Tech providers urge broader vision for ‘visibility’

Tech providers urge broader vision for ‘visibility’

Knowing the location of a truck or container isn’t enough — that data must be actionable, speakers at the JOC LogTech Conference said. Photo credit:

LAS VEGAS — Knowing where a container or tractor-trailer is at any specific moment — still a common demand from shippers — isn’t really “visibility” anymore. Instead, that type of shipment visibility is a “commodity,” said Chris Kirchner, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of

“That type of data is readily available all over the Internet,” Kirchner said during a debate among technology providers at the JOC LogTech 2019 conference. Location data “can be found and at a very low cost,” he said. “So, my advice to shippers is don’t pay too much for visibility.”

The basic message shared by Kirchner and others Tuesday is that knowing the immediate location of a truck or a shipment doesn’t mean much if you can’t predict where that shipment will be when it’s needed, or quickly analyze that data for decision making and to take action.

Not every speaker agreed location data has been commoditized. Not all data is equal, they suggested, and not all data is current or accurate. “If you can’t trust this input data, you run into trouble,” said Robin Jaacks, chief commercial officer of Ocean Insights.

“I’d suggest you look very closely at the data to make sure you know where it comes from,” Jaacks said. If location data proves outdated or otherwise inaccurate, “you’re likely to be rebooking or ordering stuff from somewhere else” at a prohibitive cost, he warned.

What shippers should pay for are visibility technology and services that translate data into action, Kirchner said. “You need to take data, enable communications around that data, and automate specific things,” he said. “We’re not in a world today where everything can be automated.”

“Visibility may be a commodity, but what you’re paying for is what we’re doing with that data,” said Glenn Jones, global vice president of product strategy for Blume Global. “We’re taking the essential building blocks and turning them into something more meaningful to the customer.”

Schneider National upgrades visibility technology

Technology providers aren’t the only ones pushing the boundaries of visibility. Truckload carrier Schneider National on Tuesday said it will offer an estimated time of arrival (ETA) service to shippers using artificial intelligence (AI) and an application program interface (API).

“When we studied it across the transportation industry, we were surprised by the level of ETA inaccuracy that has become commonplace,” Schneider CIO Shaleen Devgun said in a statement. The carrier’s ETAi system leverages multiple data points to improve forecasting.

Schneider said the accuracy of its ETAs is as much as 39 percent better than ETAs provided by “tracking aggregators.” Internally, the Green Bay, Wisconsin-based company said its shipment arrival estimates are 26 percent more accurate than under prior forecasting methods.

Shippers can also integrate ETAi with other systems and tools, using its data to trigger other supply chain actions and drive efficiencies, the company said. That’s an example of the integration and data portability speakers at JOC LogTech said is necessary.

Making visibility more ‘inclusive’ 

Speakers at LogTech agreed that supply chain visibility as a product or service has already moved beyond simple container and truck tracking. “What we really want to do is track at the SKU (product) level,” said Inna Kuznetsova, chief operating officer of 1010data.

“Visibility means very different things for shippers, freight forwarders, and carriers,” Kuznetsova said in a speech Tuesday. An ocean carrier may want to know a container’s location, but what a retailer wants to know is “where is the size 10 red dress closest to my shop,” she said.

The meaning of “visibility” in terms of logistics is rapidly becoming more inclusive, speakers said, expanding to cover financial data, production order information, and other operational data besides the actual location of a container or estimated arrival time of a truck.

“When you think about visibility, you need to think about where it sits in the supply chain,” said Rob Garrison, CEO of Mercado Labs. The supply chain is not limited to logistics, he noted. It stretches from “product idea to consumer consumption and everything in between.”

“It’s not just important to understand the move, but what happens before and after, to make sure the supply chain works well,” said Garrison, adding visibility needs to extend beyond transportation and incorporate information flowing from initial order to final payment.

The need for that broad vision of visibility has driven rapid growth of companies, such as visibility providers Descartes Systems’ MacroPoint, project44, and FourKites in the past few years. A host of new tech companies is carving out their own niches in the market.

Not only is the definition of visibility changing, but so is how logistics managers will access and use data that provides visibility in the future. “Visibility will cease to be a stand-alone functionality,” Jaacks said. “Instead, it will be woven into digital processes.”

Visibility data, whether the location of a size 10 dress or freight payment details, will be much more “portable” from system to system, thanks to greater connectivity between systems and platforms, said Akshay Dodeja, CEO of Terminal 49, a container tracking company.

“Today, companies go to multiple systems to get an estimated time of arrival,” Dodeja said. Shippers are “pulling” data from those systems to create predictive analyses, he said. In the not-so-distant future, more data will be “pushed” from system to system, as needed.

“As visibility data gets commoditized, we’ll see portability of this data improve, and data [will flow] to where people can use it,” he said.

Contact William B. Cassidy at and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.