Logistics: Connecting the supply chains through digitalisation

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 25, 2022 - May 01, 2022.
With a proper operation ecosystem being set up — we will set up the system and processes — it will then free up the people to run the business with a very stable environment. Chin (Photo by Patrick Goh/The Edge)

With a proper operation ecosystem being set up — we will set up the system and processes — it will then free up the people to run the business with a very stable environment. Chin (Photo by Patrick Goh/The Edge)

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Michael Chin, whose company helps clients track their trucks using technology, understands too well the frustration of not knowing the exact location of one’s vehicle. Or the operational efficiency that can be obtained with proper fleet management.

When Chin was studying at the University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM) eight years ago, the now 30-year-old CEO of GPS Fleet Sdn Bhd had already developed an application that enabled fellow students to pinpoint the campus bus’ arrival time through data collection, thus reducing the time spent on waiting for an irregular service. 

GPS Fleet, established in 2018, mainly serves small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that own and manage trucks. Its clients are mostly involved in the transportation of electronics, machinery and parts, food and materials, as well as timber.

“As a local fleet management and logistics technology solution provider, we believe effective business operations allow the leaders to focus on more important things in the company without being drowned in operations. We value the operations ecosystem which establishes the system and process on a day-to-day basis for the business as it would streamline the team’s workload and produce useful information for the leaders in the company,” says Chin.

Many companies prefer to run the company operations manually, he observes. “Whenever there is any disruption like employee turnover — when an employee resigns and another employee comes in — all of the knowledge is usually not properly passed on to the next person. So, there will be a lot of operational disruptions that may keep the management occupied with firefighting.

“With a proper operation ecosystem being set up — we will set up the system and processes — it will then free up the people to run the business with a very stable environment,” Chin says.

GPS Fleet aims to help more businesses increase operational productivity through its software application, which can be customised to the client’s specific requirements. The company also works on connecting assets to integrate with cloud management systems, allowing business owners to gain visibility and traceability over their assets.

“Why is being connected important? We monitor your assets, the vehicles, for example, so you’ll have peace of mind, knowing where your assets are. We help to digitise the supply chain process and simplify the workflow. We can help improve the overall productivity and efficiency in the operation and help reduce cost and minimise wastage. We can empower management to make data-driven decisions. In essence, we help companies digitalise their operation,” Chin says.

While the core service that GPS Fleet began with is transport management, the company has branched out to other areas in supply chain management such as order fulfilment, warehouse management and asset management.

“We started with connecting vehicles, but after some time we have also evolved into connecting the supply chain. Now we don’t just track vehicles, but we also track shipments — from manufacturing, distribution, retail, all the way down to the end-user. It becomes like a huge ecosystem, hence we renamed it to ‘connected supply chain’,” Chin says.        

Some of the past digitalisation projects GPS Fleet has worked on include one with highway operator PLUS Sdn Bhd, focusing on vehicle monitoring solutions. The company assisted PLUS in gaining route visualisation for highway or toll emergency support using its Fleet Management System and Camera solution.

“We installed a camera and GPS tracking system on the vehicles that are part of PLUS’ patrol cars running on the road. Whenever there is an emergency request by highway users at the roadside, the operating centre can then pinpoint who is the nearest guy to support them by looking at the system tracking all the vehicles,” Chin explains.

Prior to the digitalisation, the PLUS operation team would have to call up each patrol car to check their locations before they could narrow down to the one nearest to the spot where emergency help was needed.

The company also completed a project for car manufacturer Perodua Sdn Bhd in 2018, which involved calculating the lead time needed to move the vehicles from the assembly plant to the outlets. This was achieved by installing trackers on the cars and tracking the overall journey. Additionally, GPS Fleet provided the manufacturer with an after-sales solution, which is a service reminder for owners to do maintenance services when a milestone distance is reached.

In another example, GPS Fleet enabled a track-and-trace system for a Malaysian freight forwarding company that imports from China, helping the client keep track of all the overseas shipments up to the delivery to end-users. The process would start from the point at which it develops a system that is used at the warehouse in China. 

“We always believe [that] running an operation requires three things: system, process and people. Besides just designing the system, we design the process and identify the right people to run the process. That’s how we help our clients optimise their operations. We make sure the thing we develop is truly bringing value to the client,” Chin says.

“We will do training for their internal team, sit beside them and make sure they are qualified to operate the system. That’s because operating the system sometimes requires background knowledge of the application and very often in logistics, there are foreign workers involved. In that case, we will have to make sure the foreign workers are able to understand what is in the system.”

Where is my bus?

The roots of GPS Fleet can be traced to the first transport management project Chin developed back in university.

It started with the uncertainty that many students faced while waiting for the irregular campus bus service under Malaysia’s tropical sun or rain, sometimes wondering if the bus was ever going to arrive at all.

Chin, along with fellow course mate and GPS Fleet’s chief technology officer Onion Lim, tried to solve the problem with a bus tracking system they developed for a summer internship project. With a catchy title, “Where is my bus?”, the project allowed students at UNM to check the location updates of the university buses from the global positioning system (GPS) data collected by the bus service provider.

“It was an issue that we saw at the school, which didn’t have a tracking app for the buses, so we were thinking ‘what can we do from there’. In the end, we came up with the idea and proposed the solution to the university management,” Chin recalls. 

“We were subsequently awarded the project with an allocation of RM50,000. That was my first project management role and back then, I didn’t even know programming. It was after the project was awarded that I started thinking of ways to deliver it.”

The web and mobile Android application they developed would provide basic tracking features, including checking the available buses and their routes, updating the vehicle status with estimated arrival time and so on. 

That experience opened more doors, giving Chin options of either joining a multinational corporation or embarking on a start-up life upon graduating with a master’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering.

Chin, whose family is in business in Penang, opted for the entrepreneur route and worked on software development-related projects with a focus on Internet of Things products before he went on to set up GPS Fleet in 2018.

While the company is only less than four years old, it has faced its fair share of volatility. At its peak just before the Chinese New Year this year, the company had more than 30 employees but is now down to a much leaner staff of seven. In retrospect, Chin said the team had expanded too fast and too soon to take on bigger projects. It left the company with middle management that is not solid enough to meet the work demands.

The high manpower required for software development and customising of individual projects has also made GPS Fleet’s current business model difficult to scale. To tackle that, Chin is counting on an upcoming plan called Cargo 2 Go, which he is developing with a professor from the Malaysia Institute for Supply Chain Innovation in the hope of disrupting the logistics industry going forward.

They are working on a platform for backhaul, a term in logistics for the return movement of a transport vehicle from its destination to its original point of departure. Carriers can transport a full load, partial truckload or less than truckload by following the same route. The platform would seek to address the inefficiency faced by trucking companies by offering opportunities for vehicles to load up on the returning trip.

“How do we ensure that trucks don’t come back empty? That’s the platform that we are trying to build to solve a market issue. It is like a Grab for cargo,” Chin says.