Taking services to the Web

Web services seems to have as many definitions as it has implementations, but one thing is for certain — at its core, it is all about customer satisfaction and adding some value to the increasingly commoditized world of business. For an area of IT that has been, at times, tremendously over-hyped, we’ve attempted to cut through the marketing by providing three success stories.

One caveat: ComputerWorld Canada contacted three of the biggest players in the field — Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. and asked them for Canadian customers to speak about their Web Services experiences. Only Microsoft met our request. One of them, CCL Custom Manufacturing, was included in this article. In all, ComputerWorld Canada spoke to six companies for this story and included the three most interesting.

CCL Custom Manufacturing

If ever there was a company standing between two Goliaths, it is CCL. As a contract manufacturer of consumer products like soap and shampoo, CCL gets supplies from a variety of companies — one of which is Dow Chemical Co. On the other side, one of CCL’s biggest customers is Procter & Gamble Co.

Akhil Bhandari, the company’s Toronto-based CIO, admits this situation has “not left much wiggle room” for CCL.

For many years manufacturing has relied on Electronic Data Interchange, or EDI, in order to streamline processes around regulating production capacity and inventory management. It is still used by thousands of companies as a means of transferring information, such as purchase orders, between companies. But in those areas of a business that rely on a myriad of factors often outside one’s own control, it is not as useful.

“There was no means to have inter-organization transactions automated at the level (that can be done) with today’s Web services,” Bhandari said. “EDI is very, very structured…(and) not very collaborative.”

CCL wanted to increase supply-chain visibility or, as Bhandari put it, to create a “glass pipeline” — while at the same time reducing the use of faxes and other manual means to send and receive orders.

In order to do so, a Web portal was built using Microsoft .Net technology. It, in turn, was integrated using XML and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), with CCL’s own J.D. Edwards (now PeopleSoft) ERP system. The project took about 18 months to build at a cost of approximately $100,000 for the first pilot.

The first to use the system were CCL’s suppliers, 120 of which (representing 90 per cent of its business) now use the portal to access CCL’s own production schedule. This allows suppliers to control their own shipping processes of, for example, the chemicals needed to manufacture shampoo. If CCL is behind on a production run due to maintenance or repairs, a client could see that a certain chemical was not needed until a later date, not necessarily the contract delivery date, Bhandari explained.

Additionally, by having this glass pipeline CCL can reduce the inventory it stores, while giving added value to its suppliers — they don’t have to manufacture a chemical until CCL needs it.

Prior to the Web services solution, CCL had to manually enter data into customer terminals (all of which used different technology and required training for CCL employees) located at the CCL plant. “All those terminals are gone now,” Bhandari said.

On the P&G side, CCL gets daily 30-day XML-based demand forecasts. These are automatically plugged into its production system, allowing the company to not only spot trends, but also understand its own supply needs for the coming month. “We are not asking them to do anything different for us…so the rest of P&G is not impacted,” he said.

Clients and customers do need their own IT departments to get involved to properly integrate the XML data coming from CCL into their own systems. But Bhandari said this was only a “minor change” since most were already using EDI.

Bhandari said the project has been a success and that CCL looks at it less from an ROI perspective than a “competitive advantage in an environment with tight margins.”

CGI Autoplus Service

CGI Group Inc. is Canada’s largest independent IT services company. One service it offers its insurance clients is the Automobile Claims History service, or AutoPlus. This auto-insurance database offers access to more than 30 million policies from over 70 companies and is accessed by about 8,000 insurance brokers and agents, said Wayne Beck, Richmond Hill, Ont.-based vice-president of consulting services with CGI. The information helps brokers more accurately underwrite insurance and process claims.

But the old technology was beginning to show its age. “The architecture of the old system was getting in the way of building new products and services for our clients,” he said. The original was built using proprietary Unix and could no longer leverage third-party products, he said. It was time for a change.

As a technology company, it is not surprising that CGI took on the project itself. We “not only have re-engineered a business (but) built it, deployed it and operate it,” Beck said. The company decided to build on the .Net platform. The project was about three months in planning and thinking, and took about nine months to build.

CGI looked at the project from both an ROI perspective (a reduction in cost in running the database on new technology) but also as a value-add for its clients. The company got an ROI in about 18 months, Beck said, though he would not specify the project’s overall cost.

“Everything is done in XML,” he said. So brokers can have it “Web based, records layout, whatever way they want.” If they want the data dropped into their own PeopleSoft or Oracle Corp. financials, that too can be done, Beck said, although similar to CCL, it does require some customer IT work on their end. “For those companies that use Microsoft, the hook up is a lot easier than (for) the J2EE guys, but it still works.”

One of the big Web service value-adds is a module called Claims Check. When a car insurance claim is processed an agent has to decide whether or not to investigate it. Traditionally this is a fairly manual process, Beck said, where a checklist is gone over.

The case may be red flagged; for investigation if the claim is particularly large (or over a predetermined threshold), the claimant is new to the company or if it is the second or third recent claim — or any combination of the above.

Online brokers or agents set up their own rules. For one it may be a $10,000 claim that is automatically flagged, for another the threshold is hit at $20,000 and only on a policy less than six months old. The setup is done once online.

When they process a claim, agents answer a series of questions about it and the data is sent to CGI’s system. Almost instantly a pass or fail is sent back — or even an “insufficient information.”

The automation of the process saves time and money, and eliminates the repetitive process of keying in data, Beck said. “[Claims Check] is basically a rules engine built into .Net.”

CGI “went through a learning curve” with the project, Beck said, but the end result is that new projects built on .Net can be built “fast because there is so much reusability.” CGI will soon launch Underwriters Check and an insurance check for police, so they can quickly verify if a car or driver is insured.

UPS Quantum View

“At the end of the day, if you are not adding value to your clients then you become a commodity real quick,” said Wayne Bosch, UPS Canada director of e-commerce. “FedEx, UPS, Purolator, what’s the difference — you pick it up and you deliver it.”

To avoid this, UPS has become one of the world’s largest investors in technology, spending US$1 billion a year. This year it launched Quantum View, a three-part Web Service. Quantum View Notify will automatically send and e-mail notification with a package’s status to up to five individuals. Quantum View Manage allows for the downloading and sharing of package data to users in an organization. Quantum View Data is for those companies that want to integrate the data into their own ERP, financial or other corporate systems.

This glass pipeline, to borrow Bhandari’s term, is truly transparent. (I recently had a package shipped up from the U.S. With a click on the URL in my notifi

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