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SSAB Track and Trace: Next level customer service with real-time transportation visibility

Midagon helped SSAB design and implement a new Track and Trace (TnT) visibility platform for transportation, providing customers with direct real-time information about where their shipments are and when they should arrive. This streamlines the tracking activities for all participants in the logistics chain. What made the project successful and what were the key takeaways?

Image source: SSAB (Matti Immonen / Smak FIlm Oy)

Reaching end-to-end transportation visibility

The project target was to have harmonized visibility to product deliveries. The business case was based on improving customer service and meeting the customers’ expectations. Customers want to know where the material is and when it will be available for use. SSAB wanted to know more of what happens in transportation and avoid slow, tedious, and incoherent manual tracking activities. 

In the past, it was common that customers asked sales, sales asked customer care, customer care asked transport planning, transport planning asked carrier and then the same information flow back. In addition for it to be a slow process, it is also very error prone. With TnT, customers can see the status of the delivery directly from SSAB’s customer user interface or ask sales, who can find the information directly in the visibility platform.

In addition to having gained improved customer service, SSAB is also able to see comprehensively what happens in transportation. This will help a lot in developing the transportation process and being proactive before things happen in the logistics chain.

Conceptually the project involved collecting transportation load information from source systems, creating harmonized load data, providing the required data to the visibility vendor’s platform, receiving tracking information back from the visibility platform and providing it to the customer interface and internal data warehouse. Besides the technical part, it was noted early in the project that carrier onboarding, to provide the location updates for the visibility vendor, is a very critical part of the work. 

The project started with preparation work on what and how to do. The work started in the beginning 2021. In SSAB, it was seen that external resources were needed to complement the capabilities for effective project management and architectural setup. 

SSAB Track and Trace system architecture
Picture 1: Overall system architecture, including IT capabilities, visibility platform and carrier systems.

Running a Track and Trace project requires comprehensive effort from logistics and IT

Implementing TnT in a company requires establishing a solid platform and technical capabilities to handle the load data. There are, at least, four development areas to be considered:

a)     Internal IT work – Creating transportation loads and providing it to the visibility platform

b)    Integrating to a visibility platform – Enabling global load tracking

c)     Onboarding – Integrating carriers into the visibility platform

d)    Reporting & Analytics – Making the data insightful for customers and internal users

The first step was projectization. The project resources were selected, agile scrum was taken into use in internal solution development and the schedule was set among other typical activities that need to take place in the project initiation phase.

One of the most important activities was to select a visibility vendor. Comprehensive competitive bidding took place during the spring of 2021. All the largest visibility platform providers and some smaller vendors participated in the bidding. The competition took only 12 weeks and, in the end, SSAB signed the contract with the winner.

Internal IT development started a bit earlier to make the data available for the visibility platform. The challenge was to harmonize load data from various source systems. Therefore, it was practical to start developing an SSAB data interface, the data storage for all of the company’s loads regardless of the mode of transport. So, the loads for truck, ocean and rail were normalized in a single data entity that collected all the data pipelines from the mills. This activity was the biggest consumer of internal resources in the development phase.

After this, the most time-consuming phase in the project, onboarding, took place. The leadership between project managers was divided into two branches. Harri, as the internal logistics professional took care of working with internal sales, logistics and the visibility vendor to make successful onboarding happen with carriers. Jarmo’s role was to lead the IT activities and enable the data flow from source systems to the visibility platform and back to the internal analytics platform and customer interface.

SSAB Track and Trace: project schedule
Picture 2: Project schedule

Retrospective of the project: Key success factors and takeaways

In the project, SSAB implemented the Track and Trace platform that can handle truck, rail, and vessel transportation. SSAB now has visibility to the deliveries and can offer it for both external and internal users. But what were the key success factors and takeaways?

#1 Establishing the basis for success

Nothing good happens without great management support. Fortunately, the priority of the SSAB TnT project was set to the top from day one. Still, there are a few more success factors that need to be highlighted, that made the project successful:

·      Importance of the vision: The underlying justification to initiate the project was a clear customer demand – making truck, rail, and ocean transportation visible for all relevant user groups inside and outside the company, originating from all the mills. Because of the clear vision, gaining buy-in among people was an easy task.

·      Structured work & collaboration: Using modern principles, methods and technologies in solution development made the progress transparent, measurable, and easy to lead. The multivendor network used the same tools in communication, development, and design.

Weekly DevOps ceremonies kept everybody on board and things moving. The project owner and technical lead had a daily morning meeting to solve possible questions and to focus on the next steps. The external consultant was especially experienced with utilizing DevOps method, which also helped to get the technical work moving fast. Additionally, clear specifications from the visibility vendor helped when the integration work took place.

·      Excellent resources: One of the key success factors during the project was the excellent people in the project. The project management used some time in the project initiation to work on what kinds of resources are needed and available to utilize in the project.

The development team was experienced and capable. Fortunately, SSAB had good internal resources for IT development (architecture, integrations, source system specialists, platform support and customer support) and conducting the carrier onboarding. They knew the existing systems and were willing to develop. 

The external help (technical lead/architect and external developers) proved to be very skilled and easy to cooperate with. The chemistry within the team was excellent!

Furthermore, the visibility vendor’s technical specialists were clear, capable, and helpful. All participants in the project had a clear role and were working in the same direction. Stakeholders supported the project and had trust in the project team, which enabled efficient decision making.

