The digitization of freight is a syllable-heavy phrase that gets tossed about in trucking and logistics circles these days. But what does it really mean? And how does the process it defines affect the movement of freight — and your fleet?
To find out, HDT spoke with several fleets of varying sizes and operational profiles about how they are leveraging digital technology to better master the flow of freight that drives their businesses.
But for starters, executives at several providers of digitized freight services and solutions offer thoughts on what they think is critical to fleets when it comes to this burgeoning automated technology of visibility and interaction.
“Fleets that aren’t working toward greater digitization of freight transaction processes will struggle to compete and be profitable in the coming years,” says Doug Schrier, senior vice president of strategy for Transflo. “The supply chain and all of the parties within it are quickly moving toward digitizing all of the various processes by building integrated connections and reducing friction between various parties. Carriers, shippers, and freight brokers in business today will soon no longer have manual processes and paperwork.”
As Greg Hastings, DAT Freight & Analytics’ vice president of strategy execution, says, “visibility is unlocking efficiency for every player in the supply chain.”
“Carriers can plan their stops, reduce wait times, maximize hours of service, adapt delays, and book the next load earlier with real-time location tools like predictive ETA,” Hastings adds. “Brokers can identify and address incidents early, plan, and line up reloads for carriers, and keep their customers up to date on the location of their freight. Shippers can plan inventories and service levels more efficiently. And everybody benefits from fewer check calls, time spent trying to locate a particular shipment, and disputes over accessorials or penalties.”
Jason Eversole, VP of carrier operations for FourKites, puts it succinctly: “Achieving true visibility into our interconnected supply chains — from unexpected weather or port closures to border crossing times and unpredictable performance of your once-familiar lanes — can only be achieved by a fully connected ecosystem.”
Transflo’s Schrier also points out that a key reason that fleets move toward digitization and back-office automation is “simply to help their employees. From in-office personnel to the drivers on the road, digital processes help them do their jobs easier, more efficiently, and with fewer headaches and frustrations. Fleets have seen digitization improve their engagement with drivers. And we’ve seen it help boost drivers’ pay by helping them better track miles and spend more time behind the wheel — and less time performing non-driving tasks.”
When carriers also do logistics
Something else compelling about the digitization wave is that many nationwide carriers with logistics capabilities have become providers of digital solutions, both to themselves and to the various carriers they interact with on loads.
Take Omaha, Nebraska-based Werner Enterprises and its recently launched Carrier's Edge. The asset-based logistics provider built the self-service carrier portal as part of its longstanding relationship with Trucker Tools, a provider of trip planning, shipment visibility, predictive freight matching, and automated booking solutions.
Carrier’s Edge, part of the larger Werner Edge technology program, is designed to increase visibility and streamline communications for Werner’s qualified alliance carriers. Through the portal, a carrier gains immediate visibility to Werner freight and beyond. Carriers can book loads at the touch of a button, maintain preferences, view tracking information, buy or sell equipment, and communicate directly with Werner staff. Providing 24/7 access, the portal also offers “smart” recommendations based on preferences, previous offers, and loads.
“Carriers rely on real-time visibility and data to improve their operations and keep trailers full and moving,” says Werner CEO Derek Leathers. “While our carriers rely on Werner’s customer service and personalized approach, they also desire a portal that will allow them to self-service when it’s convenient for them, whether that be after hours or in a time crunch.”
Another example is J.B. Hunt Transport, which continues to add to its J.B. Hunt 360 platform, launched in 2014 as a self-service freight transportation management tool for customers. In 2017 the Arkansas-based transportation and logistics company added Marketplace to the platform to connect its shippers and carriers. And just recently, it added an integration KeepTruckin’s Smart Load Board. The integration will provide greater visibility into capacity and offer carriers freight opportunities that better align with their operations, according to the company’s announcement. The KeepTruckin Smart Load Board, launched last fall, gives users access to loads from other companies in the freight-digitization and load-matching arena, such as Echo Global Logistics, Uber Freight, and Convoy.
For U.S. Xpress, “the digitization of freight means the reimagination of the entire freight marketplace,” says Joel Gard, president of Xpress Technologies, a division of U.S. Xpress. “We’re building technology solutions that exceed the demands of our shippers, empower our drivers, and serve our third-party carrier partners.”
Xpress Technologies, says the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based company, is a “reimagining” of its brokerage segment, building and scaling a digital freight marketplace that benefits both carriers and shippers.
