Now, clearly, no one at Global Trade magazine would ever suggest that Paul MacCready was anything but awesome; equal parts John Wayne and Wright Brothers with a dollop of Jules Verne thrown in for innovative flavor. We can get into the exact nature of his brilliance later, but the point we need to make right now is that if a company created by Paul MacCready, a company that, among other things, makes flying machines that seem as much sci-fi as science, if that company finds the whole e-commerce thing a challenge to wrangle since it seems to grow and change with every few consumer keystrokes, then why should any other company feel funny about reaching out for some help?
After all, it’s not really a question anymore if a company wants to be involved with e-commerce. It is increasingly the shopping and purchasing method of choice for increasing numbers of consumers and businesses. Recent data has e-commerce spending at about $2.1 trillion last year and if that sounds like a lot, be aware that it is expected to more than double by 2020. In January, Amazon reported its largest profit, nearly $2 billion, as it has myriad new technologies–including its wildly successful Alexa voice-controlled devices–to drive up sales.
Of course, we’ve all heard that Amazon would one day like to be delivering its products via flying drones, something the late MacCready’s company, AeroVironment, could help them with since AeroVironment is a global leader in unmanned aircraft systems and are the top supplier of small drone aircraft to the U.S. military.
The company does do other things such as tactical missile systems and electric vehicle (EV) charging systems, and it was the latter that led them to contact TrueCommerce, a Pennsylvania-based company that specializes in making over its clients’ connectivity by linking suppliers, retail hubs and end consumers in one global commerce network through flexible, integrated and fully managed service solutions. Now, given the economy of language, that may sound simple and straightforward and, of course, simple and straightforward is the entire basis of point-and-click e-commerce.
But if a company is looking to make e-commerce not just a one-off facet of its business model and instead has decided to go all in, the language and scope suddenly grows much larger, more complicated and changes frequently.
While it has empowered consumers in myriad ways by taking globalization to a new level and blurring traditional boundaries, online retailing, though opening up whole new worlds, literally, to companies has also meant they must deal with a near-countless amount of government regulations, geopolitical and cultural mores, customs and attitudes as well as extensive local and international competition.
AeroVironment found itself in this position of risk and reward as its EV charging systems gained in popularity, becoming the preferred provider of home charging stations for nine global automakers. The company founded by a man who was hailed as the father of green transportation partnered with Volvo and the Chevrolet Bolt EV to develop wall-mounted charging stations for the automakers’ growing line of plug-in hybrid vehicles. That helped to kick AeroVironment revenues up more than 40 percent in 2017 while also pushing its stock price up nearly 25 percent in December. Eager to take advantage of the increased interest from consumers but mindful of the ever-changing and growing terrain, company officials let it be known that they were looking for assistance in getting a flexible, automated e-commerce platform as well as a system that would allow them to rollout multiple online storefronts quickly and at low cost.
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OK, now is probably a good time to get back to Paul MacCready. By no means the kind of well-known celebrity who generates the heat or attention of, say, a TV cake baker, MacCready will be studied and celebrated for generations to come.
A natural inventor, by the age of 15 he was winning national contests for the flying machines he created. He trained as a U.S. Navy pilot before the end of World War II and would go on to receive a Bachelor’s of Science in Physics from Yale, a Master’s of Science in Physics from Caltech as well as a Ph.D. in Aeronautics from Caltech. So, yeah, he was fairly smart.
So were the companies he founded.
MacCready had always been fascinated with flight and the sky above us; his first company, Meteorology Research Inc., did atmospheric research. A dedicated glider pilot, he was a three-time winner (1948, 1949, 1953) of the Richard C. du Pont Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the U.S. National Open Class Soaring Champion. In 1956, he became the first American pilot to become the World Soaring Champion.
He invented a device that told pilots the best speed to fly a glider, depending on conditions and based on the craft’s rate of sink at different air-speeds. The device, still in use, is called the “MacCready speed ring.”
In 1971, he created a company that would push the envelope on what an aircraft could be made of and how it was powered. In 1977, he was awarded the Kremer Prize for the creation of the Gossamer Condor, the first human-powered aircraft, which he created with Dr. Peter B.S. Lissaman, made of plastic foam, piano wire and bicycle parts (the Condor, not Dr. Lissaman).
The Gossamer Albatross, which flew across the English Channel using only human power, came in 1979, to be followed by the Solar Challenger which, in the early ’80s, flew from France to England, held aloft for more than five hours by solar power.
The company that did all this? AeroVironment.
We tell you this not to make you feel inferior but to understand that even an outfit such as AeroVironment, one that has tinkered with and around the laws of nature to create something of brilliance and long-lasting significance, even that company looks at the present world of global trade and e-commerce and thinks, “Hey, we could use some help.”
They turned to TrueCommerce.
Several options were considered and, ultimately, AeroVironment decided on Nexternal, a TrueCommerce e-commerce platform, citing competitive pricing, flexibility and ease-of-use as the main reasons. Oh, and speed.
