The Biden administration’s launch last week of its Freight Logistics Optimization Works (FLOW) initiative has left a number of supply chain data experts scratching their heads.
Helmed by the Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, FLOW was announced by the White House as an effort to speed up delivery times and reduce consumer costs by improving supply chain communication across the U.S. The project aims to build a centralized repository of supply chain data that can be accessed by various industry stakeholders for improved collaboration and more informed decision making.
Sound familiar? It should. Dozens of companies – from software vendors to ocean carriers and hybrid entities formed by acquisition mash-ups – have been putting a bead on exactly this idea for more than two decades. They haven’t figured it out quite well enough to avoid the kind of freight bottlenecks that have put “supply chain” in the mainstream news spotlight. But many supply chain technology aficionados are puzzled as to why the DOT has neglected to include these logistics tech vendors in its initiative.
The 18 companies invited to join FLOW, among them, Target Corp., FedEx Corp., the world’s largest container line Mediterranean Shipping Co. and freight middleman C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., have voiced their enthusiasm for the project. Meanwhile, a quick survey of leading logtech companies reveals none of them were invited to participate.
“It does seem like they’re reinventing the wheel,” says Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. “It’s surprising they didn’t invite the logtech companies in.”
Monica Truelsch, senior director of strategy at enterprise software company Infor, also expressed bemusement.
“It feels a little late in the game, when other organizations abroad have already attempted to achieve more digital data standardization around ocean transportation,” She pointed to the Digital Container Shipping Association, an Amsterdam-based, nonprofit, independent organization established in 2019 by several of the largest container shipping companies, and the TradeLens platform jointly developed by Maersk and IBM, with a particular focus on blockchain.
“I applaud the effort,” she continues. “I think it’s great that the public is aware of how complicated the first mile of the supply chain really is and how many actors have to work in concert to get goods to the store or to your porch. She confirms, however, “We were not invited.”
It was news, too, to Descartes, which runs Descartes Global Logistics Network, described as offering one source to connect to carriers and logistics services providers, regardless of mode, geography or IT sophistication. “We agree there are opportunities to make supply chains more efficient and have less friction,” says Chris Jones, executive vice president for Industry and Services at Descartes. “We work with companies and governments, including those involved in the FLOW project, to provide supply chain technology solutions to drive efficiencies and improve the velocity of the movement of goods.”
Whether any of the main competitors in what would appear to be the expertise sweet spot of the FLOW initiative will be invited to join remains unclear. A DOT spokesman declined to comment on the record.
However, it appears there may be opportunities for supply chain data platform providers to weigh in in the future. The White House announcement said the DOT wants to hear from others who are interested in engaging as part of FLOW as a participant as the initiative grows. Within one month of the FLOW launch, DOT says, it will launch a web page to gauge industry interest in participation and data sharing for a potential long-term FLOW effort.
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