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Chris Jones, executive vice president of marketing and services with Descartes, makes the case for how real-time freight visibility adds value to supply-chain operations. But is it really "real"?
Q: How close are we to actually achieving real-time freight visibility?
Jones: It's something people have talked about doing for years. Fleets have had mobile technology for a long time. The problem with commercial transportation is you're not necessarily working with the same carrier and driver every day, so tracking is much harder. Where the technology has evolved now is that there’s a number of ways to get to that data. Everything from cellular triangulation to drivers’ phones to ELD [electronic logging devices]. It all ties into transportation-management systems, so we now can create a much more closed-loop view of how transportation is really flowing.
Q: The quality of that communication must vary from company to company.
Jones: You have to have multiple ways to do it. You need to engage with the drivers — they still have to accept a load. Then you can begin to track them. A lot of times that still takes human intervention, so you need things like call centers and automated calling. There's no one silver bullet.
Q: But we're not depending on the driver to proactively send out his or her location at any given moment, are we?
Jones: The only thing we need them to do in certain cases is to accept the loads. From that point on, it’s in the system, and we can track it through delivery. But it’s one thing to see dots on the map. It's another to translate that information to determine whether they’re going to make their delivery window.
Q: Does the system allow for exception-based alerts?
Jones: Yes. Think of it as just the classic red, yellow, green metaphor. You want a simple visualization that says here are all my goods movements, and this is how each of them is doing.
Q: What happens in handoffs, when a shipment goes to another mode?
Jones: That's a completely different animal. If you're going across multiple modes, then one of two things has to happen. You got to track at the asset level, like the container, or you need shipment IDs. The mode matters in terms of how you get the data, how often you get it, and what's actionable. Now that I have this data, what am I gonna do with it? The minute you start jumping modes, it becomes a much more complex problem.
Q: I assume that 3PLs are using this technology because it allows them to become the aggregator of all information from mode to mode. As opposed to each carrier being the point of contact with the shipper, which isn’t practical.
Jones: That's a great point. Let’s say carrier X has a really good tracking system on its website. But what happens when you’re using carrier Y? If you have 10 carriers, how does it all get aggregated? That's where the market has moved to. Carriers need to tell the ELD provider, "Give access to that real-time data to someone who aggregates it and does the real-time alerting and everything else."
Q: What’s the single biggest thing that is keeping us from perfection in the achievement of real-time freight visibility?
Jones: It's still the discipline in that market. Until you have a way to automate completely, have to have human intervention to get the rates up. In an ideal world, you would like to be in the high 90-percentile in terms of reliability of real-time tracking. Historically, the logistics community has been challenged with this. And shippers today are demanding even more from carriers. It’s not just the physical delivery service they're being asked about. It's the information service as well. It has to be part and parcel of carriers’ service offering. That's what we have to focus on, and what will continue to drive excellence in this area.
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