The good old handwritten inventories, with their carbonless multi parts, have been ubiquitous in the moving industry for decades, and they have served it well. But they do have their limitations: they require a neat hand to be legible, can easily be misunderstood especially when it comes to recording exceptions, they require manual input to computer systems, and they are hard to translate. They really have no place in a digital age.
Digital inventories, by comparison, are much more flexible. They do away with the limitations of their analogue predecessors and provide the opportunity to create valuable efficiencies for the entire moving industry worldwide.
ISO Standard 17451:2016
Some companies are already using them, they have been around for some time, but the adoption of digital inventories has been slow. Then recently their use received a massive potential boost. A couple of years ago the International Association of Movers (IAM) led the publication of the ISO Standard 17451:2016 parts 1 and 2 entitled Packaging - Codification of Contents for Inventories for Shipments of Household Goods and Personal Effects.
Part 1 established a common numeric coding for inventories. This is important
because it allowed software companies to design their systems to meet the Standard and make it possible to compile digital inventories on any device. That was a big leap forward.
Bigger still, perhaps, is Part 2 which establishes the structure for transmitting the data, allowing it to be shared between interested parties, such as, for example, an origin and destination agent.
Great, you might say. So why are we not all using them now? Well, it’s not that simple.
Nothing ever is. Ray daSilva is from Mobility Exchange, a technology company that is taking on the challenge. “It always comes with a lot of investment, re-training and agony in the beginning,” he said. “There is always resistance when we take people from a paper to a computer system. You must have a champion at the top that will be determined to do it anyway. You have to have strong leadership to do that.”
But is it just about leadership? Or are there technical obstacles to overcome as well? Ray daSilva again. “The value of the ISO Standard is the interchange of the data, and that is currently not happening at all between disparate systems. The origin and destination agents’ systems don’t talk to each other.” Ray explained that the Standard can facilitate the interchange of data but there still must be an interface that allows the information to pass through. “That bridge has not been built yet.”
And it’s not surprising really. It would require every system to have an interface to every other system to allow the flow of information to take place. “The technology companies know how to do it, but it requires a lot of resources to get it done,” Ray explained. “It also has to be maintained to accept new items that become common on inventories over time.”
So, there’s the problem. We have the technical ability, but do we have the drive to see it through? And there is always the possibility of backing the wrong horse.
Inevitably one dominant technology will emerge, it always does, but that’s no consolation if you’ve just spent a fortune gearing up to use the wrong one. Without a huge push, we may have to wait a long time for a clear track to emerge.
US Forces to the rescue
Enter the US Department of Defense. The DOD has around 400,000 shipments a year of household goods for its service personnel.
It has recently issued a new draft Tender of Service to which all providers of household goods moving services must adhere. It stipulates that, by no later than April 2022, all suppliers must: Prepare an accurate, electronic, legible, HHG Descriptive Inventory with a clear condition description of articles during the packing, pickup and delivery. These electronic inventories must be in accordance with ISO17451-1.
Hmmm! That changes things. This is the world’s biggest buyer of household goods moving services that is instructing suppliers to provide digital inventories for all moves within the next six months. If your company is in the US military business, anywhere in the world, you now need to take notice.
Whether you continue to provide those services might depend on your ability to do something that you can’t do right now.
Ray daSilva explained that, following a meeting of the DOD’s Personal Property Forum (PPF) in September, the position has softened a little. “Industry made a strong case that implementation within the short lead period would ultimately result in only a fraction of the moving services providers being able to comply, leading to capacity shortages which are already posing critical problems. In addition, industry asked questions about how customers that were not capable of navigating information on smartphones and tablets would deal with checking the inventories online unless printers were required to be carried by every crew, which would be impractical.” As a result the DOD delayed the implementation of digital inventories until May 2023. But the principle remains.
However, David Cox, Executive Vice President at JK Moving in the US said his company has been using digital inventories exclusively for the last three years. “The process is paperless with most customers being perfectly comfortable with signing digitally then receiving an e-mailed pdf version of the inventory,” he explained.
But, of course, that’s only part of the story.
Even if you can figure out a way of printing the inventory at the origin residence, or get an e-mailed pdf later, you then still only have a paper inventory. Admittedly it’s one you can read, but it’s still paper.
The real efficiencies come if you can keep the information in a digital format so it can be exchanged, downloaded and translated quickly and easily. With the combined forces of the US military, 400,000 moves a year and thousands of small companies worldwide involved, it looks as if the critical mass needed to speed up this transition and allow the dominant technology to emerge is just around the corner. Once that nut is cracked, other government departments, the governments of other countries, and major corporations will not be far behind.
Brian Limperopulos, IAM Vice President, agrees. “The problem will be solved because customers will demand it,” he said. “The US Department of Defense’s requirement for digital inventories that conform to the ISO 17451-1 Standard is the first step but it is transforming this discussion so that it is no longer an ‘if ’ question but a ‘when’ one. Those companies who are willing to invest in this new technology will have to overcome some obstacles, but they will be well-positioned to serve the clients of the future.”
