Case study: Haulage firm Palletline overhauls network

Palletline, private sector winner in the Computer Weekly European User Awards for Networking, shares its winning case study

The pallet industry may not be the first you think of when considering innovation, but Palletline is one company bucking that trend with a four-year, £1m project to create Contrado, a new consignment management platform.

The Birmingham-based company was founded in 1992 and right from the start attempted to rethink an industry that had worked the same way for many years. 

Palletline created what it calls a “hub and spoke” system for haulage, so deliveries could be split between different haulage companies depending on the route and final destination of the goods. Instead of one company taking a delivery all the way, it could send it to the Palletline hub, where it would be transferred to another company to complete the job.

This innovation made haulage much more efficient and cost-effective, and led to the creation of the Palletised Delivery Networks. The network spreads across Europe and has 6,000 members, 10,000 vehicles and over five million square feet of warehouse space.

Managing consignments from start to finish

More recently the company has turned its attention to issues with consignment management, which means visibility of all aspects of freight movement jobs, from initial order through to billing. This includes any changes to orders once they have been made and traceability throughout the transit process.

Rather than build the whole system, review it, make amendments, test and then release, the system was built and tested section by section. Super-users tested the platform, offered their feedback and then trained others to use it

Helen Dickinson, head of ICT at Palletline, says there wasn’t one issue in particular that forced the company to embark on the project but instead it was a combination of the age of the existing system and its lack of flexibility which led to complications with centralised billing.

“Palletline is basically like a co-op, so our members are shareholders within the company,” she explains. “What’s different about us is that they also have their own businesses to run, such as moving their own freight, so we don’t dictate that they use our system, which acts instead as a central point. But they do routing and handling of freight through their own system, so our system works on the passing of information backwards and forwards.”

This meant the existing system had to pull information from a variety of different proprietary systems, which was becoming increasingly difficult with the old system. "To bill centrally we had to put a lot of restrictions into the system in terms of validation of jobs and so on. We just didn’t feel we could move forward with the system we had,” says Dickinson.

So Palletline set about developing a new system, one that could integrate with more than 70 proprietary systems used by Palletline’s members and provide full, end-to-end visibility of each job. 

“Integration with members’ proprietary systems was key as this allows members to operate their own traffic management system for all of their freight, whilst adding the benefit of full live job management information being fed back to their system for any freight they move via the Palletline network,” she says.

Developing Contrado

To meet this challenge, Palletline invested four years and £1m to launch a new consignment management system – Contrado. The system secured it the winning spot in the private sector category in Computer Weekly's European User Awards for Networking 2014.

Contrado was developed in conjunction with Stirling Solutions. Palletline had to completely map out the processes required because, as Dickinson explains, the previous system had lots of extras bolted on to it, often at the request of a single customer. That meant the system had a lot of processes in place that didn’t serve all customers.

That effort took around two years to complete, after which Palletline started on writing the function specs for Contrado. There then followed a period of reviews and improvements before testing began.

Rather than build the whole system, review it, make amendments, test and then release, the system was built and tested section by section. While this was not initially how Palletline wanted to operate, it ended up being a positive. Super-users tested the platform, offered their feedback and then trained others in how to use the system.

“While this complicated the project,” Dickinson says, “it also meant users could see the system as it was built and changes and requests could be fed back earlier. This was very useful for go-live as users weren’t 'new’ to the system when the changeover took place.”

The switch to the new system began in December of 2011, but the new interface was not laid on top of Contrado until August of the following year, to continue the smooth roll-out of the system. Palletline is also taking a continuous development approach, with bugs and change requests being logged via SharePoint. Unlike the previous system, however, changes will only be made it they positively impact most users.

“Requests range from adding a new column to certain screens to big, fundamental changes,” Dickinson says. “The system is very permission-based anyway, so if a specific user requests something we can assign it to just them. Equally, if it’s useful for everyone we can assign it to all. But if it’s a change that will affect everyone we have to assess whether it’s detrimental to anyone.”

Improved accuracy and efficiency at a reduced cost

Contrado gives Palletline and its members the ability to track and monitor all jobs moving across its network. This includes the proactive identification and solving of potential issues as well as timely and accurate billing for all completed jobs, something that was very difficult to achieve with the old system.

“Our members don’t really need to look at central billing because everything is designed to give them the information live if something goes wrong, while just feeding through information automatically if nothing goes wrong,” Dickinson says.

The stats regarding Contrado reveal what a successful project it has been:

  • 98% accuracy across all scanning disciplines.
  • 23.5% reduction in network service failures.
  • 7.15% improvement in delivery confirmation on day of delivery.
  • A minimum of eight physical scans per pallet.

The ultimate goal, of course, was improvements with the centralised billing process, and Contrado has delivered on that promise. Dickinson says “thousands” of man-hours have been freed up because 27,000 invoices totalling around £80m per year are now automated instead of having to be generated manually. In fact, the system can process invoices worth £1.5m per week in under five minutes.

Dickinson estimates that cost savings across the network total around £1.5m per year, with £60,000 alone being saved at Palletline Central Hub.

“We’ve made business-critical processes instant, painless and free from human error. Ultimately, what we’ve got is full visibility of absolutely everything within the life of the pallet, as well as time savings and efficiencies within the billing process,” she says.

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