Peter Surtees, director of KCE Consumer Logistics, part of Kimberley Clark Europe, manufacturer of international consumer branded disposables such as Andrex and Kleenex, stresses that the supply chain “is strategic to deliver customer promises”. He says that the OmPrompt automatic message interchange system will improve supply chain efficiency by enabling KCE to communicate with and manage a network of 100-plus carriers, many of whom are these “niche” carriers who “can’t, won’t and don’t” adopt EDI. With OmPrompt they are not required to change their practices, and will continue to communicate using their own preferred methods.
He explains that KCE has its European Shared Service Centre (SSC) in Brighton which is already serving 14 separate country markets. It is responsible for demand planning, customer services, deployment, transport and distribution. Working in country “clusters” covering deployment, transport and customer service, it has staff with a range of mother tongues so that, for example, a caller from Carrefour in France will speak to a French person.
The company’s strategy is to increase the number of countries, including central and eastern Europe, serviced through the Centre. This will save both headcount and increase control.
However, with the SSC, one of the strategies was to consolidate suppliers so that one would be able obtain volume leverage. In practice, one of the major disadvantages of this strategy of reducing the number of carriers employed was that, as one is not then able to deal with cost-effective niche carriers, it drives up costs.
Many of these firms, typically employing just a few trucks, are not geared to the use of modern IT or communications and just want to communicate via phone, fax and spreadsheet for all their messaging.
Typical messages relate to freight being offered to a carrier who then has the option of either accepting or declining it. There are then the status messages regarding the location or delivery of goods as well as those special status messages regarding non-standard deliveries.
“The OmPrompt system accepts information from a variety of sources including data, fax and voice and enables our central Transportation Management System to receive messages in EDI, our elected format,” he explains. “This gives us 100% effective EDI with the carrier community and, because there is less manual data entry, it allows for more intellectual customer facing activities and so makes transport planning more efficient.”
Brian Bolam, OmPrompt’s president and CEO, points out that although EDI has been around for about 30 years, and business has spent billions on deploying the technology to make message (and document) interchange a reality, it is still a long way from being universally adopted. While the development of data standards, which allow participants to map into and out of a common format have played a key role in this process, a high level of expertise is still required.
Furthermore, the task is both expensive and time consuming because it takes an average of five man-days to map the transformation between a simple message pair. A complex one can take 20 man-days.
Bolam explains that the reason that his company is initially targeting the supply chain is that it offers a major opportunity as, at present, only 30% communicate electronically. Furthermore, as there are 80 billion empty truck kilometres each year on European roads, roughly 30% of the total, there are major opportunities for increased efficiency.
“We use Intelligent Ontology and Semantic Integration technology to solve a very complex and long-standing problem in a highly automated way.” This involves analysing the business process and being able to specify it by means of a collection of relevant definitions and terms. Bolam adds that “Intelligent Message Management is self-learning so it is future-proof.”
He claims that the automated approach to message mapping is able to reduce the 20 man-days to about five days and then, after six months learning there should be a massive productivity gain and so that mapping should take less than one day.
While the core of the OmPrompt system employs its own technology, it is built on an InterSystems platform and hosted by IBM in order to provide a reliable and highly scalable service. It also relies on well-established specialist speech recognition as well as character and mark recognition software.
The former, from IBM, can provide a high degree of speaker-independent accuracy because it is only required to work with a limited vocabulary. Abbyy provides the latter technology. While its FineReader is a widely used business optical character recognition (OCR) program, its FormReader is designed to extract information from traditional structured and semi-structured paper forms such as shipping orders and delivery notes. It can read machine print, hand printed letters and numbers, check marks and radio group marks as well as barcodes.
Thus, even though there may be the need for redesigned forms, the changes experienced by end users will be relatively small.
OmPrompt offers its system as a hosted service and charges around 10 Euro cents for the majority of transactions. However, it is expected that fax could be slightly dearer where “cleaning-up” may necessitate manual intervention. Message integration is free and, because the system is non-invasive and is effective a “bolt-on” that does not affect any other technology, the service is reversible with no impact on the pre-existing environment. Consequently, it is feasible to carry out no-risk trials.
Having carried out successful trials, Kimberly-Clark is now embarking on a commercial implementation of the system. At the same time, it is looking to extend the Shared Service Centre concept across the EEC and then to its Russian interests. Other possibilities under consideration are using OmPrompt to link into the warehouse management systems as well as using it as a distribution hub for RFID data. n