Document Automation

Specialist vs generalist data automation. What do logistics companies need to consider when choosing a document automation solution?

The reality of a modern day supply chain is that every element of the shipping process still generates a huge volume of shipping documents. In fact, it’s estimated that every year, 12 billion documents are processed in ocean forwarding alone. 

With more pressure than ever on businesses to improve back office efficiency, logistics is one of many industries that has woken up to the benefits of intelligent document processing, which uses artificial intelligence to enable data extraction from documents faster and more accurately than ever before. 

Shipping documents and workflows are more complex than most 

With a growing demand for document automation solutions, there are several industry agnostic tools on the market that can be setup and programmed to extract data from business documents and invoices. Some of these are pure OCR, which require template set up, others are smarter and can cover some variation in formats. For simple details like invoice totals, PO numbers and bank account numbers, generalist tools are a perfectly adequate solution for your average company.

But the logistics industry is far from average. The breadth of documents - Bills of Lading, Commercial Invoices, Supplier Invoices and Packing Lists - and the knowledge needed to accurately process them to provide an outstanding service for your customers is quite unlike most industries. In addition to needing a much larger subset of data extracting for reconciliation purposes, logistics documents vary wildly in form and content, which makes normalisation of document data challenging for even the top performing generalist solutions.

If you’ve been frustrated by the implementation efforts required to modify a generalist technology to your use case, you’re not alone. In today’s Plug & Play SaaS world, the bar has been raised - organisations should no longer have to allocate months to template & train ‘out of the box’ models or project manage complex implementations. 

Generalists vs specialists. What to consider as a freight forwarder. 

Implementing a generalist document automation solution to carry out a specialist industry task is likely to lead to a fresh set of problems. We examine four areas forwarders need to consider when weighing up a generalist solution against an industry specialist solution.

1. Will the solution understand the details of logistics documents and provide accurate results?

Imagine you have a new graduate in your office tasked to do data processing - they can ‘see’ the data in the document, but they don't really understand what it means. Compare this to your trained, experienced operators who understand what an SCAC should look like, etc. This is the difference between a generalist solution and Shipamax.

Why does this matter? Simply, higher accuracy. Shared models across millions of logistics documents provide a deeper understanding of the context of a document, providing a higher accuracy output and less manual intervention needed for corrections.

Similarly, when working with a generalist solution, you’ll typically find it will cover a subset of fields well - for example, invoice totals, PO numbers and bank account numbers. Some technologies allow you to define custom fields which would provide the data structure for the specialist fields you, as a logistics provider, need for an integration. However, when building custom fields, you're starting from scratch in building a solution that understands those fields. 

This can add risk and uncertainty on your final accuracy and time to go live.

2. Will the solution cover the breadth of documents you process?

Generalist solutions are typically well versed with industry agnostic use cases such as AP invoices. However, this will only cover a fraction of your admin. So we bend and twist these ‘smart’ solutions to apply to documents that haven't been seen before - enter again your new graduate to the business. 

To reap the full rewards of automation, process documents straight from the initial source with no manual intervention is the gold standard. With all the shapes, sizes and types of documents in logistics, to do this well, you’ll need a strong classification engine to identify exactly what type those documents are. 

When parsing documents, the accuracy of the initial classification has a knock-on impact on the overall accuracy of your solution. If your classification is only 80%, any document processing after that will be capped at a max of 80%, increasing the need for manual intervention and again diminishing your automation ROI.

3. Will the solution integrate with your existing logistics software? 

Where generalist tools will easily integrate with your ERP or accounting systems like Xero and Sage, you’ll need to build a custom integration when it comes to specialist logistics applications like CargoWise or BluJay. An industry solution like Shipamax not only offers an out-of-the-box integration with CargoWise, but also has the appropriate data structures in place to ensure a seamless integration with any custom logistics systems.

4. Will the solution provide a delightful, end-to-end user experience?

When procuring an automation solution, it’s typical to focus on the ‘hard’ part of the solution - the underlying  document processing technology. 

But to really drive efficiencies and ensure a smooth rollout across the business, the surrounding tools, integrations and workflows are just as important. There’s a reason intuitive technologies such as Zoom, Dropbox & Slack are loved and quickly adopted by teams. Having delightful, easy-to-use technologies makes your job in delivering technology and process change much easier.

One example here is the workflow around exception management. With any process automation, there will always be exceptions. These can be ‘natural’ exceptions - errors that exist in the document itself, or items the automation tool hasn’t been able to process correctly.

With logistics processes, these exceptions can come in different shapes and sizes, for example understanding the matching between Master & House Bills of Lading will be a different workflow from a miss-matched AP invoice accrual. The type of alert you need if there’s been a problem pushing into your ERP will be different from a missing data field.

To minimise manual admin on these exceptions, your workflow must be designed for the task at hand and built as natively as possible into the user’s workflow.

A specialist industry requires a specialist solution 

A generalist document automation solution will get the job done, eventually. It will take time and you’ll need to dip further into your IT budget to get where you need to be. It’ll require significant work to integrate with other logistics applications and will throw up considerable challenges for your IT and Operations teams when new and more complex documents eventually land.

As a result, the cost of set-up and maintenance damage the ROI gained by adopting a document automation solution. 

At Shipamax, plug & play logistics automation is all we do - it’s the core of our business. From a broad coverage of shipping document types and structures, Anti-Template technology and out-of-the box CargoWise integrations, Shipamax is purpose built for the shipping and logistics industry.

We painstakingly get to grips with the end workflows of our logistics users to ensure we build a delightful experience. All this means a system that is simple to set up, easy to drive adoption and incurs no maintenance overhead.

For shippers and forwarders, there are a number of obvious advantages to choosing a specialist industry solution over a generalist solution. Our product specialists are at hand to walk you through the details of our specialist technology to help you determine the best set up for you.

Shipamax helps free logistics companies from manual admin using plug and play automation. If you're a logistics company and you’d like to learn more about back office document automation, we would love to hear from you.

Jenna BrownCo-Founder and CEO
May 2020
9 min read
  • Freight Forwarders
  • Document Automation
  • Machine Learning
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