Smarter Supply Chain Integration with APIs
How can decision-makers access real-time, operational data insight between disparate TMS, WMS, and ERP systems? Is it possible to get that kind of data that would give you real agility, accuracy and efficiency that scales as you grow? Actually, yes. APIs can provide the strong connective tissue to achieve your desired insight-driven business outcomes.
The Data is Out There: Making it Work Together using APIs
Nothing is really as simple as it looks when you consider the logistical hurdles it took to make it into your hands. Take rice, for example. Just one cup (210 grams) of rice has gone through a journey few people have to think about unless they’re planting, cultivating, and harvesting it. And then there’s selling and transporting it from the fields through to the cleaning, milling, packaging, warehousing, and shipping processes. Simple rice has a stunning supply chain journey from end to end.
Whether we’re talking about rice, auto parts, furniture, or anything else, consumer and industry purchasing continues to expand in complexity. Global supply chains can be difficult to manage, simply because there are so many different data points coming from so many sources.
This makes supply chain system integration an urgent necessity and a perplexing challenge. Somehow, TMSs, WMSs, ERPs, and billing systems all have to work together to get that rice from point A to point Z, accurately and efficiently.
So, how do you achieve that one source of operational data truth that would enable decision-makers to see what’s really going on? Connecting systems with stable, scalable API functionality is an essential way to attain that agility through real-time data insight for third-party logistics firms (3PLs) and everyone in between.
Understanding The Pieces of Supply Chain Integration
Effective supply chain integration means bringing together at least three (sometimes more) different management systems:
- Transport management systems
Companies use transportation management systems (TMS) to manage the logistics surrounding the transport of their supplies and products. It contains and crunches all the data required to help decision-makers do the following essentials:
- Optimize transportation routes for the best speed and efficiency
- Forecast future needs and plan ahead
- Manage relationships with their carriers
- Trigger shipments
- Track shipments
- Automate tendering and load bookings
- Execute settlements and payments
- Monitor and report on key performance indicators (KPIs)
A good TMS helps companies automate many of these processes, giving them a 10,000-foot overview of their transportation processes so they can continually optimize them. This saves them a lot of time and money while helping them find competitive advantages along the way.
2. Warehouse management systems
While TMSs are primarily responsible for tracking how things get from one place to another, warehouse management systems (WMS) track inventory on the shelves in the warehouse, keeping an eye on supplies available at distribution centers. It’s a key digital tool for controlling and organizing inventory so orders can be efficiently fulfilled.
Interestingly, there are some companies that, in an effort to minimize the complexity that comes with linking a TMS with a WMS, will use one or the other tool to do both jobs. Sometimes, however, that path leads to blindspots in data insight that having an efficient integration between the two systems would resolve.
3. Enterprise resource planning systems
Enterprise resource planning systems (ERP) usually create the link between a TMS and a WMS, and it’s where integration of the two systems often comes together or falls apart. ERPs empower shippers, 3PLs, and similar large enterprises with the data they need from both sides to manage their daily business operations through one user interface, whether inventory is sitting on shelves or on a truck. A Digital Core is a cost effective variation of an ERP system and is more suitable for small and medium sized businesses.
Achieving Real-Time, 360-Degree Visibility: What Do 3PLs Need?
Third-party logistics firms (3PLs) are a central hub of the entire supply chain, so if anyone needs their TMS and WMS platforms integrated and working correctly, they’re it. 3PLs stand in the middle of shipping, receiving, storing and inventory for millions of companies globally. Of course, every business connected to the supply chain has different goals, different needs, and different starting places.
What's important is that each takes a close look at where their current sticking points are. For example, are there hiccups in inventory data that hinder you from knowing exactly where a product is at any given time? Are there gaps in routing data? The answers will be different for each firm, but not so different that it's impossible to solve them with the right kind of integration plan. Making a sort of comprehensive "shopping list" of needs before you start working on a custom supply chain integration is really the key to success. From there, you can more easily see which approach to follow in your specific scenario to deliver the strategic and operational outcomes you want. Knowing which integration approach to follow will necessarily depend on your individual list.
Here’s just one idea for something that might write down for your list: You might be able to see from your WMS that certain products on the shelves are scheduled to go out on a truck. You can select the items that go and separate them from the items that are staying on the shelves. You might not be able to see the other side of the data as it relates to the TMS system, however.
For example, you might want to know how those items will be loaded into the truck, when the truck is supposed to leave, or where things are going to be staged inside of the truck. You might not be able to see the route the truck is taking to evaluate whether or not it’s the most efficient route.
This “list item” is one that could, if you had that data available in one place, save you a lot of time and money while making your customers happier. You could rearrange the truck so that more shipments could go at the same time. You could see if there’s more room in the truck to add more items, which could get shipments to customers more quickly. You could see the route the truck would take and be able to adjust it to save time and fuel costs.
The data your company needs in this regard might be different, but generally, it might include more items listed below.
