Freight visibility push to trigger automation

Freight visibility push to trigger automation

Many companies have built massive infrastructures they have to unwind before they can introduce new technology. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

The ability to track shipments as they move from mode to mode is a key goal for shippers, but the real benefit of that visibility will be automation across supply chains, says Tommy Barnes, president of project44, which specializes in transportation software integration and automation.

Things are becoming more complex,” Barnes said Wednesday while discussing his company’s partnership with transportation software provider MercuryGate. “You have to automate to take the focus off areas that could be pulling you back and focus on areas that improve your service.”

Barnes and project44 took a step toward providing fresh opportunities for automation Tuesday when the Chicago-based company expanded its partnership with MercuryGate, integrating two new “middleware” solutions with MercuryGate’s transportation management system (TMS).

Project44 integrated its original less-than-truckload (LTL) application programming interfaces (APIs) with MercuryGate TMS in 2016. Now the company is adding volume LTL software introduced last June and an enhanced truckload visibility API rolled out in November.

The integrations are a step toward true multimodal visibility for domestic and international shipments. To help enable that visibility, project44 is reaching beyond its trucking base with a rail visibility API unveiled in December. Ocean shipping and air cargo APIs will be next.

"Through the remainder of this year we’ll be adding the international modes, which will give us even greater lift,” Barnes said. By using a suite of APIs integrated with a TMS, he said, shippers and logistics providers can track freight from door-to-door, eliminating gaps in visibility.

Those gaps most often are found at freight transfer points, whether from port to drayage carrier to warehouse or warehouse to intermodal rail or LTL or truckload carrier. That unclear view of freight in transit contributes to excess inventory, higher transportation costs, and late shipments.

We knew that we needed to have real-time visibility into every single [stock keeping unit] and every box in our supply chain,” said Elaine Singleton, vice president of supply chain for Technicolor, a multimodal logistics company that serves more than 9,000 US retail locations.

Integrating project44’s new APIs into MercuryGate “allows us to collect real-time information from our carriers and automatically match it with our inventory databases,” she said in a statement. “Expanding that picture from LTL into other modes is a huge win.”

Clearer supply chain visibility is not the end goal, however. To Barnes, it is a prerequisite to “digitizing” the shipment “lifecycle” by automating often mundane processes. Those processes may include carrier selection, rating, shipment tender, tracking, and document retrieval.

We’re laser focused on automating each mode of the transportation cycle,” he said. “Digitization is the theme, and we’re able to support it by acting as the integration layer within MercuryGate TMS.” Project44 has partnerships with other TMS vendors, as well.

The exchange of real-time data via APIs will enable automation of tasks or processes, Barnes said. But legacy technology and established ways of doing business slow progress, speakers said at projectAutomate, a supply chain conference organized by project44 last autumn.

We’re not the fastest-moving industry,” Mitch Weseley, CEO of transportation software provider 3Gtms, said at the conference, held in Chicago. “Something that works is hard to displace. If something works, you need a big business reason to change to something new.”

"A lot of companies have built massive infrastructures they actually have to unwind” before they can introduce new technology, Barnes said Wednesday. “That’s where it becomes more cumbersome for them. They’ve built a spaghetti bowl of technologies over time.”

For many shippers, Weseley’s “something new” is Amazon, or more precisely the heightened fulfillment expectations set by Amazon that are spreading across markets and supply chains. Online shopping also is changing how customers interact with vendors.

Demand for faster fulfillment from online shoppers and tighter delivery windows at retailers are complicating supply chains and creating new multimodal shipping patterns. The faster pace of logistics in the Amazon era is likely to drive the automation of freight transactions.

It’s change management,” said Barnes. “Companies are realizing it's a function of you change or you don’t survive. The expectations of customers have changed, and if you don’t adapt with automation and improved productivity it will be very difficult to survive long term.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc.