Companies must use this time to break from the past inertia

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We can use this time to step back, listen and learn from others in the ecosystem to determine how we can utilise more inclusive and supportive policies and technologies and not go back to the mess we had before this pause. This would mean designing, experimenting and identifying actions now that will improve our resilience to future shocks. Rubal Jain, Managing Director, Safexpress in an exclusive conversation with Upamanyu Borah, evaluates more on this rare opportunity of time for governments and companies to put in the necessary planning work to be better able to manage temporary disruptions as well as sustain prolonged interruptions, and, how they are on their way back to synchronisation with sophisticated ongoing scenario modelling to build a shock-resistant supply chain.

What you consider as the top 3 challenges the industry is currently facing?

Like every other industry, logistics too is confronting tremendous challenges in present times – driven by tech innovations, changing consumer expectations and stringent regulations, making it a very testing and watchful time for us. Some of those include:

  • Transportation roadblocks

Road blockages on account of curfews, rallies, processions, constructions, natural calamities, poor road connectivity and quality, traffic congestions, multiple checkpoints and toll stations, last-mile challenges including no-entry, one-way entry restrictions, congested cities and narrow lanes are issues where logistics companies lose out on a lot of time and money.

  • Shortage of manpower

The lockdown has left a majority of the workforce confined to their homes except for essential workers. Even as lockdown statutes are being lifted, the government has announced that businesses can operate only with half or less than half of the workforce. Particularly for logistics players, limited manpower equates to deliveries unfulfilled owing to shortage or non-availability of delivery executives.

  • Governance policies and bottlenecks

With compliance mandates being tightened even more, Indian logistics companies are facing the brunt of increased regulations from multiple regulatory and policy-making bodies resulting in lack of seamless movement of goods across modes.

How do we ensure that key personnel are protected and available and that the network can continue to run during the extended periods of lockdown?

While many companies are still figuring out ways to sail through the COVID-19 crisis, some had already planned in advance and were prepared internally by training employees to be able to handle the situation better.

Above all, companies must use this time to break from the past inertia by overcoming suboptimal old habits and systems. That kind of change will require transformational thinking rooted in facts. Ultimately, the reinvention will result in something that companies have always wanted­­­– a safe environment where people can closely work and collaborate with each other to achieve the objectives of their organisations.

Safexpress have taken all the necessary precautions well in time. When other service providers had completely shut their operations, forcing their workforce to migrate to their villages and hometown, Safexpress continued functioning without any halt and running its entire network in full strength. We continue to pay our associated members and the community on time, despite all odds and challenges posed by the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout these volatile times, Safexpress has been maintaining the safety of its residential staff at the hubs– their security and housekeeping of facilities, carrying out a morale boost, as well as retaining the custodianship of customers’ consignments.

Our strong digitalised cloud-based platform has made work from home easier as well as enabled e-payments and e-billings. Quick decision making, constant connection through internal and external communications and swift actions has really changed the current adversity into an opportunity for Safexpress.

What are the key areas in which technology has had a deep impact on the way Safexpress works and has it helped drive your operations amid the ongoing scenario?

Data and analytics have pushed Safexpress to optimise network for the fastest transit time. We’ve leveraged IoT and analytics to significantly speed up delivery operations, reduce manual errors and bring down operation costs. We have a strong innovation team that is driving faster technology rollouts to benefit our customers and continuously improving services to our customers at all times. We provide real-time capturing, tracking and tracing of the consignments’ information.

Cloud is a game-changer for emerging technologies like AI, blockchain, chatbots and IoT, especially in the areas of transportation and warehouse management. Safexpress, has a steady road map focussed on five pillars of Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, Social and Security, and has been building tangible business accelerators to integrate solutions that have given it a competitive advantage in the emerging logistics sector.

How have you leveraged data and information to improve delivery efficiencies?

Safexpress have digitised its entire shipment process and integrated it with a robust ERP solution, bringing down cost, increasing time efficiency and enhancing last-mile visibility. Today, the company’s larger hubs are equipped with Wi-Fi barcode scanners and the entire loading and unloading is done through package level scanning which is interlinked to the in-house developed mobile app platform called PROSCAN. With extensive digitisation, today, everyone- from the hub manager to the CEO, gets clear visibility of the supply chain, and the company leverage insights on types of shipment, time taken for transit, misrouted packets, etc. And because the GPS can also be tracked by customers on the company’s website and mobile app portals, the delivery boy cannot falsely claim to say that the premises were closed without even going there.

Safexpress has set up an innovation lab where its technologists have joined forces with leading technology players like Cisco, Google, Amazon and IBM and utilising artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) solutions for some interesting use cases ranging from weather data to image recognition in supply chains and logistics.

Besides, Safexpress is the only company in the industry that has integrated with National Informatics Centre (NIC) for E-waybill automation and 100 per cent technology innovation and implementation at all levels such as booking, transhipment, and delivery.

We pride ourselves in being the only organisation scanning every package at every point in the network, enabling capturing of real-time information at all stages of movement and completing 100 per cent deliveries through last-mile tablets.

E-commerce changing the way companies approach logistics/distribution network strategy and the way shippers approach carrier relationships. As such, how can one be more prepared?

