IBM Helps Untangle Supply-Chain Communications

By Jacqueline Emigh  |  Posted 2004-11-05

IBM Helps Untangle Supply-Chain Communications


Up until recently, it took a hodgepodge of faxes, phone calls, e-mails and EDI to figure out the simple substances product pricing, specifications, availability and shipping addresses. The same has been true throughout the worlds of retail and consumer package goods.

Some observers believe that untangling this communications bedlam was a major trigger behind IBMs acquisition of Trigo last March. The move would help expand the role of PIM (product information management) in the enterprise, the thinking went.

Indeed, IBM users are now implementing the inherited PIM technology for supply chain visibility in a number of ways: supplier portals, regulatory compliance databases, RFID (radio frequency identification) support, and integration with B2B markets through GDS (global data synchronization ), according to Dan Druker, IBMs director of PIM, in an interview with

Click here to read about IBMs WebSphere Product Center software, which is based on Trigos PIM technology.

Through GDS initiatives, companies are being asked to report highly granular product information in a specified format to data pools—which are essentially huge databases—around the world. The information is then validated against a global data registry. If the product is toothpaste, for example, PIM might extend to flavor, size and type of packaging.

"The beauty of GDS is that the same information is sent from manufacturers to all suppliers," Druker said. "It serves as a central version of the truth. From there, it can then be customized for retailers. Retailers like to have some stuff thats unique to them."

Specific applications of PIM technology hinge on the needs of the customer. "Weve been working with large retailers such as Albertson and Carrefour—and CPG [consumer packaged goods] makers such as Unilever and Proctor & Gamble—on GDS," Druker said.

But Druker also made it clear that IBM is interested in moving its PIM technology into vertical markets, ranging from automotive to health care, for instance.

Now being integrated into IBMs WebSphere middleware, IBMs emerging PIM technology already supports multiple GDS data pools for the retail/consumer packaged goods industry, including Transora, UCCnet and the Worldwide Retail Exchange, for instance.

Meanwhile, WebSphere is also adding RFID support. "RFID is only one way of tracking [product] information—but it happens to be very tightly integrated with GDS," Druker said.

On the other hand, Druker readily acknowledged that many product suppliers have been less than enthusiastic about complying with retailers RFID initiatives.

"Some of them have been looking at RFID as sort of a tax for doing business," he told

Next Page: Making money from RFID.

Money from RFID

IBMs retail customers have been recognizing, however, that their product suppliers will be more compliant if they can see ways of making money from RFID, Druker said. In response, IBM has started working with retailers and their suppliers to show how they can leverage RFID in conjunction with GDS to get ROI (return on investment).

This task hasnt been as tough as it might otherwise seem, since at many distributorships, the same person is in charge of both GDS and RFID implementations. Moreover, many GDS implementations have been up and running for a couple of years now, he said.

A new study finds a gap between companies supply-chain tech and their business strategies. Click here to read more.

Even before the buyout, Trigo Product Center had already made substantial headway with users in the retail/consumer packaged goods space. At the time of the acquisition, some analysts pointed to future expansion of the PIM technology into other vertical industries targeted by IBM, including computers and electronics.

Not surprisingly, in the interview this week, Druker pointed to possible expansions into automotive and health. Faced with new tire retread regulations, for example, players in the automotive industry could put together databases containing information about where various tires are manufactured, along with failure analyses, he said.

"The same type of technology could be applied to saving lives," Druker said. "Giving the wrong [pharmaceutical] product to the wrong patient is one of the largest causes of death in the world."

To read a column on how medical RFID could help save lives, click here.

Meanwhile, some IBM customers, concerned over changes in U.S. customs regulations, have started to put together PIM-based databases for keeping track of the details on overseas trading partners, he said.

Other IBM users are augmenting GDS with Web-based portals that also use PIM. A product distributor, for example, might offer most product information through a GDS data pool, while relying on a portal only for running custom data that is specific to particular retailers.

PIM-based portals are also being set up to ease communications with smaller partners that dont yet have the resources for dealing with the large data pools.

"Even if youre a small producer of lettuce, and your operations arent computerized yet, you can always take a trip to your local library once a week and access your partners portal from the Web," he said.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news and analysis of enterprise supply chains.

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