While the basic function of the warehousing industry has remained constant for more than a century, technology is facilitating speed and efficiencies that could not possibly have been imagined when the predecessor entity to the International Warehouse Logistics Association was founded in 1891.
In separate interviews with the American Journal of Transportation, two longtime IWLA board leaders shared similar views on how the industry continues to evolve as the association looks forward to celebrating its 125-year anniversary. “Basically, we unload and load trucks for a living and they [loads] are either palletized upon arrival or floor-loaded in containers and lumped into the warehouse,” said Rob Doyle, current IWLA chairman and vice president of business development for Winter Haven, Fla.-based Commercial Warehousing, “That is the nexus of what we have done for the last 125 years.
“The big changes that have occurred over the years and in my opinion will continue to change are in the areas of technology and menu of services that we can offer our customers,” Doyle added. Jere Van Puffelen, who served as ILWA’s 2009-10 chairman and is president of Danville, Calif.-based Prism Team Services Inc., commented, “The entire 42 years that I have been in the business, we have done the same basic thing – receive and ship boxes.
“That is the fundamental purpose of what we do,” continued Van Puffelen, who in 2013 received IWLA’s Distinguished Service Leadership Award. “We do it much better, faster, more accurately and in better shape that we ever have because of all the improvements and advancements that our industry has made.” Van Puffelen put into perspective the heightened capabilities of technology since he began in the business in 1973 lumping boxcars.
“That was when a lot of freight moved in railcars and was floor-loaded,” he said. “I worked in the warehouse for one year, and we received and shipped boxes. In 1974, I became office manager and had responsibility for getting us off of Kardex manual inventory control and transitioning to a System 3 Model 10 IBM card punch computer that took up an entire room. My cell phone today is more powerful than that room of equipment.”
Nonetheless, according to Van Puffelen, leading-edge technology is not a panacea.
“You can have all of the best computers in the world,” he said, “but if you don’t receive and ship boxes on time, accurately, and provide real-time status information, you are not going to succeed in providing the level of service that is required today.
“I continue to get excited about the system improvements and ingenuity today,” said Van Puffelen, whose firm does business as Prism Logistics through four Northern California warehouse facilities encompassing a total of almost 800,000 square feet.
“We have taken the approach that the speed of information is going to be the critical factor going forward,” he said. “Just doing it is not sufficient anymore. Providing real-time status on what you are doing is what is needed. We try to approach our system enhancements from the standpoint of how can we get as close as possible to having our customer electronically sitting next to their CSR [customer service representative] and knowing everything that is going on with their orders, product and shipments.
“As fiber lines get more available and our data pipes get bigger, faster and more cost-effective, we have to be ready to capitalize on using that to provide real-time information to our customers,” Van Puffelen went on to say.
He noted that present technology can allow a warehousing firm’s client’s customer’s computer to automatically send a replenishment order to the client’s computer, which can turn around and send the order to the warehouser’s computer, where the warehouser can process, ship and confirm back to the client’s computer, which can then bill the customer for its order, and then the customer can send automated clearinghouse, or ACH, payment for the order back to the warehousing firm’s customer.
“All of that can happen today with the technology that we have,” Van Puffelen said. “I don’t know of anyone doing that yet, but the technology is there, and we just have to catch up to the technology with our systems and processes that still have a lot of manual intervention.
“When you look at the potential for trimming back the inventory level a little because of the days you can take out of the cycle, and the faster cash flow that you can create – with everyone’s cooperation – it still provides a lot of opportunities for our industry in the future,” he added.
IWLA’s current board chairman, Doyle, noted that he began in the industry in 1999 as a shift supervisor, following a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, and spent much of his time on a forklift unloading shipping containers and loading and unloading trucks. But, he said, technology is sparking the industry to speedily move forward from simply providing such basic functions.
“In the area of technology,” Doyle said, “we need to be on the leading edge of new technology to stay truly competitive, and that means we need to be able to invest in technologies that provide lightning-fast information and data to our clients in as real-time a fashion as possible.
“Our clients need almost instant information as to when their product arrives at our facility, what inventory we have in the warehouse at any given moment and when their product ships out of our warehouse so they know they can invoice their customers,” he said. “This needs to be accomplished by allowing our clients real-time visibility into our system or by pushing the information to them automatically. The 3PL [third-party logistics firm] that can provide real-time information real fast and in a customizable fashion has a leg up on the competition.”
Doyle, whose company has 16 dry and temperature-controlled facilities in Florida and Georgia, offering a combined total of nearly 1.9 million square feet, said he believes menu of services is another area undergoing significant evolution.
“Traditionally,” he said, “a warehousing company just provided warehousing services to store a customer’s goods and that was the extent of the relationship. Today, the relationship is more complex and multidimensional, as many 3PLs now offer a full suite of supply chain services to include asset-based transportation, packaging, kitting, fulfillment, transportation management, freight forwarding and many other services.
“A ‘one-stop shop’ has become more commonplace as our customers prefer a single point of contact where possible, which allows for the ‘one throat to choke’ model,” Doyle continued. “This combining of services helps them in many ways to include complete supply chain visibility, fewer contracts to maintain, ease of invoicing, cost reductions and a higher level of quality as they begin to view their 3PL as a partner versus a vendor. The ability to offer a more robust suite of services will also lead to a competitive advantage in the future.”
A significant industry challenge is what Doyle termed “the war for talent,” explaining, “As the baby boomers begin to retire, we are starting to see a gap in the area of management expertise and, on the transportation side, a real shortage of truck drivers.
“Solving the issue of a management shortage and driver shortage is an issue not to be taken lightly and must be addressed now to stay competitive, as all the services I named require good people with the skills and training to be effective.” he said.
“The goal is to find the future leaders and drivers at a younger age – high school and college – and then, once hired, invest in their future through training, additional education and creating a work environment that keeps them wanting to work for the company.” Doyle concluded. “The key to maintaining a good workforce is creating a good work environment, inclusiveness and good wages where they know they have a path to more responsibility as they move up the ladder.”
IWLA’s 2009-10 chairman, Van Puffelen, said he sees the association playing an integral role in meeting such industry challenges, as it has since its 1891 founding as the American Warehousemen’s Association and continuing since the 1997 merger of the American Warehouse Association with the 80-year-old Canadian Association of Warehousing and Distribution Services to form the present IWLA.
“As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of IWLA, I am so thankful for what IWLA – formerly AWA – has done to keep our industry up with the times and pushing us to step into the future,” said Van Puffelen, who has been involved in the association since the mid-1970s. “It has had a significant impact on my professional development and growth.
“We still receive and ship boxes, just a lot better than 42 years ago,” Van Puffelen said. “Never satisfied with the status quo, IWLA continues to drive our industry into the future. Shippers and IWLA members together can celebrate the impact that IWLA has had on the logistics industry, the watchdog that they are, and the impact they have for helping to develop quality operators in North America.”