Strong mobile link in the chain

25 Sep 2003

The management of a supply chain usually takes place in the back offices of its constituent companies. As a result, the hardware and software required tend to be of the ‘fixed’ variety. However, mobile technology does have a role to play at the end of the chain.

“Using mobile technology you can improve accuracy, reduce errors and reduce double keying,” says Pat O’Connell of O2. “The way we have approached it is by looking at business processes that happen outside the office and by looking at those areas that might be handled by off-the-shelf solutions. Our solutions group is organised around business analysts talking to customers about how their supply chain processes work at the moment and where the pressure points are and what the identifiable savings are if they were to cut out the fat.”

According to O’Connell, the traditional supply chain starts with the sales person visiting a customer and includes order collection, entry of that order into the system, creation of a picking list, loading of goods, delivery of goods, collecting proof of delivery, generating an invoice and collection of revenue.

“We are working with several companies that have addressed each of those stages, adapting mobile technology to speed up the process,” he says. Traditionally the sales person may have had a laptop or handheld computer or may have operated purely with paper. They visit buyers and sell goods, but quite often the stock position from which they are operating is out of date. There can be a risk that they are accepting an order they can’t fulfil in the contractual time stipulated by the customer and the company could be penalised for not supplying. But if you implement a mobile system, the sales person can check stock in real-time. If the product is out of stock the sales person has the option to sell a substitute. So not only does the company meet its contractual commitment but also sales are generated.”

Like O2, iTouch Ireland is also taking an active interest in this area. “We have developed applications for PDAs [personal digital assistants] where the mobile workforce is able to interact with legacy back office systems for sales orders,” explains Gillian Taylor, managing director of iTouch Ireland. “Companies can use SMS to send messages regarding new pricing. Mobile workers can, in turn, log onto an application on their PDA over a GPRS network so they are always getting latest updates.”

But it’s not just sales people who can benefit. According to Taylor, fleet management and logistics can also make use of this technology. Barcode readers attached to PDAs, for instance, can be used to scan in goods as they are loaded and unloaded with the information being sent back to head office immediately over GPRS.

But it’s not just at the extremes of the supply chain that mobile technology is making its mark. Vodafone is using mobile technology to streamline its own internal supply chain by interfacing executives’ mobile phones with the company’s SAP system.

“We are currently using SAP for approving requisitions by senior managers when they are out of the office,” says Noel Lowe, head of financial systems at Vodafone. “When a user makes a request for goods or services, the SAP system will send an SMS to the manager of the relevant cost centre showing details of the requisition. This could include the requisition number, the line number, the name of the person who raised the requisition, a short description, quantity, the units and the price, both per unit and total.”

Once managers get the text message on their mobiles, they have the option to approve it or not. If the managers don’t want to approve it they do nothing. However, if they do, they simply reply. The SAP then sends another text message confirming the approval.

According to Lowe, Vodafone developed the system in-house. “It hasn’t gone out to customers yet but we could implement it for them,” he says. “We did it as a proof of concept to show it could be done. We have a number of field engineers who will access and complete their time sheets via the SAP system.” Previously, engineers submitted their timesheets weekly by fax. The new system, says Lowe, will allow greater control. “The SAP system validates employees as they log on and will also validate work orders,” he adds.

By David Stewart