Editor’s note: Written by Chris Lankford, vice president of engineering at NEXT Trucking. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
One of the largest issues that shippers face has to do with knowing where their freight is at any given time. While actual estimated times of arrival, or ETAs, have always been elusive in supply chain initiatives, most shippers want to have at least some visibility into the order in which containers and trucks will arrive. This is based on running as efficiently as possible. After all, basic elements like scheduling a warehouse workforce are built around knowing when something will arrive, and millions of dollars every year are wasted on having to wait for a delivery.
To address the issue, many of the larger shippers have begun to incorporate various tracking technologies into their carrier and request for proposal, or RFP, requirements. There are 3 ways in which this is happening.
ELECTRONIC DATA INTERCHANGE
The first is electronic data interchange. EDI was created in the 1970s and is based on a series of protocols whereby information can be securely shared between platforms and systems. EDI, however, can be clunky and expensive for carriers to implement. But many contracts require motor carriers to have an EDI solution in place to bid on a job. But the cost of EDI can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. While winning a major contract can make the investment worthwhile, carriers need to invest without assurance of the agreement coming through. There are many flavors of EDI, at least 2,600 dedicated to the supply chain. Carriers can invest in one solution only to find it doesn’t meet a shipper’s requirements or connect to the shipper’s back end systems.
To be clear, EDI is not a bad solution. It has played a critical role in communications across industries like healthcare; HIPAA, the act that underpins the private sharing of healthcare information between doctors and patients, is based on EDI. Furthermore, EDI was built to be a logistics solution. The U.S. military was among the early adopters to incorporate EDI into shipping as a way to securely add electronic control to its supply chain.
GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM
Global Positioning System, or GPS, is universally recognized, but often misunderstood. The technology that powers GPS relies on satellites. The GPS standard was built by the government, but is free for companies to use. This is one of the reasons why early consumer GPS navigation offerings like TomTom and Garmin were so successful. They weren’t required to do a lot of the heavy lifting in the data collection that typically comes with offering direction services. In order to build Street View, for example, Google paid workers to drive cars equipped with cameras down every street in America.
Despite being powered by satellites, GPS requires that whatever is being tracked has some sort of wireless connection to transfer information. GPS allows a device to know where it is, but it cannot share that information without some sort of other connection. This creates gaps in the effectiveness of GPS for supply chain use cases. Sometimes containers on ships are lost at sea between ports. And for truckers, we all know the dead zones that occur in many of the most popular US routes.
That isn’t to say that GPS doesn’t have its uses. Because of cell phones, shippers can rely on a driver’s signal to identify the progress a shipper is making – given the opt-in from a driver, of course. As a foil to the expenses that come with EDI, carriers and shippers can get tremendous value from GPS.
APPLICATION PROGRAMMING INTERFACE
Completing the alphabet soup of acronyms is API, or Application Programming Interface. APIs are a modern interface that enables disparate software solutions to connect and share information. Essentially, API’s sit between systems and technologies, and enable them to interact. For instance, carriers might opt to allow their GPS to integrate into a shipper’s inventory management system, and perhaps even an employee scheduling mechanism. Based on the input, such as a carrier running 2 hours behind due to traffic from a collision, the scheduler can identify over-staffing. It can then send out an alert asking employees to report later than scheduled.
The example above includes multiple instances where an API is incorporated. GPS informs a map via API. The map informs a big data solution via API. After recognizing the staffing issue, the data tool informs a communication tool, again, via API.
None of this is to imply that drivers will need to become programmers in the next few weeks. It is meant to show how many of the leading shippers are building their solutions, and provide a look into what they mean when they discuss APIs.
Going back to the EDI reference above, there are solutions on the market that can connect disparate EDI programs through APIs; NEXT Trucking recently announced our approach to do so as a way to help more drivers get access to freight where EDI is a requirement.
When considering tracking solutions like a multiple-choice question, it is easy for carriers to worry about making the wrong choice. Through the use of APIs, the supply chain is starting to embrace an ‘all of the above’ approach.
Editor’s note: Chris Lankford is vice president of software engineering at NEXT Trucking, a freight tech company. Prior to joining NEXT, he was vice president of software engineering at Kareo and an engineer at PAREXEL.
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