SupplyStack CEO Nick Poels opens up on TMS integrations and data management

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Transport Management Systems have played a vital role in logistics operations for over two decades. But as demand for real-time visibility and other digital services grows, supply chains around the world find themselves craving more than just a TMS. This trend has resulted in increased cooperation between companies, as well as mergers and acquisitions.

A good example of this is Belgian TMS operators SupplyStack, who recently teamed up with Supply Chain Visibility giant project44. Together, the two believe they can truly maximise the value of supply chain visibility.

Keen to find out what the state of play is for a modern TMS in 2021, we hooked up with SupplyStack CEO Nick Poels, who has grown the company from its humble beginnings in 2014.

In this Trans.INFO exclusive, we chatted with Nick about the partnership with project44, how to get the most out of data, the demand for all-in-one logistics solutions, differences in TMS approaches, and the challenges of embarking on multiple integrations.

SupplyStack has made  impressive developments/grown considerably  since you founded the company back in 2014. What have your greatest achievements been so far, and what have the most memorable parts of the journey been for you?

The journey itself. It’s building the product, building the teams from scratch and getting the company from zero to 40 people. Year after year we have achieved immense growth and the outlook for the upcoming years is very bright.

We started out as five friends, a good mix of industry veterans and engineers, and myself.  We focused on a specific problem with the inbound manufacturing supply chain for a global automotive shipper with a very complex shipping profile.

From that starting point we got to where we are today – serving some of the largest brands like Sony Interactive Entertainment, Duracell and Atlas Copco.

These different brands in different industries trust us to automate and monitor their end-to-end transportation management process. In the end, that’s the achievement – finding customers who trust you, providing value to them and just building the company along the way.

As an entrepreneur, that is the most interesting part. Every day is different, that’s for sure.

In the last few weeks you have made some important announcements regarding cooperation with project44. What was the thinking behind the move and what benefits will the partnership bring?

The intention is to bring the tools and the network closer together so as to deliver more value for our customers. I think the rapid growth of the transportation visibility market has been incredible so far and it continues to grow.

I see that as a very positive evolution in which to deliver on our vision. Step one in the industry, if we put ourselves in the shoes of the shippers or the customers, was “Okay, how can I achieve real-time visibility of my transportation flows?”

This was a very hard problem to solve. You have to build a network of shippers and transportation providers. This requires a lot of capital and a lot of plumbing — project44 has done an incredible job and came out as one of the leaders in the space. We are very glad that we aren’t the only one who noticed this and the recognition from Gartner proves that we have chosen the right partner.

But the second step  is once you’ve obtained real time visibility, what are you going to do with it? How can you maximize the value of real-time visibility, in other words, how do you put this into practice? And that’s where SupplyStack comes in.

That’s also the intention of the partnership – considering how we can use this visibility data. How do we integrate it into the platform and make sure it drives automation workflows and communication across the enterprise?

A key part of this cooperation concerns your Time Slot Booking system. What changes will this allow you to make and how will it benefit the logistics operators who access the system?

Our Time Slot Booking application is the first applied case of embedding real-time visibility into a TMS. So by incorporating the visibility data into our time slot booking application, we’re actually extending visibility to the warehouse. Time slot booking is generally on the fringes of TMS into WMS from an application landscape point of view. It’s a problem that people have been looking to solve for ages and  we’ve succeeded.

However, in the last couple of years or so, the growing problem is queues at the warehouse. There’s volatility in supply chains all over the world right now, and  congestion on the road. This causes a lot of pain both for the warehouse operators and the carriers. On the one hand, the warehouse operator wants to run an efficient operation managing the workload and his/her people. On the other, the carriers and the transportation providers want to improve their asset utilisation, because a truck that’s standing still creates waste.