Gard sees digitization as covering “everything from creating a best-in-class driver experience, by optimizing routing around the driver and their preferences, to building next-generation tools for shippers to tender freight to us with confidence.”
Eye on the future
Damien Hutchins is co-founder of Rollzi, a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based truckload carrier, which he says is being “built from the ground up with an eye towards the future.” Rollzi launched early this year focused on West Coast freight and currently fields four trucks.
“We not only understand the current landscape of technology, but we also look around corners to forecast which products and features are coming to position ourselves for future opportunities,” Hutchins says.
Before starting Rollzi, Hutchins was working for a digital freight brokerage. There, he says, he saw “a massive opportunity for asset-based carriers to take advantage of the trucking technology products coming to market. We’ve been using technology from day one, and every decision we make in the business aligns with that idea of leveraging technology.”
Paper Transport Inc. (PTI), a for-hire carrier offering regional truckload, dedicated truckload, intermodal, and logistic services, has experienced enviable growth since its launch in 1990, especially in the last five years. The De Pere, Wisconsin-based company employs 920 CDL drivers, engaged mainly in serving its over-the-road and dedicated operations.
“We have different divisions, but [when it comes to freight-matching] they are all on the same page, so to speak,” says Julie Decker, PTI’s project and development manager. “Our planners make matches between loads, drivers, and equipment across our system.”
But as the fleet operation grows — and ever more data points must be sorted through — planners may not always formulate the best solutions. The goal is to arrive at decisions that account for the needs of shippers and brokers as well as the concerns of PTI drivers, and digitization can help make that happen.
From linear to nodular
“Digital freight-matching is a subset of the digitization of the supply chain,” explains LeAnne Coulter, VP of freight management for Penske Logistics. The Reading, Pennsylvania-based firm provides supply chain management and logistics services on four continents. “Supply-chain stakeholders join in this ecosystem, where digitizing data can help each party work together to improve efficiency and visibility to their end customers.”
The players in this digital world include motor carriers, brokers and 3PLs, warehouse providers, shippers, and suppliers and vendors of the shippers.
“We’re now seeing efforts to connect more loads to go downstream to link the supplier’s suppliers,” she points out.
Coulter says the purpose of bringing them all together “is to change from a linear to a nodular freight distribution so that decisions can be made collaboratively versus needing to move them through silos along a chain.”
Indeed, just about five years ago, the discussion around digitization of freight mainly revolved around digital freight-matching, what many referred to as “the Uberization of freight.” Uber itself got into the business in 2017. But today we’re talking about much more.
Freight-matching is a piece of the digitizing strategy at Rollzi. “It doesn’t end there,” says Hutchins. “We aggregate data points from our tools to make decisions based on data and leverage applications that help streamline operations.
“Our goal is a ‘tech stack’ that automates as much of our processes as possible and reduces manual tasks,” he continues. “How the solutions are deployed is often more important than the solutions themselves. It’s more than just picking the right system. We look to providers for features like workflow integration and robust APIs.” API stands for application programming interface, a software intermediary that allows two applications to “talk” to each other, he explains.
Historically, he says, trucking’s shipment selection and pricing process relied on domain knowledge or driver biases. “By contrast, collecting data allows us to make better decisions more quickly, and to optimize them for our own strategic priorities,” Hutchins says.
Rollzi also develops its own tools and algorithms to reflect the carrier’s specific market strategy.
All told, Hutchins views digitized-data solutions as an avenue to “deliver rate stability, low shipping cost and incredible service. The idea is to strike a balance between operational excellence and leveraging digital freight tools.” Delivering on rate, cost, and service requires digital freight tools, he says. “But without the operational strategy to leverage those tools, they are just convenient bolt-ons to existing processes.”
U.S. Xpress started its technology transformation a couple of years ago when it began hiring people with deep tech experience, across both the trucking industry and others, to develop proprietary solutions, Gard explains.
“As more venture-backed digital disruptors were entering the trucking industry, particularly on the non-asset or asset-light side of the business, we knew we had to find ways of building modern, digital offerings that would allow us to scale rapidly,” he says.
These digitizing efforts led to incubating business units that are now in the marketplace: Variant, its digital over-the-road fleet, launched in 2019, and Xpress Technologies, its brokerage unit, launched in 2020.
