To those not involved in the shipping and freight industry, the fact that a lone crate can be traced to a particular ship, wherever that ship is (at anytime), what time it will arrive at its destination and the time that crate will be unloaded onto the dock, just seems like a mind boggling, impossible feat.
Oswalds, one of the largest import/export cargo handling and warehousing facilities in Sydney's Port Botany, in a bid to reduce the hundreds of phone calls it receives daily about the whereabouts of cargo, has developed a round-the-clock shipping and inventory tracking information portal so customers have access to real-time details.
Hamish McGregor, marketing manager for Oswalds, said the company deals with multiple in-bound and out-bound shipments, and with the large number of enquiries it receives for cargo status needed a complete solution that was reliable around-the-clock, could be tailored depending on the nature of the enquiry and would provide significant operational savings.
George Minoeiannis, management accountant for Oswalds, said the company has about 290 direct customers, but often these customers are acting on behalf of other parties.
Prior to the e-commerce project, which uses Compuware's Web port and Uniface application integration technology, the company did not have a Web presence and the only way customers could find out cargo status was to contact the company's call centre or rely on cargo availability information advertised in an industry trade magazine - a major expense for the company.
"[This project] is just phase one of our Web site project. Currently the information is available to customers to view only. In phases two and three we hope to make it possible for customers to input information and put orders for release online."
Two IT project leaders, one from Oswalds and one from Compuware coordinated the online tracking project, which began last October.
It involved Web-enabling two existing customer support legacy systems which ran on separate databases: CMS, which controls on-site container management, fumigation services and information relating to small consignment and cross-dock cargo, and Exceed 400, the company's warehouse management system.
"We had a few issues optimising our systems, speed issues, so that the databases delivered the information to the Web site."
Using XML (Extensible Markup Language) technology, the new system will also allow Oswald's customers to receive information relating to customs clearances and inventory movements.
"We expect when the system is operational it will be a very low maintenance system, once we give our customers logins and passwords." Customers will only have access to information about cargo movements relevant to their business.
Minoeiannis said the system has been in pilot phase with about a dozen customers for the past month and will go live next week.
"Some of the problems we have encountered [during the pilot] was that Netscape couldn't pick up some reports. We also found that some of the terminology in the headings of some of our reports was confusing for users."
The call centre will run in tandem with the Web site, once it goes live, for about six weeks. At this point, phone access will be gradually phased out with customers being directed to the Web site. Call centre employees will be redeployed throughout the company, Minoeiannis said.