Global manufacturers and retailers eventually will achieve a tenfold improvement in the efficiency and responsiveness of their supply chains through the Internet, an executive says. APL vice-president for customer support and information strategy, Hans Hickler, said his company already was processing more than 44,000 transport and logistics transactions monthly through its Web site at www. apl.com. 'The Internet - along with new software innovations - will make virtually the entire supply chain, from production to consumption, visible to our customers on-line,' said Mr Hickler, an electronic-commerce specialist. However, the real money would come from a customer's ability to use the Internet to change the product flow, rather than merely receive information about its status. The challenge ahead was to improve not only the functionality, but the ease for customers to do business via the Internet by tenfold. 'If we can do that, I expect customers will see a tenfold improvement in their ability to optimise their production, distribution and marketing activities,' Mr Hickler said. Third-party logistics has grown into a US$40 billion industry in the United States. As firms outsourced warehousing and distribution, they would gain a higher degree of control and flexibility in managing the flow of goods and related information - and even funds - through the entire supply chain, he said. The economic benefits from this were that the customer would have so much control and power over all these flows that at the click of a mouse, the supply chain could be slowed, diverted or accelerated to capitalise on rapidly changing market or operating conditions and opportunities. Benefits would accrue whether firms managed their own logistics or outsourced this function. There were several channels or methods that might be used to provide the customer with a high level of control, he said. While the range of options included EDI (electronic data interchange), voice response, fax and personal contact with a customer service representative, the method of choice ultimately would be the Internet. 'This is because the customer is already using it for booking shipments, transmitting shipping instructions, downloading bills of lading, and tracking the flow of merchandise or parts,' he said. The Internet also was the best medium to allow a logistics manager to receive information and act on it in real time. Mr Hickler said the goals of complete supply-chain visibility and problem-solving and payment functions on offer had yet to be achieved. He warned the industry not to limit itself to automation of basic functions such as booking and shipment tracking. Customers should not be deprived of information and control that would help them not only to make sound decisions, but also to resolve - via the Internet - their toughest logistical nightmares or to capitalise on suddenly emerging opportunities, he said.