The rapid growth of e-commerce is driving deep changes in the area of logistics, from tightening up trucking capacity to raising the importance of last-mile delivery processes. To counter that, logistics companies now need to leverage diverse systems and figure out new ways of thinking in an effort to improve carrier partnerships and increase speed and efficiency.

For businesses in the e-commerce space, having a strong presence with highly scalable, available, agile and resilient supply chain operations will no longer be an option. It’s a matter of business-sustainability now more than ever and brands that are embracing advanced digital tools will be the ones to come out strong when normalcy is restored. The current pandemic has not only changed how people buy products online but also what they buy, and this change is here to stay. The impact of 300 per cent surge in demand for online orders in the country is not going to disappear any time soon.

Will the cold chain continue to be a vibrant sector or has to remodel many of its aspects after the jolts of the pandemic?

The cold chain has the potential to continue to be a vibrant sector given its importance in the healthcare system for maintaining the quality of vaccines or temperature-sensitive medicines as well as swiftly and carefully taking care of food supplies.

COVID-19 has had adverse effects on the cold chain sector just in a few months, forcing them to rethink and redirect their strategies, the sooner the better. Though the panic buying in these last few months has fuelled the demand but has also emptied the shelves of most of the cold chain holders. They might have to remodel many of their aspects, in terms of efficient service personnel, better utilisation of the pack-houses to keep the perishables safe, and faster reefer transportation to avoid degradation and wastage, due to the short-term disruption based on the volume of the ever-increasing demand.

What’s the difference you have made to transport and warehousing? Any new initiatives planned to bolster your services in the sector in the wake of the crisis?

As a 3PL, warehousing is one of the most important aspects of Safexpress. Our engagement in warehousing begins from the planning stage, which includes identification of strategic location. We further work with our customers closely to design their rack layout as well as to decide the optimal stocking levels.

Our WMS record all events and activities in the receipt, handling and storage of products and orders in the warehouse or distribution center, including the location of inventory for dedicated supply chain-ready solutions. What differentiates us from other 3PL companies in India is our highly configurable lot handling and shelf life, for FMCG and food items. Each piece is scanned for tracking movement of inventory within and between warehouses. We have in place highly configurable rules and strategies for put-away, replenishment, picking, kitting, and other value-added services.

Our WMS solution has the ability to integrate with customer’s ERP systems – orders from their order management system can seamlessly flow into the WMS for processing, while stock and updates can flow back to amend the inventory in the customer’s materials management module. The solution alerts immediately if any item is lying idle or happens to be in the wrong aisle and sends a real-time alert indicating the item’s actual destination. Transparency and real-time delivery status updates are captured by the company’s systems through booking and delivery app which help optimise delivery routes to maximise delivery in minimum time and provide real-time specific information about vehicle trips and stoppages, vehicle load status and capacity packages to be managed, among other things.

The warehousing sector has emerged as one of the most resilient sectors in the wake of the crisis. Post-pandemic, the sector is set to emerge as a promising opportunity, stronger and better. To bolster the warehousing sector, Safexpress has taken a series of gradual changes considering the ongoing situation.

We’ve seen smaller grocery stores pick up where large chain grocers have failed by supplying pantry staples. How are they adapting to the changes bought by the pandemic situation?

To meet the rising demand for home deliveries, small businesses have optimised key assets such as staff and vehicle capacity and leveraged crowd sourcing technologies to optimise staff capacity by onboarding temporary delivery personnel from across disparate delivery provider ecosystems. As ‘social distancing’ becomes the norm of the day, smaller grocery stores and retailers have started providing customers with contactless digital payments and deliveries. OTP based transactions or even payments by touch cards are among the new norm.

However, that said, retailers have started leaving certain key aspects of decision making to their workers in order to respond quickly to immediate supply chain challenges as they have first-hand knowledge about ground-level activities.

Is this the right time for modal shift from road to rail? Will it also lead to more automation coming into the entire supply chain for handling of cargo in a multimodal network?

Shifting from roadways to railways will put a huge pressure on the latter, as their cargo volume will increase manifold.

Automation in the entire supply chain will not be a farfetched dream once we adapt to a multimodal network utilising both roads and rails and not limit our deliveries only to one mode of transport. Affording implementation of various measures such as operation of heavier and longer trains, higher average speed and more wagon space, etc. though achievable, will take its own time and cannot be implemented overnight. Undoubtedly, this will bring in increased capacity, better planning and faster reach at some points, but this has to go through a series of carefully sought out plan and thinking.

Can you already draw conclusions for 2020?

We are anticipating a rebound in volumes and a subsequent pick-up in economic activity over the next few months as the unlock phase continues. We’ve seen demand come back to 40% levels in the first weeks of July, and we are expecting further improvement in the coming days. We are hopeful that there will be significant growth in volumes. October to December will be far better on a comparative basis as the entire supply chain ecosystem unlocks now.

Do you see yourself at the core of a new, emerging ecosystem that’s built for the ‘next normal’?

Safexpress has established its unparalleled presence pan-India by providing express distribution to every single pin code of the country within minimum transit time, enabled through its world-class network that operates on a hub and spoke model, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and unique capabilities that get continuously expanded, upgraded and improvised to align with the customers’ futuristic requirements. In fact, Safexpress is the only supply chain and logistics company with such a dense network and fastest deliveries.

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