Long seen as a specialty logistics tool needed by only the largest companies, yard management software (YMS) is taking its turn in the spotlight as a way to bring digital clarity to often-chaotic DC yards.
The reason is simple, experts say: Warehouse fulfillment operations are beset by the same market challenges that have hobbled supply chains from coast to coast this year, including worker shortages, pandemic uncertainty, and a trucking capacity crunch. By using YMS tools to manage the movement of trucks and trailers to dock doors, companies can tighten up operations in an area that’s often plagued by hours-long delays and missing equipment.
Despite those pain points, the yard has traditionally been overlooked when it comes to tech investment. “While there’s been billions of dollars of investment in the warehouse, the yard is operating much as it has for the past several decades,” says Andrew Smith, CEO of Outrider, a Colorado-based startup that’s developing technology for autonomous yard operations and self-driving trucks.
To illustrate the extent of the neglect, one software vendor notes that most of his company’s YMS clients are not replacing a competing YMS product but rather, automating tasks previously handled by workers with clipboards and printouts. “I can count on one hand when we get a new [yard management software] customer and we’re replacing another system,” says Greg Braun, chief revenue officer with C3 Solutions, a Montreal-based provider of yard management and dock-scheduling software for companies in the retail, grocery, distribution, manufacturing, and parcel post industries. “Instead, they’re using pen and paper and the walkie-talkie. And with dock scheduling, it’s almost as bad; they’re using voicemail and email.”
That stands in stark contrast to the millions of dollars many of those same companies have invested in enterprise resource planning (ERP) and warehouse management (WMS) systems, Braun says. And by failing to link those platforms to their yard operations, users are missing an opportunity to create a single stream of data that could reveal ways to save time and money.
Creating that single stream has become much easier in recent years, thanks to the rise of cloud-based software applications, says Adam Kline, senior director of product management with Manhattan Associates, an Atlanta-based developer of supply chain, omnichannel, and inventory software. When a user’s YMS, WMS, and TMS (transportation management system) are all running on the same platform, they can share a single pool of data and react to real-time changes on the ground, instead of generating discrete reports and “throwing [them] over the fence” to another application, he says.
“Companies that want to unify applications need to look at the yard itself; that’s where WMS and TMS collide,” Kline says. “How do you execute within the fulfillment center most efficiently with regard to transportation? That’s where the yard comes in; it’s the glue that’s binding these things together.”
BETTER SCHEDULING THROUGH SOFTWARE
Empowered by that growing ability to share data across platforms, users are deploying YMS technology to solve a wider range of problems than they could in the past. “For years, the rule of thumb was that if you walk out of your DC and you can see all your trailers, you don’t need a YMS. Now, that probably doesn’t apply,” Kline says.
That’s because business patterns have changed over time and aging warehouses are struggling to keep up, he explains. For example, thanks to the pandemic-fueled e-commerce explosion, DCs have started dedicating some of their dock doors to small-parcel pickup. While that might expedite the process of getting small packages out the door, it also means those facilities lose some of their freight-handling capacity, Kline says. And with today’s rising real estate costs, expanding the DC’s physical footprint to compensate for that loss would be an expensive proposition.
In response, companies have been turning to yard management systems to help them do a better job of scheduling. “The importance of YMS has increased, because they need to turn over their dock doors faster,” Kline says. “They have to get quicker and more efficient at getting each trailer to a door and determining which truck comes to what door. They also have to tie all that to the operations inside the fulfillment center.”
At the same time that companies are trying to make the most of their real estate, they have also been struggling with a warehouse labor shortage. According to C3’s Braun, yard management systems can also help in that regard—namely by allowing users to automate tasks like tracking trailers that were previously handled by humans.
Although the digitalization of yard operations has been going on for years, the pandemic has accelerated the transition, he adds. “Even before Covid, [interest in] automating the gate process was rising, as people asked, ‘From an efficiency point of view, can we avoid human contact?’” While pandemic-era health concerns have hastened the adoption of contactless systems, the Covid-induced labor crunch has played into it as well, Braun says. “Before, the reason was ‘I don’t want to spend money to hire someone for my gatehouse,’ and now it’s ‘I can’t find anyone.’”
And the advantages of YMS technology don’t stop there, according to Braun. In addition to easing their labor woes, yard management systems can help companies stay in their trucking partners’ good graces—an important consideration in times when shippers face stiff competition for freight capacity. As for how a YMS can help in that regard, it has to do with the software’s ability to smooth out traffic flows and keep operations on schedule, thereby ensuring drivers can get in and out as quickly as possible. No driver wants to be delayed while dropping off or picking up cargo at a DC, says Braun, who points out that holdups can throw off their schedules and cost them money.
Taking steps to keep drivers happy can have a big payoff, he adds, noting that it could mean the difference between securing needed truck capacity and having freight languish on the dock. “If a trucker shows up and has to wait four hours to unload, then it won’t be long before he tells his dispatcher ‘I don’t care where you send me, just not there,’” Braun says. “And you don’t want to be on that list.”
Warehouses are increasingly turning to YMS software to streamline operations with an eye toward ensuring quick turnarounds and keeping trucks moving swiftly in and out of the DC yard. The software enables more precise operations at all stages of the journey, from the entrance gate to the parking lot to the dock door and back out onto the highway, experts say.
Thanks to those capabilities, the technology is turning the yard from an afterthought into a competitive weapon as companies emerge from the pandemic and learn to navigate a new normal.