Planning to Integrate a TMS with a WMS
As we've done supply chain system integrations using APIs as the scaffolding, we've been able to help clients meet their lists and see competitive advantages just like the one mentioned above. API supply chain integrations can be very reliable, stable, and also scalable, which is a benefit for 3PLs and their customers moving forward. It’s essential, from the start, to understand what data is going to be integrated and why. As you consider your current TMS-WMS situation and what you'd like to get out of it, ask yourself about these "shopping list" items and what more you'd like to get from them:
- Inventory data—What is currently on the shelves
- Order data—What inventory items are due to ship out
- Carrier data—Which carriers are transporting the inventory to its end location
- Routing data—What is the order’s destination
- Customer data—Who is ordering the inventory item
- Billing data—How is the customer being charged for the order, shipping and any additional services
Currently, electronic data exchange systems (EDIs) do a reasonably good job of sending all of this data in batches between systems. Purchase orders, bills of landing, payment receipts, invoices, inventory documents, shipping notices, and customs documents, all travel between TMS and WMS in packets of this crucial data. This is especially true when interfacing between carriers and seaport terminals. One of the challenges that decision-makers at various points on the supply chain have been trying to work out in the past few years of upheaval, however, is whether there are faster, more 360-degree ways to see individual points of data in real-time.
Sometimes, working out those questions is a matter of using APIs that already exist in an "out-of-the-box" format that will work to get you that data insight. In the event that there is no current out-of-the-box solution, custom API integrations can answer those questions. The key is to work with a development team that has senior experience with API and system integrations so there aren't a lot of delays and bugs to work out of the system. It's important to find what works for your needs, whether it's using plug-and-play pieces that already exist, or creating custom solutions that take you where you want to go quickly and efficiently. It's not really about replacing the established EDI workhorses out there, but creating customizations that give firms a more scalable, faster way to get supply chain insight than they have in the past.
APIs for Supply Chain System Integrations
Many supply chain firms have already started to use APIs to customize integrations between their WMS and TMS systems over the past few years. Some of the benefits they've seen include accelerated time to value, the ability to connect with a wider variety of external platforms and even the discovery of new revenue streams and unexpected ways to reduce costs. Of course, it's always somewhat of a hurdle, at least mentally, to replace legacy systems with new systems. A good API-forward supply chain system integration, however, doesn't have to take a lot of time or create a huge learning curve. In fact, skillful integration can save time and effort immediately while improving data insight. And as more and more firms adopt API integrations, they're gaining competitive advantages over others first because of the added agility and increased access to real-time data insight.
Much of the work of APIs is automated. For instance, millions of individual shipments, along with their rates, tracking numbers, etc. can be processed between apps via API in real-time through the cloud. It provides that one source of dynamic, immediate data insight that all stakeholders can access, moment to moment, to get insight into how critical business operations are progressing. Now, while APIs can rely on common, reusable code ingredients to accomplish this with little to no human intervention, it requires skillful design and development to get the right blend that truly makes things easier instead of harder. It's not a simple plug-and-play procedure. It's more of an architecture that requires thoughtful design with stable, reusable elements that need to be put together correctly. But when done right, it can make the supply chain integration process smooth while providing new insights quickly.
A smooth process might look like this: You have created your need list (for example, being able to see that "between point where items are in the process of being taken off of warehouse shelves and loaded into the truck for optimal transport). Your development team should know whether or not there is an existing API connection that can link your WMS and TMS to get you that item quickly, or they should be able to customize one that automatically links the two, giving you the data insight you need to better manage that "between space" of shipments. And then, to know it's been done right, you should see the business benefits rather quickly. Customers will be happier because they get their shipments on time, or even earlier than they expected. Fewer shipments are lost or misdirected. Smarter truck routes save time and lower fuel and fleet maintenance costs.
Today's API development teams are also more comfortable creating connections using APIs for that very reason: they’re constructed on top of universal protocols that interchange very well with a wide range of TMS and WMS systems quickly, making process automation so much faster and easier.
Addressing Concerns about Custom Supply Chain Integration
Still, there are worries among various members of the supply chain that custom API integrations are costly and time-consuming. Integrating different facets of the supply chain for third-party logistics firms can, indeed, present challenges, especially when you are working with complex webs of older, custom-built networks, which continue to get more fragile and difficult to manage as time goes on. The fact is, however, that using APIs to facilitate connectivity can significantly ease and simplify these problems, providing more stable, competitive solutions than the ones currently being used. Naturally, some of the most challenging issues come from folding data-driven insights into easy-to-use apps for end users. When adding an outside API development team, look for these checkpoints:
- They ask a lot of questions to make sure they understand what you need (they care about your shopping list).
- They can demonstrate agile use of currently existing APIs to achieve supply chain integration results.
- They have successful custom API integrations to demonstrate.
- They embrace iPaaS whenever they can accelerate implementation.
- They can easily mix and match the best technological solutions to come up with what makes the most sense for the client.
It can also help if they have partnerships and good working relationships with enterprise technology providers such as Appian, Google, Microsoft, and Couchbase. This would give developers the space and flexibility to apply real decision intelligence and best-in-show technologies for client customizations. This enables them to work smarter and faster to fine-tune solutions to the client’s business needs, saving time and resources.
Getting disparate systems to converse easily with each other for deep, real-time data insight on all the data points that matter to supply chain members does not have to be expensive, nor does it have to take a long time if you take the right path with API connections. Whether you want increased stability, scalability, efficiency, and accuracy within your current system, our objective is to help you achieve your objectives. Custom API integrations can bring you competitive advantages, and might be just what you've been looking for. Spark Equation can assist your business with all these points, including:
- API-led connectivity with trading partners
- Integrations between TMS, ERP, WMS, billing systems
- Extend business capabilities with 3rd party APIs
- Real-time analytics dashboards sitting on data coming from your internal systems and external sources
- Enabling a single source of truth for company data
- Operational AI/ML
If you work in supply chain management, what are some of the biggest concerns and questions you have about integrating your TMS, WMS, and ERP systems? What have you tried before, and how would you like to move forward?
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