The Continuing Evolution of Technology

Change doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The changes we’re seeing in operations systems and processes, for instance, are due to several shifts in the overall business environment.

For starters, there’s an “increasing managerial focus on operations,” says Bill Kuipers, partner with consulting firm Spaide, Kuipers & Co. in Bala Cynwyd, PA. Executives, many of whom work far from the concrete floors and steel shelves of distribution centers, are discovering that effective management of their firm’s fulfillment operations can offer a strategic advantage. “Operations has come out of the closet as far as the level of care it’s getting,” Kuipers adds.

Driving this new management focus is the balancing act that executives must perform. Even as their margins increasingly are squeezed, they need to continually boost the level of service they provide. Technology that can help executives meet these sometimes competing goals is finding a receptive audience.

The emphasis on quality service also is prompting executives to look at systems that allow them to provide customers with a seamless experience across all channels. Merchants “want to touch customers in multiple ways and have the brand be the same in any channel,” says Jane Cannon, chief operating officer with CommercialWare, a Natick, MA-based provider of cross-channel software applications. Their systems — from the point of sale to the DC — must present a unified appearance to consumers.

Another shift is the growing acceptance of hosted, rather than purchased, solutions, says Ernie Schell, director with Marketing Systems Analysis, a Ventnor, NJ-based consulting firm that helps companies select information systems. Although many direct marketers traditionally preferred to purchase their systems outright, pay-as-you-go plans have become more popular.

Operations and fulfillment technology has been evolving during the past decade, notes Karen Hawk, a Grand Prairie, TX-based vice president of the supply chain practice with logistics consulting firm Navesink Logistics, which is based in Middletown, NJ. As a result, many of the advances occurring today are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, as technology providers tweak their products to better meet customers’ needs. At the same time, technology providers are merging in order to expand their product lines and offer customers “one-stop shopping.”

Each of these trends is exerting an influence on the technology used in fulfillment centers today. On the following pages we’ll look at how warehouse and order management applications, forecasting tools, packing and picking systems, and shipping and contact center software are changing.

Karen M. Kroll is a Minnetonka, MN-based business writer.