Intermodal Freight Data and Information: 3PL and Asset Holders’ Perspectives

For logistics companies within the intermodal industry, information is everything, since quality data and information helps 3PLs and other asset holders efficiently manage their supply chain management functions.

But how do 3PLs and asset holders use intermodal freight data, and what attributes do they want it to have? Also, are new types of offerings and approaches being pursued to make asset tracking more valuable to users of the information, in order to boost their efficiency?

Intermodal Insights posed these questions and others to various industry stakeholders and received some enlightening responses regarding freight data challenges and solutions.

"The sheer volume of data being collected across the supply chain can make interpretation daunting at times, even if we know that the value of data can become our competitive edge," NFI Vice President of North American Intermodal Mark McKendry said. "As consumers, we have all come to expect the transparency and speed that data can unlock, but we have yet to see a viable, end-to-end, silver bullet for intermodal transportation."

This is driven in part, he said, by disparate expectations across the shipping community. Other reasons, he speculated, could be federal privacy laws that restrict accessing location data and because "old" industries remain resistant to disruption.

Informational Value

"There needs to be a better flow of information between motor carriers, customers and forwarders as they move cargo to and from ports," Jason Parker, the director of North American trucking for Flexport, said regarding what’s needed to make information valuable for his business and customers.

"Currently, ports have critical real-time information that isn’t able to freely flow to carriers, and they’re all saddled with disjointed technologies," he said of seaports. "For example, trucking companies have GPS data that could help ports plan appointments and get containers ready to be loaded prior to a carrier’s arrival. That information isn’t being shared consistently. If we could get real-time container gate-out information, that would enable us to accurately plan estimated times of arrival."

This gate-out information for containers could also be paired with a truck that has GPS, allowing customers to track their freight the moment it leaves the port, he added.

Visibility across the supply chain has always been a goal but is now a necessity as the global economy continues to move toward online commerce, added SkyBitz President Henry Popplewell.

"We’re seeing more and more shippers offering real-time tracking of packages and delivery times within 24 hours of online orders. This presents a huge challenge for logistics providers that are not tapping into technology to gain real-time monitoring and tracking data that provides a seamless view of their shipment status across multiple modes of transport," he said.

For information to become "valuable" throughout the supply chain, Popplewell added, data needs to be extracted timely and delivered in a way that everyone from the logistics provider to the end-user can use it easily and quickly.

"For 3PLs, this may mean improving driver misses and turn times, which vastly affect margins and productivity," he explained. "For the customer, this means ensuring the shipment arrives on time and at the cost negotiated."

Freight Data Gaps

Schneider Intermodal Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Filter said that one of the current gaps in freight data availability now is the sharing of predictive information to go along with the vast amount of historical information.

"We use AI to calculate driver ETAs, and we make those available to our customers. We would like our partners and suppliers to employ similar technology that would give us better visibility," he said.

Schneider would be able to better optimize its network to improve the experience for customers, he said, if the company had insight into things such as how long the next appointment would take; an expected unload time for other available appointments; and if there was predictive data for when each container would be made available.

"There needs to be a better flow of information between motor carriers, customers and forwarders as they move cargo to and from ports."
Jason Parker

Lack of data integrations is a huge problem in the industry, Parker added.

"The industry has some high-quality data, but no easy way to integrate it between parties so we can understand the full story and provide visibility," he explained, adding that he believes motor carriers are hurting the most.

"They’re desperate for technology and improved visibility, but there’s a lack of carrier-focused technology that could support the drayage industry," he said. "Many carriers don’t know where to start and are forced to try off-the-shelf products that don’t meet their needs."

Data Interpretation

NFI’s McKendry said his belief is that gaps in freight data aren’t due to a lack of availability, especially with the prevalence of third-party solutions and standardized digital ledgers like block chain. Instead, he said, gaps can exist when the parties receiving the data or transmitting the data do not share a mutual understanding of how the data are to be interpreted.

"A classic example of this is the much maligned ‘customer scorecard’," he explained. "We are big proponents of scorecards and KPIs in general, but when the customer measures a carrier in a way that’s not mutually understood it can lead to communication breakdowns and substantial misrepresentations of the service being provided. Good old-fashioned communication can go a long way in solving such a gap."

Regarding what current devices and technologies have good track records in the world of intermodal freight data, and what new types of devices would be useful, Filter of Schneider Intermodal said that his company utilizes tablets to interact with drivers and collect information, including information that was previously considered unstructured.

"We also utilize satellite tracking on our containers which gives us visibility to when containers have been loaded or unloaded," he said. "Since we already have devices on all of our equipment, there isn’t a blind spot where an additional device is needed."

Parker said that port operating systems have a lot of potential as emerging technologies, but are still lacking readily available integrations. Progress has also been seen with GPS technology and in-cab computers, but again, he said there needs to be more streamlined integration and improved ease-of-use for drivers.

"Right now, the burden of communication is on drivers. We need to focus on automating updates, reducing the number of clicks it takes to share information, and allow them to focus on driving safely," he added.

Popplewell added that location data, including event-driven technology, is integral in the world of intermodal freight.

"Being able to monitor a shipment from the load to the container to the chassis while in route as well as tracking inbound loaded and outbound loaded detention times helps pinpoint inefficiencies and significantly reduce security threats," he remarked, adding that the ability to locate available containers and maximize freight capacity is key to improving margins.

"Through the use of new volumetric technologies, these solutions provide accurate volume calculations for total cubic space as well as total floor space," he added. "Equipped with advanced cameras that provide brilliantly clear images, customers can quickly identify issues and communicate proper packaging methods with their shipping customers."

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