December 16, 2013
technology review | Warehouse Management Systems

Software change without the pain

Software change without the pain

When Xerox and its 3PL needed to improve the accuracy of export data filings, they thought it would mean costly changes to a warehouse management system. Instead, they found a much simpler way.

By Toby Gooley

Implementing changes to software can be like opening the proverbial can of worms. For one thing, the interconnected nature of business systems today means that revisions or upgrades in one area will almost certainly lead to changes elsewhere. For another, what appears on the surface to be a simple matter—adding new fields to a report, for instance—may end up requiring costly and time-consuming reprogramming.

That was a concern at the Groveport, Ohio, distribution center operated by the third-party logistics company (3PL) Genco on behalf of Xerox. In order to improve the accuracy of government-mandated export filings, the facility would have to change the way it collected and entered data for those reports. But that raised the prospect of expensive revisions to the warehouse management system (WMS) that contained some of the required information.

Fortunately, a collaborative effort involving the shipper, the 3PL, and a software developer led to a simpler solution: an easy-to-use "app" for the WMS that allows anyone to create accurate filings—no special programming or export management expertise required.

The Groveport DC exports Xerox-brand printers, cartridges, and other printer supplies worldwide, much of it destined for Asia and South America as well as Canada and Europe. The facility ships approximately 4,000 order lines per month in full and partial containers, according to Xerox's Ron Tegner, manager, indirect channel strategic partnerships and supply chain support. In the past, those shipments often were delayed because the export information submitted to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contained errors.

The U.S. government requires exporters to file certain pieces of information via the Automated Export System (AES) operated by CBP. AES enables exporters to electronically submit data that used to be included on the paper Shippers Export Declaration, such as shipper, destination, Harmonized Tariff System identification number, export carrier, transportation mode, and voyage or flight number. As soon as AES receives that information, the system validates its accuracy and completeness; it also confirms that the information meets the requirements of other federal agencies, such as the Bureau of the Census and the departments of State and Commerce. If all is correct, AES then generates a confirmation message. If not, the system sends an error message to the party that filed the data.

Xerox was initiating timely AES filings, which Genco prepared and ADSI, a third-party shipping system, transmitted to AES. But the method used for creating the reports frequently led to mistakes. The problem was that the operation was relying on a particular screen in Genco's proprietary D-Log Plus warehouse management system to capture the necessary information.

"The screen didn't have enough checks and balances to tell whether the data was correct and complete," recalls Jim Rubino, Genco's senior vice president of systems. "We were relying on people to remember certain things and to enter them correctly. It required someone who was very knowledgeable about export declarations and processes sitting at the screen. That wasn't a reality for this operation." Not to mention that any process that relies on manual intervention is likely to introduce errors and omissions, he adds.

And that's exactly what happened. "We were seeing spelling errors and incomplete or missing data being sent to AES," Tegner says. "For example, air shipments did not always include flight numbers." Consequently, AES kicked back error messages, and shipments were delayed while Genco's staff addressed the errors and resubmitted the filings. This also left the shipper vulnerable to possible fines.

That could not continue, of course, so Genco's information system experts called in DMLogic, a software developer and systems integrator, to help find a solution. Although Genco had developed D-Log Plus in-house, it collaborates with DMLogic on installations and integration—the "care and feeding" of the WMS, as Rubino puts it.

The solution was to automate and integrate the collection of export shipment information, the validation of that information, and the creation of the AES filing. Initially, the Genco and DMLogic systems experts planned to build new functionality into D-Log Plus. But, Rubino says, "We very quickly saw that was going to become a bit invasive into the WMS and that it would require a lot of changes to user interfaces and to background logic." Such changes would also make it more difficult and costly to implement upgrades and do other maintenance tasks down the road. Was there another way to achieve the same objectives, but without making major modifications to the WMS?

The DMLogic team thought there was. They suggested using stepLogic, a tool for software developers that interfaces with a WMS but does not change it. Instead, it replaces development tasks with configuration steps. "StepLogic is comparable to a software 'wizard.' It leads you through the various steps to set up a screen and to query a database," explains LeeAnn Dawson, director of information technology for DMLogic.

Genco's Rubino describes stepLogic as a "software accelerator tool" that enables the rapid implementation of changes with little or no programming. "That was the beauty of it. It didn't require a programmer to figure this out," he says. What it did require was a "superuser"—someone with a thorough knowledge of Xerox's export operations—to define the rules for retrieving the appropriate information for each input field and then put those rules into stepLogic in the right sequence so the program would guide the user through the process without missing any steps. "It asks the user question 1, and then based on that answer, it asks the next question," he explains. "It makes sure that all questions are answered and that all questions that need to be asked are asked."

But it doesn't require export expertise to answer those questions. The WMS alerts users—Genco employees at the distribution center—when an export shipment is ready and thus requires an AES submission. To input the information used by AES, users choose from options on drop-down menus. "The screen provides lists of legitimate values, instead of the former process of manually typing data into text boxes," Tegner explains. That change has completely eliminated spelling and other errors, such as incorrect spacing and place names that differ from the format required by AES.

Exactly which questions are asked depends on the nature of the shipment. "You're almost following a script," Dawson says. "If you have an air shipment to Puerto Rico, then you need to be prompted for certain information. That query will follow a different path than it would for an ocean shipment to China."

When all questions have been satisfactorily answered, the data flows to ADSI's system, which electronically submits the AES filing to customs. ADSI also uses the data as well as some additional information it pulls from D-Log Plus to create export documentation, such as shipping labels and customs invoices, Dawson says.

Since implementing the new system, AES filing errors have essentially been eliminated. "We went from getting daily calls to I can't tell you the last time I had a call about an AES issue," Dawson says. Xerox and Genco were also pleased with the flexibility the software tool offers, including the ability for superusers to reconfigure screens and menus in a matter of minutes, without incurring programming costs.

The shipper and 3PL have worked on developing new applications of the stepLogic platform, including an app that allows multiple countries of origin to be entered and tracked for a single stock-keeping unit (SKU), Tegner says. Just last month, the distribution center deployed a stepLogic app in a completely different area: managing the divert lanes for an automated print-and-apply system.

Rubino believes this type of software tool has many potential applications. "From a user standpoint, it's intriguing because it's very configurable and anyone can do it. It's an interesting concept, and we're looking at where else we might use it."

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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