“While still in the early chapters of our digital journey, we’re already seeing success in the number of seated trucks and operating performance of Variant and improved financial performance of our growing brokerage business,” Gard says. “In addition, our dedicated offering leverages the combined technical advantages of Variant and Xpress Technologies.”
In addition to the technology teams it built to develop proprietary solutions, the company has also formed partnerships with “external organizations that are helping to drive the industry forward.” And as a “data-driven organization,” he says, U.S. Xpress has integrated artificial intelligence and machine learning across its tools to make “smart” decisions.
“Within Variant, we have reimagined the entire fleet orchestration and driving experiences,” he says. “Within Xpress Technologies, we are overhauling an analog, highly transactional operating model and replacing it with proprietary technologies that create a more encompassing business enablement platform for carriers and shippers alike.”
According to Gard, key digital-based initiatives launched at U.S. Xpress are aimed at enhancing everything from driver satisfaction to dynamic pricing:
- Driver communication tools via mobile platforms and in-cab technology.
- Tools that serve shippers with transparency and ease regardless of the [truck] product that moves the freight.
- Technology that balances the need of the shipper with the needs of drivers.
- Automation that “coordinates and orchestrates the fleet for an ad hoc and flexible network/supply chain.”
- Brokerage platform reimagined for more personalized interaction between carriers and U.S. Xpress team members to better serve shippers and enable success for carriers.
- Dynamic pricing and connectivity capabilities that provide shippers with “a unified, intuitive freight allocation experience, no matter who may ultimately move the load.”
Gard says U.S. Xpress’ view of digitalization goes “far beyond electronic freight-matching. We have three core businesses: asset-based over-the-road, asset-light brokerage, and dedicated. All three businesses are undergoing their unique digital transformation with an eye toward areas of collaboration.”
Connecting the dots
Digitizing also entails the effort under way in the supply chain “to establish more standard communication links rather than everyone having a new and separate way,” says PTI’s Decker. “Ultimately, what we want is faster connections to know where the capacity is in the market.”
An example she cites of this approach is PTI’s recent adoption of Trimble’s Dispatch Advisor dispatch solution. “It helps connect the dots of trucks, drivers and loads, including working across our different fleet segments.”
For Decker, the greatest result from optimizing dispatching has been “a decrease in empty miles. The greater visibility also helps us get drivers home on time and as often as possible, which increases their satisfaction with PTI.”
Comparing this dispatch system to prior ones, she points out, the planner is “advised of choices, not directed to make them. Earlier systems would force dispatchers down one path. But our planners have experience that can’t be duplicated. While the system’s automation will do a lot of the heavy lifting, it allows for the human element but provides guidance and the data elements needed to make good decisions. That makes for faster, easier planning, and errors become less likely.”
Digital services impact all parts of our lives, Decker says. “In this case, at work in trucking, it’s about how we interact through the workflow cycle within the supply chain. There are a lot of points of interaction at which to make digital connections. It helps you efficiently pair trucks with customers’ freight and schedules and with the lifestyle of your drivers. And you’re getting the right information the first time, from the front end to the back end.”
Digitization is accelerating
“It’s a long journey already, but now the speed of digitizing is picking up,” says Penske’s Coulter. “Now, we process millions of messages and can take advantage of that by focusing on exceptions.” A key question for fleets is how to access that information. Penske’s response is “to be a partner with our customers to help make them ‘carriers of choice’ and engage with them in ways that make sense.
“Yes, these carriers can interact with us digitally,” Coulter continues. “But digitizing trucking for them should also be about streamlining technology. For example, how implementing digital solutions can make work easier for drivers. And digitizing any action that now requires touching paper. Improve that alone and you are easing a burden and improving speed.”
In general, she says, “you want to identify any wasted time within a process and within the supply chain. That might be looking for where drivers are waiting and why — is it excess detention? If you can pinpoint where the wait is, you can eliminate it. Also with drivers, if you can know availability and have visibility, you can address their requests for home time.”
Penske leverages AI and machine learning to match freight based on historical trends and current operational constraints.
“When faced with real-life business constraints, we identify them within our fleet and within our customers’ networks as well,” Coulter says.
Whatever you choose to call it, in Coulter’s book, digitization is “what’s happening because enabling technology is being brought to bear to improve fleet operations and the operation of the supply chain.”
She adds that to make any of this happen, it’s important to start with “good clean data as your base points and invest in managing all the data that comes to you.”
This article first appeared as the cover story in the July 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.