The nature of stock held in FSLs close to technicians, and/or customers, will be self-evident to many. Moreover, we would like to say that these high-turn or critical system parts are held in many and varied styles of location. However, in our experience, if you set out looking for them in any regional area, you might start your search at a cupboard in a local independent technician’s home garage.
There are SPL logistical systems available that have features that integrate the transfer and stockholding control of these small remote stock-holdings. In many instances however, on the ground you might find that the stock control practiced in the field by these techs is handled by means of a spreadsheet. Back in the regional DC you may also occasionally find that the logistics controller has set up stock control out of a phantom warehouse location for each FSL in the regional DC’s bricks-and-mortar based Warehouse Management System (WMS).
Variations upon the FSL theme may be one of the emerging channel options in the E-Commerce industry, which in turn means that it is an area of interest for commercial partners, real estate entrepreneurs, transportation companies, and WMS developers.
Today, however, we are going to concentrate more on the work-around theme from the situation cited above. Similar work-around practices are occasionally observed for inventory controls & local domestic transportation labeling where offshore pre-distribution, & inbound central DC hub-skipping, is implemented (the splitting of shipping order transportation destinations at origin according to the regional port nearest their customer, and the labeling goods for destination domestic transport at the origin consolidation point).
If they work, practical workarounds always interest us. While they may infuriate process cadres, they often provide the best pointers to what is essential when developing more fully-fleshed solutions. Indeed, in many instances, if a gatekeeper had prevented a work-around being adopted, a better solution may never have been developed.
Merchants and inventory managers all the way back to antiquity have employed the virtual warehouse concept. Some will have gathered by now, we are enthusiasts of the Hanseatic League merchants, those who adopted this approach and were to become essential to the course of The Renaissance Era.
In many cases the virtual warehouse is still observed in the minds of logisticians today; and a tap of the brow often signals that the logistician knows how to navigate through the system architecture, but also when to look beyond it for solutions.
These same contemporary logistician’s plans might be said to remain ones that are put into effect through systems, rather than being a product of them. Indeed, sometimes the notions behind system architecture merely reflect a sloppy analyst’s adoption of the mantra that “it takes this to get that, get used to it!” There are many times when it is best to pragmatically accept this, because when you step out of something that works in a complex system, there are often unknown consequences (Rumsfeld’s “unknown, unknowns”), but there are other times too. It all depends on the opportunity factor.
In the early days of business computing in transportation it was clear that combining jobbing with stored files provided the opportunity to speed up process, and to cut costs once information was captured. When migrating from manual systems there was a process benchmark, but as systems later regenerated, it got lost.
In our own case, we went from the design of systems for jobbing customs invoice line SKU information into reconciled regulatory declarations for international freight shipments, and then on to high-volume manifesting in the courier/express business, and back again to design narrower solutions incorporated into an existing forwarding enterprise system.
The profound difference between the freight forwarding and the express platforms was that in the former the document of record was mainly created by the transport company, while in the latter it was mainly created by the shipper. Hence, in the latter instance, the emphasis was more oriented to manifest creation and the capture of event information, whereas the former was on taking responsibility for the accuracy of the primary document of record (legal document of carriage, or the customs entry).
At a deeper level, after dealing with our customer’s commercial invoice data in brokerage, the express business experience led to us later developing a ‘manifest oriented’ view of SKU/order line detail within our customer’s larger freight forwarding shipments. This was at odds with industry norms.
We also developed the view in express that if we had something inbound, in some circumstances we could immediately run an outbound process, and in turn automatically back-fill the inbound blanks. If we had a clean physical deck afterwards, and clean data, we were reconciled, and had saved half the process. And yes, to this day we bemoan clunky warehouse cross-dock processes wherever we encounter them.
So for decades our perception of consignments tendered by our customers was not as “shipments” but rather a manifest-of-orders. Being customer service focused also drilled this deeper into our psyche over time. When a customer called in respect of a larger shipment, the root cause of the call was usually an individual order within the shipment, rather than the totality.
From this point, we started to conceive the possibility of these Shipping Orders (SO's) being matched one-to-one with sub-bills of lading to enable the direct delivery to our customer’s customer. This also enabled systemic tracking through established means with the sub-bill structure being a facsimile of the higher bill-of-lading.
It meant recording & reporting event information at the sub-bill level, while for reasons of economy processing regulatory and finance transactions at the higher house-bill level. We could even choose to re-consign the Shipping Order (SO) items domestically at the last minute as they customs cleared into the domestic theatre through the house-bill level destination gateway location.
In later years, at the transportation origin, we came to entirely disregard the said start-and-end points of what was tendered to us as a consignment. What was shipped was only to become a regulatory shipment when we said so, and we matched those points with the booked unit-load capacity made available by carriers.
The most important element in this equation is that it can be done outside the core freight forwarding system process. What enters the freight forwarding environment can look for all intensive purposes like a regular freight forwarding or carrier shipment, and it can move like one in the systemic sense from end-to-end. This is a clear "don’t mess with the established process" statement, or if you will, "don’t try to drag the warehouse data through the freight forwarding or carrier operations system".
What is shipped from the warehouse at a given interval in the above scenario can still be associated for reconciliation purposes, but by employing data and labels generated at the pick-face, it is possible to create a multi-channel transportation environment. This in turn can create a virtual warehouse experience through the supply chain by means of returned event information. The only put-aways needed in this described process are for exceptions, all else is inventory-in-motion.
Earlier in this series we made note that the boundaries of our logistical theatre begin with the availability of data, rather than the ownership, or the physical possession. The said data access point may also determine the limit of us being able to reach back in the transportation side of the supply chain to more effectively address lumpy E-Commerce market induced challenges.
If a vendor can incorporate & confirm label data cooperatively, we can even create an outbound process all the way from the vendor’s pick-face. The primary party-of-interest may then manage the transportation process by means of a combination of routing rules, interventions, and supervision. This is not merely the Reebok asset-less enterprise scenario we describe here, it is rather the ability to move the transport-versus-warehouse scenario back-and-forth at the last minute in order to optimise replenishment and fill rates.
By means of employing a combination of a route code and case data, it may be conceivable to redirect all-or-part of the inventory around primary distribution hubs to those replenishment centres in need at the last minute by means of intervention at primary points right through the transportation cycle.
Hub-skipping a central DC, avoiding a congested port, splitting shipments between transport carriers according to their capacity, splitting modes, or splitting routes in response to capacity constraints, may all be enabled by adopting the view that - it isn’t a shipment until it is loaded (provided that you have determined precisely what you have loaded).