How Application Development and Maintenance (ADM) is transforming cargo handling for the digital age

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Air cargo warehouses may get pushed to the airport’s edges, but handling shipments in a speedy and efficient manner is central to global economic development and sustainable aviation profitability. Life-saving vaccines, everyday parcels and even Formula 1 all rely on the sector.

Cargo accounts for approximately $111 billion in airline revenues, and the industry handles some $6 trillion worth of goods or roughly 35% of world trade.

Though these are impressive figures, ‘could do better’ seems to be forever stamped across air cargo reports. Paperwork is rife amid layers of regulations that hamper efforts to embrace the digital transformation.

It’s also true that some of the software solutions available can be in need of an overhaul themselves, being largely legacy-based and lacking modern functionalities. 

Behind the scenes, every cargo shipment is usually managed by an end-to-end cargo system that takes care of all touchpoints: the order, forecast, documentation (airway bill/letters of origin), warehousing, tracking, financials and accounting.

Even good software cannot manage every element efficiently, and the situation only gets worse when considering different types of cargoes. Application development and the maintenance of classic mainframe-based systems can be expensive, too.

Investment must be made in modular cargo systems that can be scaled to manage complex requests ranging from transporting live animals or fresh produce to flammable substances and much more.

Hexaware has a strong background in all aspects of aviation, and was retained by one client—a pioneer air transportation technology company—to re-engineer its flagship 40-year-old cargo system.

Although the system was a favorite among leading cargo airlines, it lacked many modern functionalities, which limited the business’s ability to create new features and services. A further challenge was the client’s uneasiness at investing in the existing product, understanding that any further work on the system was, in essence, simply a case of papering over the cracks.


Gaining confidence

To gain the client’s confidence for the transformation ahead, Hexaware’s first step was to re-engineer the cargo pricing module and integrate it with the existing legacy stack. This included a data migration strategy from the old module platform to a next-generation system with more than 99% accuracy.

The re-engineered module was rolled out for all 14 airline customers hosted on the legacy stack within two years. The success of the project earned Hexaware the massive task of re-engineering the client’s entire cargo software product.

To kick start the re-engineering exercise, the Hexaware team conducted Joint Application Development (JAD) sessions in the early stages of the project. A joint workshop with the client also helped them to understand the pain points in air cargo operations and how they could be simplified.

The resulting vision document listed the enhancements that needed to be incorporated into the new generation cargo system. The user experience, allocations, flight planning, inventory management, re-booking and additional new features all had to be as simple as possible while allowing tracking to ensure the business impact was monitored.

In total, the project’s scope covered the end-to-end development of 11 modules with 350 system use cases built using 100-plus dedicated team members to release a commercially viable product in two years.

Code mining, application walkthrough and deep dives into manuals enabled Hexaware to understand the legacy application. System use cases were converted into designs using the Rational Software Architect, and code elements were forward engineered from the design.

Building a tool to generate the DB schema from the entity designs helped reduce considerable database efforts. A well-defined technical framework was created, which covered all reusable aspects of the project with increased flexibility to support various custom processes. 

The availability of a Business Rules Management System (BRMS) engine eased the definition/change of rules as required without the technical team’s intervention in code modifications or execution. For example, during natural disasters, such as hurricanes, and other exceptional weather conditions, airlines now have the ability to change the business rules quickly. This helps to improve the efficiency of operations by introducing process checklists.   


Automation

The team constantly invested in automation wherever possible. Automated build and deployment using Jenkins—a free and open-source automation server—was integrated with code review using SONAR. Unit testing used Junit, and there was a framework for log and server monitoring. A complete regression suite was built using the Selenium Test framework customized to suit the project’s needs. 

The product is enabled for cloud deployment and multi-hosting. All the business services can operate as web services, which means it can easily integrate with third-party portals, mobile apps, kiosks, scanners, flight operations system, data warehousing tools, and such external ancillary cargo applications as revenue management systems.

The new system was also designed to improve the customer experience by incorporating specific user-friendly features. A hybrid mobile application was built on top of the cargo system to make it easier for the cargo agents to carry out warehouse operations. The user interface was improved by incorporating graphics in areas such as inventory management. Moreover, the product is in line with IATA initiatives, including E-Freight, and uses the latest IATA XML messaging standards.

Other key improvements include:

  • 75% reduction in effort to on-board new customers
  • Ability of customers to procure modules 
  • Zero downtime, even during monthly application upgrades 


By relying on previous work in the cargo rating and revenue accounting modules, the Hexaware team was able to upscale faster to a full-blown system development. Modernization helped them overcome the limitation of the legacy system to create new features and services, and support from the client’s airline group was vital to meeting the aggressive timelines. The product is easier to diagnose, and issues can be addressed without disrupting the entire application.

Hexaware’s work was completed to the highest possible standards, and with the minimum of complications, thanks to its excellent knowledge of running production systems in the cargo business environment and 20-plus years’ experience of the client’s operational situation. 
 

Digital cargo

The case study shows how important digital cargo is to future success. And though Hexaware’s transformation of one company highlights what can be achieved by utilizing cutting-edge tools, the connected nature of cargo system networks requires their industry-wide implementation.

Air cargo is information intensive. If the industry can move to paperless processes and smart data sharing, it would promote innovative and value-added services to its customers. 

E-freight has this ambition. It is an industry-wide initiative involving carriers, freight forwarders, ground handlers, shippers, customs brokers and customs authorities. Key to e-freight’s success is its determination to build a regulatory framework, modern electronic messages and high data quality.

The agreed roadmap commits to removing three types of document from the end-to-end journey: customs documents, transport documents, and commercial and special cargo documents. The air waybill is the central pillar, and there is good work ongoing to make this electronic in compatible trade lanes. The aim is to accelerate the adoption of the e-AWB worldwide. 

Of course, the goal is to be paperless throughout. So, it is necessary to collaborate with the World Customs Organization and local customs authorities around the world to embrace e-customs and encourage the use of Cargo-XML standards for Advance Cargo Information (ACI). Data quality also needs to be improved through the Message Improvement Program (MIP).

Also of interest is the Interactive Cargo project, which aims to develop air cargo services based on intelligent systems able to self-monitor and send real-time alerts. Data-driven improvements mean a faster response to any change in customers' requirements and the potential for predictive analyses.

As a result, customers will get total transparency on their shipments. This is an essential capability given the growth of e-commerce. Imagine shoppers at Amazon not knowing the status of their package. Online retail is a major revenue stream for air cargo, which means it is essential to improve the industry’s value proposition.

Interactive cargo is a critical requirement for special cargo too. For regulatory purposes and to reassure the customer, such goods as pharmaceuticals, perishables, live animals and high-value products need to fully visible throughout the journey. 

Piece level tracking is the dream; and work to achieve this is well underway. Task forces and industry surveys are in place to guide progress.

Cargo can be digitally transformed.

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Read the detailed case study on the re-engineering of a large legacy cargo system to a Java EE platform.

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