by one very large public cloud supplier of transportation management systems across ALL their customers!
A WMS system uses RF guns to make scans of picking locations, to verify that the picker is in the right location. Product bar codes may also be scanned to verify the right number of products were selected. This improves the quality of the work. But all these scans across all the pick locations and picked products generates truly massive data.
Trying to access near real-time analytics, so that warehouse managers can more effectively run their warehouses, was not possible. This is because a WMS has a production database as well as archived data. The archived data, used for analytics, is not real-time. Yet, hitting the production database would lead to poor performance for floor level workers who are getting directions on what work they need to do next.
Despite covering the WMS market for over 20 years, this was not a problem I was aware of until about a year ago. Last September, I talked to a supply chain director at a manufacturing company that had implemented Rebus. This director told me that they had replaced a WMS solution from an ERP company with one of the leading best of breed WMS solutions. The director told me “We got all the functionality we expected. There was tons of functionality – things like task interleaving and support for crossdocking. But we had a gap to the visibility of the work being done. The real-time reporting of work was weaker than expected.”
Longbow now has about 30 customers using Rebus for things like labor management, improved visibility to what inventory is on hold and what inventory is about to expire, improved visibility to what work is happening on the warehouse floor, and “widgets” their customers have developed using the Rebus toolset to generate visibility to other important operational activities. The customers at the conference included very large food & beverage companies, the largest 3PL in the world, and companies from other industries as well.
Overcoming the Objections of IT
But getting this data has not been easy. Warehouse professionals may need to overcome the objections of IT to using Rebus. In fact, part of Mr. Wakefield’s presentation involved coaching prospective customers on the arguments that can be made to IT.
To solve this real-time problem, Longbow developed Rebus using a NoSQL Database. I’m not going to try to explain why using this technology can generate real-time analytics from a massive amount of data hundreds of times faster than a traditional database; I’m sure I couldn’t. For me, the verification that it solves a real pain point and that it works came from listening to Rebus customers describe how they were using the solution.
But the point is that this technology is also unfamiliar to many IT professionals. IT folks are uncomfortable implementing and supporting a technology they view as being cutting edge and unproven. NoSQL database technology has been around for over 15 years. But many IT professionals, like I was, are unfamiliar with it.
A WMS project manager at a large food company said that when he initially proposed Rebus to IT he got a “No.” “Everyone said ‘No.’ It was a journey of Nos.”
This manager had to patiently describe why existing solutions would not work. Trying to get real-time data out of their WMS production database created performance risks.
They use SAP as their ERP. Generating the analytics in SAP also would not work. Although some WMS transaction data moved back into SAP, it did not move back at a granular enough level for them to do things like track how pallets were moving through the warehouse.
The Tableau or PowerBI technologies were too static. Further, the PowerBI team would have trouble creating the right kind of tables because they lacked expertise in warehouse operations.
And using a data lake would have been too expensive, required the use of data scientists (who also do not understand warehouse operations), and would have created limits on which users could access the data.
But eventually the objections were overcome, and Mars Wrigley is getting real value from the solution. In fact, going forward, they want to pull data from demand planning, the ERP, the plant, and transportation to create real-time supply chain visibility that spans beyond the warehouse.
Overcoming objections from IT, and implementing a cutting edge solution, may be getting easier. Some IT departments now believe that operational departments are their customers; it is their job to satisfy their customers. Public cloud solutions, which don’t require much in the way of internal IT support, have helped facilitate this change.
And I have heard supply chain executives say that while they used to be “fast followers,” they now believe competitive differentiation depends on being an early adopter.