Over the years, Indian warehousing segment has evolved remarkably. While continuing to offer traditional services, along the way it has also started providing collateral services.
Among the key players in agri-warehousing is Mumbai-based National Bulk Handling Corporation (NBHC). It has more than 2,600 warehouses across India and deals with post-harvest commodities deposited by traders, ginners, millers, etc. The NBHC has brought about digital transformation of its warehouses through in-built apps designed by its own research teams. Apart from providing trade facilitation and supply-chain management, it deals in collateral management as well. On behalf of its clients, the company approaches banks for disbursing loans.
Nirvan Biswas, chief technology officer of the NBHC, tells Anushruti Singh of SME Futures how his organisation is evolving apps to help a common warehouse worker achieve more operational efficiency.
How are you using technology to transform the warehouses?
We started the process of transformation a year ago. It was tough, but we have achieved a lot. The aim was to not only digitise the existing line of business (LoB), but also provide operational efficiency and a much leaner turnaround time in business.
With digitisation, not only the transactional process, but also the field forces, the common denominator, underwent a change. We have various lines of businesses; they are all connected at some point. Earlier the entire system was manual, but with the digital platform today, the supervisor does all the transactions on a tablet that has been provided to them. The tablets have more than 30 mobile applications that cover most of the processes involved in running a warehouse. Once started, the process of transformation is endless. While working, we go by what we call the six pillars of digitisation. They are:
- Capture all the data at the point of origin
- Use the captured data for analysis so that it helps in decision-making
- Make all layers of the process transparent to gain customer trust
- Ensure all application system interfaces are API ready
- Engage all stakeholders, including street teams and the field forces, right from conceptualisation to execution
- Any notification or deviation of the processes should directly go to the person who is the action-taker and copied to other people
We religiously follow these six pillars to implement any technology project. We also deal in data analytics and run our own algorithms to make predictions while taking major decisions. For example, we are analysing data for the number of warehouses we need to hire for the next season. In my opinion, we have taken a giant leap by moving from manual notebooks to digital notebooks in just one year.
What were the processes you followed and the challenges faced during the digital transformation?
Our team had to change data structure around each LoB. We also built the next generation API platform, which started talking to each system. More importantly, data masters were stored in a single repository. To address the issue of turnaround time (TAT), each warehouse supervisor was provided a tablet with native mobile application residing on the same device. It reduced TAT significantly, which was a game changer and was appreciated by the business clients.
There were indeed many challenges we overcame throughout the process. First of all, to transform the decade-old legacy systems was a tough job. All the databases have to be updated. The primary challenge was to connect the entire system together. For this, data masters were built for individual systems with multiple data repository. The systems around each LoB were massive and without any proper data structure embedded. Front-end interfaces were archaic. And more importantly TAT around each LoB was huge, ranging from 10 to 12 days on an average. This, in our mind, was the biggest problem statement, which needed an overhaul.
Of course, when giant technology transformation is taking place, you also have to keep the human factor in mind. Employees have to be tech-literate to manage the digital process. It is not something one can make somebody understand overnight. It is an ongoing process.
What are the innovative aspects of your digitisation drive?
On the innovation side, what was done was implementation of the API layer along with breakdown of the data structures into micro building blocks, which allowed systems-to-system interaction on the data side with interface layer running across the IT infrastructure. Business layer was intermediary with subsequent interface provided for it as well. Interfacing with SAP on the accounting side, using BAPI (Business Application Programming Interface) across systems, was a major advantage. More importantly, the key was to build algorithms using major framework.
Tell us more about the apps being used on the tablets.
There are 30 apps on the tablet. These apps are used for all operations of the warehouse, right from the supervisor marking their attendance to doing any kind of transaction inward or outwards. Soon, we will also introduce an app for e-Way bill.
In terms of operational efficiency, there has been remarkable difference in the TAT before and after. Earlier, it used to take 10 to 12 days for a piece of transaction hopping across from the field to the back office and vice versa. Now, the number of days has come down and in may cases it is as low as three to four hours, resulting in cost cutting and increased efficiency.
Data analytics seems to be your next move. Tell us more about it.
Use of data analytics will definitely be beneficial in the long run. We are still in the process of connecting all our systems. We have created a data lake, where we keep all structured and unstructured captured data. There are about 30 to 35 factors which we use to analyse data. Some of these include moisture content, the temperature of the warehouse, the price of the commodity, etc. We have created algorithms to analyse the captured data and make predictions for future decisions for the business.
What is the roadmap of the NBHC for the next eight to 12 months with respect to technology implementation?
For FY18-19, we will focus on two things: to have technology initiatives that can be implemented to reduce risks at the warehouse and bring our customers into the periphery of the system that we have integrated in our warehouses. We meant to create a system or an app where the banks, traders and depositors can also log in to check what is happening with their material, looking at CCTV images of their material, checking whether the supervisor is present there or not, checking the fumigation details, the audit details, the quality details, etc. So there is the customer angle we will focus on in this particular year.