Data synchronization still tries to find focus

Jan. 1, 2020
Many suppliers, distributors and retailers in the aftermarket have been working doggedly on synchronizing product data, but the industry as a whole is still in the early stages of solving its data quality issues. While the aftermarket faces a number
Many suppliers, distributors and retailers in the aftermarket have been working doggedly on synchronizing product data, but the industry as a whole is still in the early stages of solving its data quality issues. While the aftermarket faces a number of hurdles when it comes to data synchronization, the biggest one remains the fact that many companies still rely on woefully incomplete and inaccurate product data.

That may come as a surprise to companies who have invested the time and effort in complying with the Product Information Exchange Standard (PIES). However, just because data is properly formatted doesn't mean it's correct. A number of pilot studies in the aftermarket (and other industries) have consistently found that, for most companies, product data is both far more complex and much less accurate than anyone thought.

"It's amazing that business gets done at all between trading partners, considering the number of errors in product information that is typical in our industry," says Scott Luckett, vice president of technology standards and solutions at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA).

An AAIA study released in 2003 found that even among leading companies, more than 50 percent of parts available from the supplier were not reflected in distributor data files, and there were significant data errors even among the parts that did match. Fixing those errors could potentially save the industry $1.4 billion annually through increased sales, reduced returns, and more accurate inventory.

But the general consensus is that until suppliers and distributors overhaul their data management processes, things aren't likely to improve.

"Standardization is not easy when you have embedded, proprietary systems across the supply chain," says Ed Heon, CEO of DATAgility, and one of the architects of the PIES standard. "Changing how a company handles its data is difficult. But the spirit is there now, and the process is moving forward. It just won't happen overnight."

The Data Fix

Creating a single source of accurate data a complex project that involves finding out where all of the product data resides, who has access to it, and how accurate it is.

Every department, from engineering to marketing to packaging, has to be onboard. "It's really a cultural change within a company," says Dan Jondron, president of consulting firm Advanced Digital Strategies. "It has to come from on high, from the C-level and VP-level people."

Even with executive support, data synchronization requires and ongoing commitment from internal staff and trading partners, says Jerry McCabe, senior vice president of business architecture at Affinia Group, a company that's been at the forefront of synchronization efforts.

"Our data is accurate and much better than it's ever been, but it's still not the full, rich data set that we want," McCabe says. "We also still have a lot of distributors who, for one reason or another, can't extract the files that we need from them."

According to McCabe, a key element in a data synchronization program is having a robust product information management (PIM) system in place. PIMs are a type of master data management (MDM) system, which ensure that product information is current and accurate where it is used.

Companies can maintain their existing technology systems and disparate data sources, and use the PIM to function as a "traffic cop" to manage the centralized product data and present it to trading partners.

"The important thing is to have a single point of export to your channel partners," says McCabe. "That system has to be able to validate the data against whatever standard is required, and create reports that you can give back to the channel partner."

Several major PIM providers, including IBM, FullTilt, Pricedex Software and Stibo Catalog, now have PIES-compliant offerings for the aftermarket.

Lessons From Retail

In the consumer goods market, industry standards group GS1 centrally manages data synchronization efforts through its 1SYNC data pool subsidiary and the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN), which now has more than 2 million registered items in its Global Registry, fed by 26 data pools in more than 50 countries.

Retail data synchronization efforts were held up at times by steep subscription fees, industry infighting, and even international politics, but AMR Research reports that 20 percent of consumer products companies are now synchronizing data with more than five trading partners, and another 55 percent are doing so with between one and five partners.

The retail industry was able to progress in its synchronization efforts because of a high level of technology adoption, and mandates from large, influential retailers like Wal-Mart. This type of centralized data repository has been proposed for the aftermarket, but it would require wider participation and a larger pool of industry-standard data than is currently available.

The Aftermarket Data Vision report, conducted by The Catevo Group for the AAIA, Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA) and Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) in 2006, found that although there is wide agreement in the industry about the need for accurate data, there is little agreement on how to get there, as well as skepticism about the scope and magnitude of the initiative.

Many wholesalers and distributors are using antiquated business management systems, and a number of manufacturers still have reservations about sharing product data, primarily because of concerns about intellectual property.

While Luckett says that it's important to follow best practices to protect data, "I don't believe that concerns over security outweigh the value of having more people buy your products."

To help prove their case, a number of industry organizations have launched new pilot programs to test the value of data synchronization.

AAIA and several receivers will begin pulling automotive data from the retail industry's Global Data Synchronization Network and converting it to the PIES format. SEMA, meanwhile, is beginning the second phase of its Data Pool Pilot Program. Results of these projects will be presented at the Aftermarket eForum in July. In April, AAIA also expects to publish a "roadmap" of industry data standardization initiatives.

A number of major data receivers, including NAPA, Advance Auto Parts, O'Reilly, Carquest, AutoZone, Activant and others, have formed an informal organization (referred to as the receiver's group) to study data synchronization issues as well.

In the meantime, data synchronization evangelists and industry organizations have turned their attention to educating the aftermarket about the potential benefits of getting their data in order.

"It's a struggle to invest in technology as margins seem to come under more and more pressure," McCabe says. "But if we can apply technology wisely, we would remove significant costs from the system, which would improve the picture for everybody."