This is the primary issue that we’re trying to solve. What this means is if a carrier books a slot at a warehouse, the warehouse operator will be able to see the ETA once the booking is made, and the transportation is in transit. They will know if it is going to be early, on time or late. And it will be possible to switch slots. So that helps to prevent queues at the warehouse and frustration on both sides. And this is just the start — there’s still a lot of potential to increase value for both parties. Certainly when it comes to embedding visibility data into time slot booking.

As businesses look for  more systems together in one package, do you foresee more partnerships such as yours being created, as well as some additional mergers and acquisitions?

Definitely. In every company it’s best to have a clear focus. We are more focused on the application aspect, while project44 is more focused on building the network. So a partnership makes sense there.

Will we see more partnerships or consolidation in this market? For sure. The lines between network providers or visibility providers, and TMS, will start to blur in the future. And we are monitoring closely to see how it develops.

It’s hard to make any serious predictions though.However, it’s inevitable that these will move towards each other.

Organically, they will have to be deeply integrated to provide value for the end customer, which is the focus and end goal of  any company. So I think they will naturally move closer and closer together.

There is a lot of stiff competition in the TMS space. In what way does your approach differ from the likes of Alpega and Transporeon?

We differ mainly in two ways. The first is in terms of capabilities, and what I mean by that is that Transporeon and Alpega are very focused on FTL and indirect LTL flows. Their main bread and butter is providing slot booking and transport assignments and some more market intelligence on these specific flows.

SupplyStack has more capabilities. We support more diverse and complex transportation flows. SupplyStack tends to focus on companies with a more diverse shipping profile, meaning those that have a mix of FTL and LTL, some groupage, parcel and usually a mix of road, air and ocean.

Combinations of these different shipment methods are a perfect fit for SupplyStack, because our customers would otherwise have to go to the Magic Quadrant type of providers like Oracle, SAP or BlueYonder. That also entails larger commitments and larger implementations.

So the sweet spot for SupplyStack is this more diverse shipping profile, where you have a mix of parcel, FTL, LTL, air and ocean.

The second way we differ is in the user experience. When we started out this was one of the main frustrations we had with the industry, the lack of user-friendly transportation software that enables logistic professionals to excel at their jobs whilst actually enjoying it.

It’s not necessarily specific to transportation or the TMS industry, but rather enterprise technology as a whole – the user experience tends to be dreadful.

There is an ongoing trend coined as the consumerization of the enterprise, where more and more operations and actual people impose higher standards on the applications that they have to work with day in day out.

And especially when it comes to our industry, this is the main benefit, as there are risks from an implementation and adoption point of view. We believe that the way systems are being bought, is different to how it was 10 years ago. Back then, it was still top-down management, now you have more of a bottom-up approach where the votes or the opinions of the end users gain credibility and importance in the buying cycle.

We have demonstrations, pilots and test cases with the end users who are already using the platform on a daily basis. They’re validating and testing the software. That’s an important shift that’s happening, and it’s only for the better. In the past, a lot of companies have seen implementations go to waste due to oversights about usability or functionality because often the decisions were made by people who were not directly using the software.

One of the cornerstones of your offering is the Transportation Control Tower. Can you explain the idea behind the concept and its name?

The term refers to an air traffic control tower and it’s been widely adopted by software providers in our space. In an air traffic control tower, you monitor planes in the sky. And in our case, we monitor goods moving from A to B.

Besides monitoring, we’re also centralising communication. So we have a built-in chat function on the order level, which means the transport operator can chat with customers, drivers, carriers or suppliers to solve certain issues. That’s more than visibility alone.

It centralises all the material data coming from your ERP system, transfers it, consolidates it to transportation orders, executes those transportation orders, and monitors them, until eventually, it goes from planning execution to the actual settlement.

So it’s a case of centralising all of the data from the end-to-end process in one overview. That is what the control tower concept is about.

If we think about the TMS space, it’s a 25-year-old software category that is primarily focused on how to reduce freight spend. And although this is still valid today,  it’s still only one element in many cases.

