Image: Balzac Fresh Food Distribution Center, by Walmart

Few areas of the software market in the past ten years have been as hot as supply chain.

Supply chains in many industries have been trying to cut costs out of distribution networks while reducing order lead time and inventories. They want solutions for modernizing what has traditionally been a backwater: truck booking; warehouse management; pallet management; order picking; truck loading; yard management; and delivery discrepancy management.

This category also includes software for demand forecasting and optimal product deployment throughout a company’s distribution network. Demand planning software can be fraught with peril for companies lacking the discipline and attention to detail needed to master these applications. These applications can be difficult to evaluate, from a buyer’s standpoint. Proceed with caution.

Companies in the supply chain space, known as SCM, (supply chain management), include industry leaders Oracle and SAP, and firms like JDA Software, Manhattan Associates and Red Prairie (recently merged with JDA). JDA is a firm that has grown by acquiring industry-leading supply chain management applications such as i2 and Manugistics. The company claims that 6,000 firms worldwide use its SCM software.

Supply chain applications can be single-purpose or inter-connected, like an ERP system. The supply chain is like a business-within-a-business: it has at least five processes that must be interconnected in some way: 1) demand planning (what will customers order?); 2) distribution network planning (where should we store it before it is shipped to the customer?); 3) manufacturing scheduling (how much should we make, when?); 4) material requirements planning (MRP – what raw materials & supplies do we need?); and 5) warehousing, transportation, and shipping (store the product and ship it to the customer when needed).

A single-purpose application (Demand Planning, Warehouse Management, Transportation) will claim to solve your problems in one or maybe two of these areas. An inter-connected supply chain application will manage all five of these areas. Vendors that offer an inter-connected solution will present themselves as offering total SCM, or supply chain management, solutions.

It’s hard to carve up the supply chain and say one application is better in one area than another, because probably the most important thing is the integration between the five main segments of demand planning, distribution planning, manufacturing scheduling, MRP, and warehousing and shipping.

If you had to choose, the demand planning software might be most important, unless your customers place orders way in advance of shipment; on the other hand, you might have multiple manufacturing locations or warehouses and you need a solution for where to make and ship your product most efficiently.