Much will depend on the abilities of the technology companies to facilitate the development of the digital inventories and create a means of data exchange that is secure and simple for all staff, including road crews, to use.
Max Kreynin, from Voxme, said that, in his opinion, the creation of the digital inventory is far from sorted. He said that it’s the ease of use that is critical. “It’s not just the app, it’s the fact that it needs to be rolled out to independent drivers and subcontractors, often working for multiple agents and therefore having to push the inventories back to the agents’ systems,” he explained.
“Then there’s a topic of making inventories available for electronic/barcode-based checkoff at all points of transfer, including delivery and even checkoff by the client,” he continued. He said that this could be done either by transferring the data between the agents’ systems; or, by the origin agent allowing other move participants to scan the inventory. “We are active in both,” he said.
Siddharth Mohan from Yembo looked at it slightly differently. He said that with the Yembo technology the pre-move survey would capture images and details of the inventory so the driver doesn’t have to start from scratch.
Transferring the information is simple if both agents are using Yembo as the information is available within the system.
If not, the company has made APIs (Application Programmable Interfaces) to make the transfers possible. “Any third party vendor can directly integrate with Yembo’s APIs,” he explained. “If the origin agent is a Yembo customer but the destination agent is not, this would be the approach. Where the destination agent is our customer, we can easily integrate other vendor APIs as well since we have a capable engineering team.” Siddharth said that the challenge would come if vendors don’t have the necessary engineering capability to integrate their APIs or make their own APIs available to others.
Brian Limperopulos again: “Transferring data between different systems happens every day in many other industries,” he said.
“Take the airlines where they have found it in their best interest to share data about their routing and pricing so that customers have very easy ways to compare and contrast travel options on the aggregation platforms.
We all use these platforms because it makes the buying experience better. The reason this can be done is because the airlines have agreed on standards that govern the capture and exchange of their data. The moving industry can do the same, but we must come together to use the existing standards and figure out how to take that next step to exchange data between systems.
It is not so much a technical problem but a collective action one where we must coordinate all elements of a fragmented industry toward a common goal.
So, what will be the benefits of digital inventories for movers? It makes inventories easier for customers to understand, especially if they speak a different language.
Crews become more efficient. Data can be exchanged electronically thereby reducing data entry work and eliminating transcribing errors. But perhaps the biggest benefit might be, simply that, like the US military, your customers will demand it. Then you don’t have a choice.
And if half the world is already using the same system, you probably don’t have much choice on the kind of technology you use either. But how might that dominant system emerge? Max Kreynin said that there are currently two trends: 1) the integration of a digital inventory system as part of a comprehensive move management system; or, 2) the development of a dedicated electronic inventory system. “The drawback here is to integrate with the move management systems to streamline operations and data exchange.”
Siddharth said that he was neutral on this as Yembo would be publishing its APIs anyway. “Other third party vendors with a capable team can integrate easily,” he said. “If a vendor wants to build such an interconnect function, they would need to have a highly capable technical team and take responsibility for babysitting vendors who have poor teams. In general, what appears to be a trivial solution is practically a pretty challenging problem to execute well.”
And next …
Of course, digital inventories are just the first stop along the way. Once the significant challenges of making them work have been overcome it’s a comparatively simple step to include shipment advices, bills of lading, in fact the entire shipping and communication process in a digital format that can be easily accessed by anyone that needs it.
“Technology is accelerating exponentially,” said Ray. “Something that was very difficult to do a year ago is now plug and play. We have the technology and the expertise to do it.
It’s the politics and the lack of leadership in our industry that is preventing us.”
David Cox, meanwhile, though acknowledging that the diversity of platforms presents a challenge, is positive about the future. “The survey process will be fully digital,” he said. “Images created during the survey will flow forward to create the inventory. Images of items moving (and not moving) will dramatically improve estimating accuracy and will greatly reduce subjectivity in the inventory. Digital images will replace condition codes for confirming pre-existing damage. Proactive image review will move the industry out of escalation management, and into proactive issue resolution.”
In David’s opinion this will reduce the problems movers have with hoarders and insanitary moves, indecisive transferees who have not properly separated shipments and extra stops, dramatic changes between estimate and actual due to scope change, and transferees who claim pre-existing damage.
How and when this will all shake out is hard to say. There can be little doubt that the awarding and implementation of the DOD contract will have a significant effect, but there will still need to be a strong resolve in the industry, both from representative groups and individual companies, to make it happen.
There is also some urgency. In a world where technology advances exponentially, as Ray daSilva said, there is always a danger of procrastination, waiting for the next big technological advance that will make it all so much easier – and so it never gets done.
There is also the ever-present risk that if we don’t do it, someone else will.