Customer expectations and resilience, which has gained in importance recently,  are two elements that make the case for more of a control tower approach whereby the monitoring of goods in transit becomes more important. It allows you to proactively communicate with your customers and your partners, as well as manage your operation by exception. I think that’s the primary reason for calling it a control tower.

Many logistics systems and transport management systems have a wealth of analytics data to dive into. Making use of this data and/or grouping it in the right manner can nonetheless prove difficult. How can you create a system that allows companies to draw conclusions from this data relatively quickly?

The industry today over-values its data a little bit. The challenge is not in aggregating or grouping the data; the challenge starts with generating quality data.

If you’re not receiving or collecting quality data, then all the rest doesn’t really matter. You can have the most fancy machine learning features out there, but If the data is no good, then it’s for nothing. Looking at the present situation very clearly, and seeing people still struggle with Excel and inboxes, the aggregation and the visualization of the data should be focused on providing value for the end user to make their work easier.

To give you a straightforward example, let’s say you have a dashboard and the data is real time. If you look at the widget, and you see it’s giving on-time performance in a particular country at 87%, you’d think to yourself, “that’s not very good, what can I do about this?” However, when you are able to click on the map and zoom in to drill things down and see all the specific regions, you may find there’s one specific region that’s underperforming. Then you can actually zoom in, double click and go straight to the transactional data. It allows you to see all the orders that came up in the calculation of the on-time performance for that area. This gives you the chance to identify whether it was a specific warehouse that had an issue. In other words, you can get straight to the heart of the problem, and actually solve that specific issue.

That in itself right now, is already miles ahead of what companies are doing currently. And it’s not even that complicated. It’s the simplest tools that have a big impact today, especially when it comes to data management and analytics.l

You see a lot of marketing and hype around machine learning and AI. Although these technologies bring a lot of value, we should also look at the present very clearly, I can’t stress that enough. There’s still a lot of challenges to be tackled before you start embarking on these types of projects.

What are typically the causes of the poor quality data you mentioned?

It starts with the maturity level of all the players in the supply chain getting to a certain level. 

In order to be relevant in the future, you will have to be able to provide certain types of data, even if it’s order data or in-transit data. The industry is moving in this direction, and these are unstoppable market forces.

Slowly, our industry is already adopting API’s as the primary method of integration. I think that’s for the better. But I would be lying if I told you we were not doing exotic system integrations with older technologies from time to time.

We have to adapt in order to be able to work with certain parties, and we do not want to exclude anyone. But the quality of the data is something that lies within the company itself. We can’t really influence this, we can only monitor, see how good the data quality is, ask them to improve it and help them forward. It’s what their own customers are expecting, too.

Eventually every transportation provider, shipper or supplier will have to increase its capabilities in this regard.

Recently, Marc Andreessen said that “every company is a software company today.” And this is the mindset that every company needs to adopt in a certain sense.

From what I gather, you believe that integration with other systems is key. What have you done to make more integrations possible, and what challenges have you had to overcome in the process?

Well, it all starts with providing a public and well documented API, as this is the easiest way to integrate two systems.

On the other hand, however, we spend a lot of time looking at data models. For example, how does the data model of a parcel network map to our data model? The same goes for an LTL network, for ocean or for FTL providers. And what does the carrier’s TMS look like? What is the most common data model we see there?

It’s our job to adapt to them, they should not have to adapt to us. So I think it takes a lot of work, research and trial and error. Nevertheless, the integration challenge in itself over time will become easier when the maturity level inevitably rises. It nonetheless remains a challenge today.

In three year’s time, SupplyStack will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Where do you hope the company will be when it reaches this milestone?

We will continue our journey to become an important player in the TMS space, challenging the status quo and bringing software delights to an industry in need.

We will continue to solve some of the human problems that I referred to before, so we can help the industry to collaborate better — that is our sole focus.

When it comes to looking three years ahead, I would rather look at things step by step. The market is changing rapidly, but  the way we build the system allows us to adjust our course accordingly. It’s our job to provide the market with a system and the knowledge and support to help them get to the next level of maturity.