CombineNet Communiqué III: Differences

Disclaimer: This blog, including this post, is not sponsored by CombineNet. The author is not employed by, contractually engaged with, or affiliated with CombineNet. Any and all opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Furthermore, the opinions expressed herein should be contrasted with the opinions of other educated professionals before the reader forms his or her own opinion. Finally, the author is neither endorsing nor dissenting the use of CombineNet’s products or services – merely trying to spread awareness on the importance of optimization and the relative uniqueness of an offering like that of CombineNet. This disclaimer holds true for each post in this multi-part series and will be repeated.

Yesterday we discussed CombineNet’s post The Make vs. Buy Dilemma and indicated that although this was a very good post … it did not quite meet its goal because this is a problem that could be more than adequately solved by way of a leading platform optimization engine and indicated that there are problems that the platform optimization engines cannot solve.

We noted that Paul was on the right path with the make versus buy example. This was primarily because there were three options at different levels of complexity:

  • source individual components (make)
  • source assembled components (buy)
  • source sub-assembles

and each of these options could define a sophisticated model on its own.

Now we’ll shift from make vs. buy to logistics, and, specifically, transportation network design. Consider a buyer who needs to transport product from a supplier’s facility. The buyer often has at least three options: let the supplier transport the product from their facility to the buyer facility, let a third party transport the product from the supplier’s facility to the buyer’s facility, or have the supplier transport the product to a centralized distribution center and then have a preferred third party transport the product to the buyer’s facility. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Sounds like something we could probably do by hand since there will only be a small number of legs associated with each lane, each with a small number of costs and besides shipping costs, we only need to consider tariffs.

Now consider a buyer who needs to transport product from fifty supplier facilities. Instead of having at least three choices, you now have at least one hundred and fifty choices. Now you might be thinking that you could simply solve for each supplier location separately, which you could easily do with most platform optimization engines, but this is not likely to be the optimal solution since (a) there will likely be discounts from suppliers and freight carriers if sufficient volume is allocated and (b) if intermediate DCs are used, then products from the same category can be bundled and better rates obtained.

Of course, you might note that although most sourcing models either assume that the supplier is providing freight or that a single carrier is being used, at least one provider will soon offer a model where you can simultaneously associate multiple freight options with each product and that an intermediate distribution center is just another option (with adjusted costs) and that such a model could, with the proper formulation, costs, and adjustments likely handle such a model. Well, yes and no. It could handle a basic representation, but we haven’t considered bundling concerns – not all products from a centralized DC can be shipped on the same truck, multiple freight brackets and discounts – which could greatly increase the computational complexity, and the fact that the best solution in the design of an international transportation network might involve using multiple levels of centralized distribution centers. Even though a platform optimization engine with a really good embedded model could probably handle bundling reasonably well by way of grouping and exclusion constraints and freight brackets and discounts by way of appropriately implemented discounts and penalties, the reality is that your standard embedded sourcing, or even logistical model, is not going to be able to fully handle a dynamic multi-level transportation network.

So does this mean that best of breed wins out? Not necessarily. You’re not going to redesign your transportation network for every sourcing event. In fact, you’re probably not going to make significant changes to your network more than every couple of years. In addition, most of the time your problems are not going to be anywhere near this level of complexity.

So does this mean that leading platform optimization engines are your best choice? Not necessarily. As I indicated in my first post, on a high value category, even a couple of extra points can mean millions of dollars.

The answer is that if you are a large company, you probably need to follow the advice of the SpendFool and use both – they are not mutually exclusive. Use your (super-charged) honda-powered platform optimization engine from your leading Software-as-a-Service provider for your average sourcing event, since this is probably your highest ROI, but bring in the big lear-powered jet for your high-value complex events with very large numbers of decisions that need to be made simultaneously, particularly those that involve network design or really complicated make versus buy decisions (where you are not just considering a seat but the sourcing of the BOM for an entire car – and once you know what you are going to make versus what you are going to buy, you can probably revert to the honda-powered platform for the individual sourcing events). (As for how often will you need the lear jet, that depends on your specific needs. If you’re not sure, I would start with the honda and see how far it takes you, or, better yet, bring in a third party with expertise in optimization and market offerings to help you decide.) In my view, there’s plenty of room in the market, and plenty of need, for both BoB and POE because, when it comes to optimization, there really is no one-size-fits-all and the best you are going to find is a one-size-fits-most for any category of problems that you have.

Is the story over? Not by a mile. This series is titled CombineNet Communiqué and the next part of this series* will discuss their (public) solution offerings now that we’ve illustrated a scenario where a platform optimization engine might not be enough.

* After a brief hiatus.