Carriers and 3PLs are increasingly working together to use technology to eliminate blind spots in the movement of containers in the last mile - the final customer destination. So says a new report, Intermodal Optimization - Enhancing Last Mile Visibility and Execution, just published by the Aberdeen Group.

Commissioned by cloud transportation technology provider IAS, the report surveys 58 intermodal freight users out of 123 North American BCOs, 3PLs and carriers first interviewed for Aberdeen's August 2011 study Integrated Transportation in a Capacity Constrained Global Market. The goal was to analyze how challenges intermodal users face differed from their single-mode counterparts, how they were coping with current global intermodal requirements and what technology strategies were being adopted in response.

Compared to the others, intermodal users - companies moving containers to and from ocean ports and rail ramps, mainly as part of international shipments - face more complex requirements. These include not only coordinating equipment and container movements from port, rail, truck and inland customer delivery locations, but also the tracking and return of the containers to the port designated by the container owner. The challenge is magnified by the lengthening of global container supply chains, says the report.

Intermodal users are three times more likely to have automated the exchange of information, 2.9 times more likely to scorecard transportation activities and 1.6 times more likely to have visibility tools to support backhauling against empty miles, finds the report. Yet, "although they can be characterized as 'early adopters' of automated data exchange compared with single mode users, still only 57% of the intermodal users in the study had visibility and optimization tools in place to manage last mile execution," says report author Bob Heaney, Aberdeen senior research analyst, supply chain management.

The report highlights the particular challenges of improving visibility in North American operations due to the many parties controlling first and last mile deliveries to shipper/3PL distribution centers, including a large pool of independent motor carriers. Based on its research findings, Aberdeen recommends the use of existing collaborative cloud-based platforms as the swiftest and most flexible route to bring all the relevant partners onboard and achieve the required levels of visibility.