Curiously enough, supply chain-dependent companies are not always super technically savvy. After all, their core business focus supersedes tech, especially if we are talking about manufacturing firms, logistics providers, distribution businesses, or retailers.
But according to the explosive growth of the logistics automation market, many leaders of these types of businesses are embracing automation. With customer bases growing rapidly and expectations rising, leaders know they must adapt and modernize their businesses to stay competitive.
Of course, you cannot automate every manual process. But eliminating those that waste time or create needless redundancies enable businesses to shift human resources to more business-critical tasks and relationship-building with trading partners.
This article will explain the basics of supply chain automation, along with some key benefits. Then we will detail the common problems associated with manual processes. Next, we will share how several companies have automated their supply chain processes using the Cleo Integration Cloud (CIC) platform. Finally, we will close with a summary of the benefits of automating your supply chain with Cleo.
Let’s get started.
What Is Supply Chain Automation?
Supply chain automation refers to using technology to perform and streamline manual processes by reducing errors and increasing efficiencies across a supply chain network. Automation replaces human intervention using integrated solutions that usher efficiency, accuracy, and agility to the supply chain.
Here are the key benefits of automating your supply chain.
- Automation of manual and menial tasks and reduced operational costs
- Improved transparency and real-time visibility of the business ecosystem
- Ability to respond to rapidly changing business objectives or unforeseen problems
- Improved compliance and risk management through documented, automated workflows
- Better customer experience through accurate and faster fulfillment and self-service options
Common Problems Supply Chain Companies Face With Manual Processes
While most organizations have implemented some form of automation into their operations, some supply chain processes require human intervention.
Unfortunately, humans inadvertently create problems that can impact operations, damage relationships with trading partners, and hamper long-term growth.
Data entry is perhaps the most problematic manual process. Inherently prone to error, one study suggests the probability of making a mistake when entering data into a simple spreadsheet is between 18% and 40%.
Here’s a review of the other common problems associated with manual processes.
Manually entering data is time-consuming and usually part of a recurring process. As a result, the practice creates unnecessary redundancies that waste time and put operations at risk.
For example, an employee may enter order information from emails, faxes, and phone calls into an inventory management system. Every day that person repeats the same process when there may be other mission-critical tasks more worthy of their time and expertise.
Of course, manually entering orders can be manageable — until it is not. Growth due to eCommerce expansion, mergers or acquisitions, or simply experiencing an increase in demand are just a few things that reveal the risk of redundancies.
Inefficient System Integration
Before automation, integrating systems meant someone would manually enter information into one system, then enter that same information into another. While scripting this activity creates some efficiencies, any problems that arise require human intervention.
Taking an end-to-end approach to automation enables greater efficiency across the ecosystem and sets the stage for more valuable relationships with new and existing trading partners.
Manual processes often persist because of a familiar organizational roadblock — legacy bottlenecks. In other words, organizations continue manual processes simply because “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
But while a tried-and-true script may get the job done, custom code must be updated and maintained, which can easily become a liability. That is why modern, digital-first companies embrace automation to ensure their business processes are flexible and responsive to the needs of their partners.
Troubleshooting & Error Resolution
Using custom code and manual processes can cause the segmentation of systems, resulting in a lack of visibility into the supply chain. This impacts the level of service you can provide and increases the burden on the only people with system expertise — your IT team.
For example, in a segmented environment, a customer service agent would have difficulty drilling down into a problem presented by a trading partner. Instead, they would have to open a ticket and involve IT to troubleshoot and resolve errors when they could be focusing on more mission-critical tasks.
4 Ways to Improve Your Supply Chain With Automation in 2023
While it may be impossible to eliminate all manual processes, it is important to minimize friction where possible to compete in an increasingly digital world and meet rising customer expectations.
Here is how some Cleo customers have automated their supply chain.
1) Accelerate eCommerce, Omnichannel, or Marketplace Initiatives
Most businesses recognize the need to embrace eCommerce to succeed in a digital-first world. However, that does not mean their supply chains can accommodate the additional sales channels and growth.
Ecosystem Integration, a single platform for file-based, electronic data interchange (EDI) and application integration, helps accelerate eCommerce initiatives. The Cleo Integration Cloud platform is one example, enabling businesses to optimize end-to-end integration processes within a dynamic network of trading partners, applications, suppliers, customers, and digital marketplaces.
One business recognized its manual approach to eCommerce was holding the organization back. So, looking for faster order processing and improved performance, the company reached out to Cleo.
The customer had multiple opportunities for automation. This example details its process to complete Amazon's weekly replenishment request.
1. Log in and pull the replenishment request from Amazon every Monday morning
2. Pull the corresponding inventory data from SAP for the items requested from Amazon
3. Perform a visual spot check comparing the Amazon spreadsheet against its SAP inventory report
4. Note any inventory shortfalls and contact Production to ensure the company can fulfill the Amazon requests
5. Manually create the replenishment order in SAP (and obtain the Amazon PO number, FBA pallet labels, and FBA case labels)
6. Manually create an SAP consignment order, entering the Amazon order number and FBA pallet label
7. Email the FBA case labels to Production
Just completing the weekly Amazon replenishment requests took one employee between two to four business days — and it represented only one part of the sales process with Amazon. But, of course, lost productivity and wasted time were not the only problems with this process. The customer also had to contend with the inevitable errors associated with manual entry.
Cleo Cloud Architecture Solution
Cleo Integration Cloud allowed our customer to funnel all the information from its business ecosystem — AS2 EDI with trading partners and VANs, eCommerce platform APIs — into SAP through a single source and format. It not only allowed our customer to eliminate manual intervention with Shopify and Amazon, but it streamlined critical processes across its supply chain. Through the CIC Cockpit, the customer can access real-time dashboards and actionable insights to manage its business more effectively and better serve its trading partners.