·      Alignment to stay in schedule: Setting the schedule is often almost impossible in the beginning of the project. But without an educated guess, a project will not get funding. In this case, the schedule was set according to the maturity level of the internal capabilities and existing implementations. The known fact was that truck transportation was the easiest to implement, but at the same time, carrier onboarding was conducted by the visibility vendor. So, to be honest, nobody knew how much time onboarding would take. Limiting these kinds of risks and dependencies was the key to success. One can’t fight on every war field at the same time.

#2 Internal IT capability development

The project team marked down a few important notes that are needed to consider every time when implementing a company-wide information system change and to offer transport data for external parties, as in this TnT project.

·      Harmonization of data, integrations, and information flows: In SSAB, there are four main mills with different source systems due to the mergers during history of the company. So, as one might guess, it was quite important to initiate data harmonization activities and start utilizing an integration platform in the very beginning of the project. By doing that, it was relatively easy to normalize the data and make loads for the visibility vendor. The takeaway here was to initiate the internal system and data harmonization immediately in the initiation of the project. 

·      Single source of truth: The decision to establish a service layer with a large data storage between the company's IT systems and external visibility platform appeared to be one of the best decisions in the project. Collecting all load data from multiple internal sources to one single data storage enabled two major possibilities: Easy communication with the visibility platform and, at the same time, internal reporting and analytics. Enriching the data internally became important, too – this was much easier to implement while the TnT’s single source of truth was available and the corporate common data warehouse just waited to be integrated. 

#3 Visibility platform capabilities & maturity level

The project took place in 2021. The visibility platform landscape was quite broad, but the maturity level of the visibility platforms had reached the appropriate level. Still, the capabilities of the platforms were not even close to the 100 % required in this TnT project.

Still, it was evident that utilizing visibility platforms was the right way to implement the visibility to transportation. In comparison to make-your-own-visibility-platform, there are vast amounts of out-of-the-box features available in the biggest visibility platforms. In this case, the discussion to build our own visibility platform was short – the implementation project would have taken too much time, effort, and money. 

·       Multi-leg and multimodal transportation is a challenge: All visibility vendors can provide track and trace for single leg transportation for various modes. Challenges are faced when the material is moved from one transportation vehicle to another multiple times during the journey. If the shipper is not the party who orders the final leg transportation in a multi-leg case, nobody knows when the material reaches its final destination. Still, visibility vendors can integrate with the forwarder’s IT systems to make multi–leg and multimodal visibility possible. All of these integrations need to be implemented to calculate an ETA, and that takes time.

·       Reporting and analytics capabilities are not ready yet: There are reporting capabilities available on some visibility platforms, but they are not as comprehensive as one would think. Basic reporting can be conducted, but it is highly recommended to initiate reporting and analytics development internally during the implementation project. Just make sure that all data is owned by your company and the data is available for internal use without limits!

·       Get invited to the visibility vendor’s R&D board: As already mentioned, the world of visibility platforms evolves fast and new functionalities are implemented every week and every month. Still, it is highly beneficial to attend the visibility vendor’s R&D board to push and prioritize initiatives that are highest on your backlog. Would you rather be an influencer or a passenger?

#4 Onboarding

Onboarding is the most time-consuming activity in the whole TnT implementation project. 

·      Carrier capabilities to provide data: There are various levels of capabilities on the carrier's side to provide load data electronically. Some integration implementations might take only a few days, while a smaller company’s TMS system integration takes months. 

·      No standards! As you can imagine, implementing and integrating tens or hundreds of carriers into one system is a time-consuming task. Today, this must be done without a common standard. It is not stated anywhere, how integrations should be done or in what format the data should flow from telematics or TMS systems. Fortunately, a set of technologies are available. EDIs, Excel CSVs or even APIs can be used.

·      Communication challenges between multiple parties during technical onboarding: Solving technical issues in a multi-party environment in good understanding is one key to success. The visibility vendor is responsible for integrating the carriers. Still, when the carrier becomes unresponsive, it is up to the shipper to solve the situation. This dance takes all three.

SSAB is an international forerunner in transportation Track and Trace

Only a few percent of companies have implemented Track & Trace globally. 

Today, tens of onboarded SSAB carriers take care of millions of tons of deliveries worldwide - there are continuously thousands of loads in transit that can be transparently traced via the visibility platform.

Technically, there is harmonized load data to send to the visibility platform and to use for data storing and internal analysis. Combined with the tracking data, SSAB can now analyze what happens during transit and work more proactively on delays. In addition to logistics improvements, SSAB can collect emissions related information about deliveries – improving sustainability has been raised as top priority in the company.

Still, the show must go on. Especially onboarding never ends. While one carrier is integrated, another company’s contract is ended. Onboarding activities continue every month and every year. Reporting and analytics involve a learning curve, too. The possibilities to turn data into insight are almost infinite – therefore – digging data becomes more interesting every day!

Anyhow, customers now have instant information about their deliveries. Compared to the old processes, all parties involved in the transportation now have the opportunity to follow deliveries conveniently without middlemen – 24/7. Customers demanded transparency on transportation, we delivered!

Written by Harri Vähävihu, SSAB and Jarmo Hiljanen, Midagon

SSAB Track and Trace transportation visibility platform

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