Where’s your shipment?

Just ask Tracy...

Automotive Purchasing and Supply Chain has been given an exclusive view of an exciting development in tracking and tracing for time critical shipments as Simon Duval Smith reports. 

GEFCO is well-known as a global provider of complex industrial supply chain services and is the leader in Europe in finished vehicle logistics. Established 69 years ago, with a turnover of €4 billion ($4.4 billion) in 2017, it has a presence in 47 countries, serving 10 market sectors. In addition to its other business units. It has launched 'Partners, unlimited', an ‘Innovation Factory’ - a programme that seeks to develop new initiatives to innovate the logistics market.Tony Gunn, Chief Executive Officer of the Freight Forwarding division of GEFCO told me: "During a tour of our customers and employees in 2017, we decided that there was a specific need to look at the changing world of logistics, particularly the impact of digitalisation. We decided to set up a whole mechanism within the organisation that allowed us to exploit the new technology that is available in the market and bring together our employees' ideas about digitalising the supply chain further. Part of this journey brought together an application that we call ‘My Car Is There’ which looks at vehicle distribution from the viewpoint of where the market will be in five to 10 years, looking at the movement of cars for individual buyers." My Car Is There is intended to meet the needs of consumers increasingly looking for ultra-personalised services and is a service enabling end-clients to manage the delivery of their new vehicles through a mobile app.

Engaging with innovation leaders

Following this trend of embracing innovation, GEFCO has recently engaged with Techstars, a worldwide start-up network of organisations. Gunn says that, as part of improving its service to customers, GEFCO has set up teams within the Innovation Factory Program with the aim of identifying innovative employee projects and providing the right resources to support their development and foster new ideas and creativity within each of the business lines at GEFCO, and one of the Forwarding Innovation team’s first projects was to search for new technology. "The team looked around for technology that we could bring into the organisation to help us stay ahead of the competition, or at least keep up with developments in the digital world. It decided to buy some products from the new ‘tech world’, to see if we could bring some exciting tech advances to our world and to our customers."

Voice-activated logistics

This talk of harnessing innovation from many sources, outside the conventional logistics technology framework, brings us on to GEFCO's latest initiative, it's voice-activated smart speaker technology. Hans Stokman, IT Director of GEFCO Forwarding, explained the driving forces behind the initiative. "We think that from a track and trace visibility point of view our time-critical customers are a bit different from the regular straightforward freight customers. A key feature is that the time-critical customers are looking to make a minimum number of shipments, as they are of course expensive. The shipments that they do have to make must be visible on the most up-to-date basis possible. Our regular volume customers might have 100 shipments a day and are probably more interested in using conventional EDI reports, for example.

Hans Stokman

"We decided to focus on our time-critical customers, putting ourselves in their position and mindset. We wanted to give them access to their shipment information wherever they might be, and not necessarily on their computer, their laptop, mobile device or even their mobile phone. “We wanted to enable them to track their shipment instantly, without having to go to their device and log-in. We said to ourselves: ‘How exciting would it be if we could offer a voice-activated shipment tracking tool for customers through Smart Speaker technology?"

Stokman and his team went on to develop the system using some new logistic software and the new solution, which complements GEFCO’s existing track and trace offering, was developed by GEFCO’s Freight Forwarding division for customers requiring what he calls, "next-generation real-time monitoring of high-priority shipments where speed and efficiency is of the utmost importance."

Referred to as TRACY, the tool employs Wisetech Global’s Cargowise logistics software through a “skill” on the smart speaker. This enables customers to obtain key shipment information including the origin, destination, flight/ship number and expected/actual arrival via a simple voice command.

TRACY will complement GEFCO’s traditional track and trace offering, such as [email protected], which provides high-performance traceability to customers via an online portal. TRACY is also linked to several transport information hubs, such as Freightos, an instant freight quotes and online freight marketplace that can act like a reverse auction for shipping costs. 

Demonstrating the power of TRACY

GEFCO Group has already successfully demonstrated the new technology to customers ahead of a planned launch. This will mark the first step of an ongoing evolution for the tool, with further updates providing even greater functionality, including potential connection with flight and marine tracking services. Stokman tells the story of showing the new technology to one of GEFCO's largest customers. "At a meeting with one of our biggest customers in Europe, they asked us to present some slides on innovation. We decided instead to bring the 'TRACY', the smart speaker, to the meeting and opened up our system to it and invited the client to ask for his shipment details. He was amazed by how quickly he could listen to the whereabouts of his shipment!" 

Tony Gunn, a self-confessed tech-sceptic, is also enthusiastic. “I am hugely excited to launch this service with our partners. TRACY is the latest in a series of new technologies which GEFCO has recently integrated into its supply chain management as we lead the market on innovation. For freight forwarding - particularly our time-critical-solutions offering - where transparency and real-time monitoring are imperative, the new tool is set to play a major role and we are thrilled with the feedback we have received from customers to date.
“As a trusted partner to our customers, we provide them with the utmost assurance that their goods are in safe and reliable hands. Thanks to the speed and ease of use of TRACY, we are better placed than ever to fulfil this role.” 

The bigger picture

While the voice-activated system can give individual shipment information, a lot of logistics managers in finished vehicle shipping would no doubt welcome a system that can give them a bigger picture, something that can inform them of a series of shipments and also analyse how efficient their supply chain is, in the way that their real-time information board in a plant will tell them. I ask Tony Gunn if this type of analytical software is on the horizon for the voice-activated system. "What we have developed so far is specifically for freight forwarding, through Cargowise. We are now looking at how we can use this technology for other parts of the business, units that may not be on Cargowise, how we can help customers to get the same information from their finished vehicle activities. To do this, we have to get the right information from the ERP system interface that is shared with GEFCO. There is no reason why we could not apply this system to track the shipments due to leave a plant on a specific day and at what time." 

This is a very powerful sales tool for a provider like GEFCO; with more algorithms, the systems could voice alternatives to existing routes to speed a shipment but, with its connectivity to reverse auction platforms such as Freightos, I suggest to Gunn that the connectivity of TRACY could lead to GEFCO losing business to cheaper competitors. "The freight industry is going to change enormously in the near future, with initiatives such as blockchain and accelerating technology. It is going to change in the way that customers deal with freight forwarders, this is almost guaranteed. What we are trying to do with our current and future strategy is to look at in what areas of the business can we create a value-add and an end-to-end supply chain solution. Of course, we do not want to get into bidding wars with other carriers but we do not want to try and close off any options that our customers might benefit from." 

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