2) Sync Critical Data Between Applications
Manually updating data from one application to another is becoming less compatible with modern business practices and expectations. For example, human intervention jeopardizes data accuracy, causing errors and impacting the ability to conduct many different forms of business analytics. In addition, manual processes undermine data timeliness, affecting strategic decision-making and business processes that rely on recent or real-time data.
Businesses often approach Cleo knowing they cannot continue to operate this way. For example, one logistics company decided it was time to eliminate its manual synching process between two critical internal applications.
Its 250-person customer sales team was adding and updating customer profiles in Salesforce. In addition, the organization had a separate team that used JD Edwards to manage billing and EDI transactions. Of course, there was data in JD Edwards that the Salesforce team needed and vice versa. With no integration, the team had to enter data into both systems manually.
Cleo Cloud Architecture Solution
While the customer initially sought a way to connect JD Edwards and Salesforce, it broadened its scope after discussions revealed additional pains and objectives. For instance, the customer needed to exchange data with multiple convenience stores. It also wanted to expand its use of EDI with vendors, as it was weeks behind on invoices and reconciliation. Finally, the company also wanted to support trading partners with different business processes.
CIC addressed its pains and met its objectives by modernizing the company’s API and EDI integrations, and streamlining other applications that were being managed manually. Today, a single input sends data to Salesforce and JD Edwards, keeping the team synchronized and eliminating the need for dual manual entry or batch processing. In addition, data from trading partners and vendors flow directly to JD Edwards, supporting vendor invoice reconciliation, order-to-cash flow, and invoicing. Now the customer can rely on the accuracy and timeliness of data from two applications that are critical to its business.
3) Integrate Legacy Systems
Legacy systems integrations are often complicated, requiring extensive manual intervention and custom scripts to accommodate evolving business rules and processes. And if you have a large, diverse trading partner ecosystem, it compounds the complexity.
One customer approached Cleo as it was going through a migration with another solution provider. The customer was getting a standard CSV file of inbound EDI documents. However, before it was fed into SAP, it would run through 13 different scripts to validate SKUs, addresses, region designation, and more. So while the process was automated, each script represented a potential problem point. When a problem occurred, IT would need to intervene, slowing resolution internally and for its trading partners.
CIC Cloud Architecture Solution
Cleo proposed moving its legacy customer coding process into CIC’s integration layer. There, cross-reference tables would leverage the organization’s scripts to validate and sanitize data before it enters SAP. This made accommodating its trading partners' business processes and requirements easier. For example, if a partner’s ERP represents quantity by the case and our customer measured it by individual item, CIC will perform the conversion, so neither party has to change its standard. As a result, our customer can reduce the friction of doing business with its partners while automating and standardizing its own internal systems and processes.
4) Migrate to a Postmodern TMS/ERP/WMS System
ERP migration projects and modernizing old systems can be challenging, especially in environments entrenched in custom code where the creators are long gone.
A company approached us to help them modernize a 20-year-old legacy transportation management system (TMS) bolted onto a hand-coded EDI system. As an additional challenge, the people who built, understood, and maintained the system had moved on.
CIC Cloud Architecture Solution
Because the homegrown system was tightly integrated into the organization’s workflows, Cleo developed a careful, phased approach to modernization. The first phase introduced CIC as a visibility platform to onboard its trading partners and establish AS2 connectivity. Cleo scrapes the inbound EDI documents of their data and publishes the information to CIC Cockpit, giving business teams visibility into the data coming in and out of the system. During this phase, the backend legacy system received files as it had in the past. CIC just facilitated it instead.
In the meantime, Cleo collaborated with the customer to determine how to unwind the EDI module from the TMS. It was proposed that Cleo handle the transformation and onboarding of new partners instead of the customer doing double configuration. This was accomplished by building a canonical format between CIC and the legacy EDI transformation engine that supported onboarding using the format of the legacy system. As a result, the customer can onboard more trading partners and support more business flows.
Once the organization’s trading partners are onboarded and connected to CIC, the customer can focus on automating other internal manual processes without impacting the partners' experience. For example, it might introduce APIs to fulfill special requests from trading partners, like a spot quote for a particular load. Automating that process would expedite the completion of the request and over time, provide a complete picture of the partner relationship, which it can leverage for analytics to improve support and grow their business.
Automate Your Supply Chain With Cleo
These are just a few real-world examples of supply chain automation and ecosystem integration by actual customers using the Cleo Integration Cloud platform
Whether you have found yourself struggling to manage growth or recognize current practices are holding you back, we can help evaluate your business processes and identify opportunities for automation.
In summary, here is what you can achieve by embracing an ecosystem integration strategy and implementing CIC.
- End-to-end automation of EDI and API transactions, curbing the need for manual intervention
- Faster onboarding of trading partners, to secure your ecosystem and grow your business faster
- Reduced friction of doing business, unlocking more revenue and new opportunities
- Increased visibility into every integration workflow so problems can be quickly addressed or avoided altogether
- Empowered business users who can make decisions and solve problems proactively
- A comprehensive view of your customers to support business intelligence and innovation within your supply chain
- Reduced burden on IT resources who can focus on more strategic tasks than troubleshooting
- Improved control and visibility via self-service integration management
Want to learn more about automation? This webinar highlights key areas of automation and demonstrate specific use cases where automation can and should be leveraged:
Ready to improve your supply chain? See how Cleo can make your ecosystem stronger and bring an outside-in view to your business strategy. Check out a demo of Cleo Integration Cloud today or contact us for an initial consultation. You might also enjoy this article: 4 future trends in supply chain management.