“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci
I wonder if Leonardo da Vinci was envisioning the flexibility and capabilities that are inherent in black box technology when he made this comment. Just think about it, an input goes into the black box millions of times a day and yields the same output, time after time. With each input being transformed into the correct output in a microsecond, black box is simple, yet truly amazing. While the brilliant Leonardo probably wasn’t thinking about black box, any company looking to simplify the technology supporting its shipping and trade requirements should review the capabilities of black box.
Black box is sometimes called Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and is a simple messaging-based architecture that encapsulates business logic and provides APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to support business functions, like create a shipment, rate a shipment, print a label, or perform a compliance check.
With companies often running different software systems for financials, inventory, manufacturing, distribution (shipment execution), and logistics (trade & compliance), the need for seamless interoperability is greater than ever. By providing seamless connectivity to ERP and Warehouse Management, black box can improve efficiencies, lower operating costs, and increase overall productivity across your operations.
Since black box eliminates the need for a user interface, the requirement to train users is significantly reduced. An additional benefit is on the deployment side. The predefined APIs drive consistency and standardization allowing quicker and faster deployment and application response times. There’s no need for the conference room pilots with fifty people debating if the field should be in the upper right or bottom left of the screen. Companies use the predefined APIs to pass the input and the output is returned in the predefined format. The same process is used for deployments in the USA, China, London, and every other location that global companies are deploying shipping capabilities.
Black box isn’t the solution for every problem. That’s why companies need enterprise logistics solutions that provide both options, an easy to use and understand user interface plus black box capabilities. As a result, companies can meet their business requirements today and have the framework and flexibility to meet their future business requirements. After all, the solution is supposed to support and enable the business, not force the business to change a proven business process to adapt to the software.
Here are a few questions to ask when reviewing solutions that provide black box capabilities:
- Are there standard documented Web Services / APIs available? The solution should provide a feature-rich set of APIs that accommodate the key business functions. The information should be documented with examples of the mapped transactions to reduce the time required to integrate the solutions.
- Are the systems completely separated and how are upgrades handled? In a true black box deployment, the environments are loosely coupled which enables each solution to be upgraded independently. When you want to upgrade your black box environment, the only change should involve incorporating new messages or taking advantage of expanding messaging for an existing business function. When the primary solution is being upgraded, the only requirement is to send and accept the same message format being used.
- What performance can be expected? Performance comes in two flavors, reliability and response time. In the world of logistics, a second is a lifetime and downtime causes problems in the entire supply chain. Reliability means the system is designed to provide high availability with minimal support. It’s critical that you understand the response time for your current volume and future volume. The system has to deliver acceptable response times and be able to scale as your business grows. Check the benchmarks and speak with other companies using the technology.
Leonardo is considered a technical genius; he postulated the helicopter, calculator and other items that weren’t technically feasible at the time. Maybe Leonardo was thinking about how black box provides a simple framework for handling the complexity of business.
Edward A. Boclair is President of Precision Software, a division of QAD Inc. Boclair is responsible for global operations, including sales, marketing, research and development, and services. Boclair has a Masters of Business Administration from Texas Christian University plus a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and a BBA in Management from Mississippi State University.