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Image Tracking Across the Entire Supply Chain

A picture is worth a thousand words and a story is worth a thousand pictures. It's little wonder, then, that people often long to describe a problem with a picture. In their personal lives, technology savvy people snap a picture and send it off to get a problem solved. And yet, within the supply chain, no vendor has included end-to-end image tracking for stock keeping units (SKUs) as part of the base functionality of their product.

In the early days of our company, we shared information about our minimum viable product (MVP) within our network. A West coast manufacturer was interested in testing our product, so we did a pilot in the organization's warehouse and everyone there loved it. During a pilot post mortem, the customer shared headaches associated with chargebacks.

These folks ship a lot to Walmart, Target, Macys, and several other retailers and charge backs amounted to $300,000 annually. Our picture-based documentation capability could at least reduce charge backs to a reasonable level. Prior to system implementation, a camera operator with a single camera went to the outbound shipping dock to take pictures of every shipment leaving the facility. This worker's day consisted of loading the pictures from a memory card to a PC, putting them into a shared folder for everyone to access, and then going back to the loading dock to take more pictures.

Unfortunately, this process created a bottleneck, especially during the peak shipping time in the evenings when shipments get ready to leave. The single operator/single camera system was simply too slow. In the end, the company abandoned the process, deciding that it created more problems than it solved. The goal behind taking pictures was to document and show customers that the shipment left their facility intact. If the vendor claimed issues when the shipment arrived at their end, it was documented that the goods had left the dock in good condition. It put the problem of the charge back squarely with the transportation service rather than the manufacturer. With the new system, every operator had a wearable device that could take a picture as an integral part of the loading process, and then execute the close load function in the warehouse management system (WMS).

Sample management for sales people offers another use case for picture-based documentation. Apparel manufacturers struggle with sending the right samples especially when an assortment of products is needed (i.e. belt, jeans, t-shirt, etc.).  A small error in the Universal Product Code (UPC) number is going to make the manufacturer look really bad. Often while working through potential sales deals, even the UPC is not solidified because the merchandiser has only samples. Upon receipt of the purchase order, the manufacturer makes more units, assigns a UPC, and incorporates it into the supply chain system. Image tracking would support tracking samples, whether clothes or electronic components. Each user in the chain can take a look at the image and ensure that is the correct product that is sent to the sales people or potential customer.

Another use case can be culled from looking at the processes of another customer, a leading massage and relaxation products maker with many FDA compliant SKUs. In any industry with compliance concerns, the need to track and document is paramount. In this case, the FDA requires that every document pertaining to a return be readily available in case of legal questions. By imaging all paperwork and storing as a PDF, users can make retrieval of documentation simple. Each image is linked to the respective Return ASNs for tracking. 

With strong imaging capabilities, end-to-end image tracking is easy from PO and ASN through to the receiving, put away and shipping processes. Any discrepancies in between can be captured and associated with a case number, SKU, location or any unique entity that sits within the WMS.

What areas in the electronics supply chain do you see that could be improved by picture or video based documentation? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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