“We were up and running on Nexternal within a month and the cost was very affordable,” says Anusha Iyengar, AeroViroment senior programmer analyst. “Another reason we chose Nexternal was that it integrated very well with Amazon Marketplace.”
It was last year when TrueCommerce announced the availability of integration with the Amazon Marketplace that allows customers to import Amazon orders directly into their business systems. This integration leverages TrueCommerce’s global integration service that currently enables thousands of customers to connect with order management systems, supply chain execution solutions and popular business systems from publishers such as Microsoft, Sage, Intuit, NetSuite and SAP.
“The retail market is evolving rapidly, and customers expect the ability to place orders anywhere and take delivery everywhere,” says TrueCommerce President Ross Elliott. “Sellers seek to expand the placement of their products in order to reach more potential customers. Clearly, Amazon is key to that initiative. The Amazon Marketplace integration is the first of several announcements to come that illustrate our commitment to constantly innovate our connected ecosystem to improve our customer’s agility and flexibility in an ever-changing market.”
And so, orders placed on Amazon flowed into the Nexternal Order Management System and were processed just as if they were placed on one of AeroVironment’s branded e-commerce storefronts. Still, there was one bottleneck. At first, orders placed through Nexternal were inputted into Oracle manually. Shipment confirmations sent to customers from the Oracle system were likewise not linked to Nexternal. To optimize order processing and derive more value from its investments, AeroVironment required an automated link between these two systems.
TrueCommerce offered an innovative solution: Its EDI product would act as a “bridge” between e-store and AeroVironment’s Oracle business system. Essentially, EDI treated the e-commerce app as just another trading partner, automatically feeding transaction data into the backend system.
“Speedy order processing is critical for businesses selling on Amazon,” says TrueCommerce Senior Vice President Alex Gile. “It is a major factor in determining who wins the buy box. However, for many Amazon Sellers, an efficient bridge between a marketplace and a business system is often missing. TrueCommerce eliminates this bottleneck by automating the dataflow. New orders flow quickly into the business system. Once they are shipped, order data quickly flows back to Amazon, including tracking numbers. If you are selling products to Amazon or selling directly to consumers using the Amazon Marketplace, we now offer a solution for both scenarios.”
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Once the TrueCommerce EDI solution was in place, AeroVironment discovered it could create additional efficiencies. The company is currently using its TrueCommerce EDI solution with Volvo, its first EDI partner, since the automotive manufacturer’s EDI documents are different from the typical invoices and purchase orders many suppliers exchange with their customers.
AeroVironment’s EDI system also needs to support six different Volvo sites, which function much like different trading partners from an EDI standpoint. They currently receive approximately 10 to 20 EDI orders per day from the six Volvo facilities.
AeroVironment has also set up a specific shipping document workflow to meet Volvo’s requirements. After orders received through TrueCommerce EDI move into Oracle for processing, AeroVironment sends an EDI warehouse shipping order document to the appropriate third-party logistics warehouse in the U.S. or China.
“The 3PL turns it around and sends Volvo an EDI advance shipping notice, which they also use to print their shipping label and delivery note,” Iyengar says. “When they complete their part of the order, the 3PL sends us an EDI 945 Warehouse Shipping Advice. This is consumed within TrueCommerce EDI and turned directly to Volvo.”
The system works because it is more collaborative than client-provider. Because AeroVironment and TrueCommerce act more as partners, they are able to forge the inevitable dips and detours that will occur when doing a major portion of your business with technology that is still being developed.
This has become much more the relationship of choice for companies who take the long view. Just this January, Schneider Electric announced that it was signing up for a longtime collaboration with TrueCommerce.
“We needed a consultant with both technical and commercial experience who was able to coordinate our projects as well as act as our business consultant,” says Peter Andersson, Schneider Electric’s Business Relationship manager.
Having a dedicated partner coordinating their projects means improved dialog between Schneider Electric, their EDI provider, their ERP supplier and other external and internal stakeholders. This way, Schneider Electric ensures that its digital projects proceed according to plan.
“TrueCommerce’s consultant helps ensure the progress in our digital projects, including the onboarding of our customers,” Andersson says. “We now have a local advisor who can support us in EDI as well as the business procedures related to digitization.”
One of the biggest benefits to AeroVironment’s e-commerce/EDI/ERP integration has been the optimization of both its business-to-business and business-to-consumer order processing across its EV charging station product lines.
“Sales of our EV charging stations are almost completely automated through the integration of Nexternal and TrueCommerce EDI with Oracle,” Iyengar says.
Before integrating Nexternal with Oracle via TrueCommerce, two full-time employees were needed to manually rekey order data from Nexternal into Oracle. Now they can simply monitor the flow of the orders and mainly focus their attention on other work.
Automation also results in fewer errors in customer orders. Iyengar says the “amount of calls we get [concerning errors] is much lower than we were getting before integrating Nexternal with Oracle via TrueCommerce. Now we have everything we need to integrate as many online stores as we want with Oracle—that’s been very useful.”
One might even say, awesome.