Business with no boundaries
While anyone involved in the supply chain and logistics business will acknowledge that there has been huge change in the sector, few companies will have explored the impact of technology as thoroughly as Irish Express Cargo (IEC).
Not only is the need to have a good supply chain management strategy essential, the speed at which orders are processed and delivered can be the difference between success and failure. IEC takes this concept very seriously.
"We use best in class technology internally and then drive it externally into our customers," says O'Leary, "which is when they start to see us as an extension of their business and vice versa. It's a partnership business."
External integration of business processes is considered one of the biggest challenges to companies and the supply chain, but IEC reckons it has a head start with its technology.
Atlas is the name of its IT system that adapts to new technologies and business requirements as required. According to Barry Pender, IT director at IEC, Atlas is designed to provide real-time information on every part or parcel moving through a customer's process.
All aspects of IEC's business are fully managed within the system and all departments and business divisions are fully integrated, providing both IEC management and its clients with a real-time global view of all activities.
"Remember that a supply chain is constantly changing," says O'Leary. "That's why Atlas is such a flexible tool that is constantly being customised to meet marketing and operational needs both internally and externally. Much of the development time these days is spent on customer customisation solutions. Customisation is one of the key selling points of the system."
Stability, support and customisation are other key strengths of the system. It's Unix based, using IBM's UniVerse database - a package particularly adept at handling high volume transactions. Running the show are two IBM RS/6000 Unix servers. Each one is located at either end of the IEC building to ensure uninterrupted service lest disaster strike in one location.
This fail-safe mentality is also extended to communications. The system is connected to two telephone exchanges to avoid outages and every network link has a secondary link. Full uninterruptible power supply and backup are also elements of the equation.
The system supports about 4,000 users at 18 locations worldwide on four continents, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Although it's configured and licensed for 2,000 concurrent users, there are never more than 1,000 at any one time. The 24-hour support is provided with a network of staff on call to deal with any issues that may arise.
Another feature of the system is secure web-based track and trace. Customers can log on and access all live data from any location. The beauty of the system is its interoperability, which even extends to other freight carriers and service providers thus offering 'managed solutions'.
Part of the success of IEC comes down to the way the company is run. IT and logistics managers interact and exchange information to an unusual degree in what O'Leary describes as "integrated virtual logistics".
The business has come a long way from when it was founded in 1972. Having originally specialised in freight-forwarding services in Ireland and Britain, the business took off in the late-Eighties when IEC began selling warehousing and added-value services to its many clients in the electronics industry. This business was greatly aided by IEC's innovative use of new technologies such as EDI (electronic data interchange), barcodes and radio frequency terminals.
Today IEC specialises in building, implementing and running logistics solutions for its many customers using the whole gamut of solutions and services. This can involve freight management, inventory management, vendor-hubbing, pack-out production lines, e-commerce links (with carriers and customers) and serial-reference tracking. However, freight forwarding is still one of its core service offerings and will always remain core.
These services are provided to large global corporations and local Irish/UK clients alike. IEC provides services to companies from all industry sectors: electronics, retail, pharmaceutical, agriculture, software, distribution and motor. IEC also provides services to companies from all industry sectors. Companies such as Apple, Dell, IBM, HP, 3Com, Palm, Sony, Samsung, Dixons, Brown Thomas, Organon and GE-Super all receive special services from IEC.
One of the most significant developments in the company's history was its acquisition by Flextronics in September 2000. Flextronics is the largest electronics manufacturing services company in the world, specialising in electronics manufacturing, design and distribution services. The coming together of the two companies introduced logistics expertise to Flextronics and gave IEC and its Atlas system a global footprint.
Through its parent Flextronics, IEC is now doing business with some of the main players in the IT industry such as Dell, HP, Compaq, Sony Ericsson and Palm. Another major client is Dixons, for which IEC provides a virtual warehouse serving its 125 UK stores. "It's 'actual' to its suppliers but 'virtual' to Dixons," explains O'Leary. "The way it works is that each supplier makes a virtual delivery to Dixons, but Dixons doesn't physically pay for the product until it's sold. There is, however, total visibility of its goods so Dixons knows exactly what is available to be sold and can then tell us to pull out the product and deliver to the 120 stores as required."
The next phase for IEC is to delve deeper into the supply chain, incorporating all origin manufacturers and taking the whole process of product order and delivery right back to the point where it is made. IEC has come a long way from being simply a freight carrier.
By Dick O'Brien