Red Tape
© Mike2focus

Freight booking platforms have insisted they are not waging war on forwarders, but on manual processes.

However, the online platforms have a long way to go if they wish to do for freight forwarders what, for example, Uber has done for San Francisco’s Yellow Cab.

Responding to an article this week by Kate McCauley of Tuscor Lloyds, who argued that the technology was not sound enough to replace the human touch, Eytan Buchman, marketing manager for Freightos, asked: “Can technology help manual processes?

“Daily we experience customs clearance issues, customs brokerage, police escort arrangements, specialist handling, extreme weather conditions, short shipments… the list goes on. Are we expecting a machine to process these considerations and make the same arrangements a human would?

“Yes. Yes. A million times yes.”

Ms McCauley’s point was rebutted by spokespeople from several platforms, including Kontainers’ co-founder and chief strategist, Graham Parker. He told The Loadstar that artificial intelligence (AI) within Kontainers’ system was more than capable of dealing with exceptions thrown up during the transit of shipments.

“Our AI can deal with these exceptions, including short shipments and weather issues,” said Mr Parker. “And much of the time these problems would be addressed before a traditional freight forwarder would even know there was a problem.”

However, Mr Parker did concede certain issues would still require a human element, namely police escorts.

Chief technical officer at Freight Filter Angus Dalgleish told The Loadstar that his platform was developed to augment forwarders while addressing shippers’ frustrations in getting quotes and understanding exactly what they were paying for.

“The shippers we spoke to said they found a relatively simple request for a quote could take, at bare minimum, 24 hours to process,” said Mr Dalgleish. “And should they be hunting for the best deal, then waiting on multiple quotes before making a decision could become arduous.”

The Loadstar decided to undertake its own analysis of four of the leading platforms, Freight Filter, Freightos, Kontainers and Transporteca, and Kuehne + Nagel’s FreightNet, to judge how their systems stacked up.

We placed standardised searches for four of the world’s major tradelanes, two in air and two at sea: Shanghai-Heathrow; Shanghai-LAX; Shanghai-Felixstowe; and Shanghai-Long Beach. Thee searches sought to identify matches for a single 40ft container; and for air, a 120 x 80 x 96cm 80kg pallet, for both general and hazardous cargo.

For Shanghai-Felixstowe, the results were, at best, unflattering. Only Freight Filter found quotes on a single 40ft container, with the cheapest at £1,595.

Freightnet also priced the route, albeit for a less-than-container load (LCL) shipment weighing 80kg, at £1,368. Transporteca, an LCL platform, undercut this, offering nine services including a 31-day service for £972.

For hazardous shipments, all results came back blank, with Transporteca and FreightNet not even providing the option.

Freightos distinguished itself on its Shanghai-Long Beach options, supplying no less than 12 quotes (compared with everyone else’s none), the cheapest at £2,946.

Via FreightNet shippers could choose to airfreight through LAX.

Transporteca chief executive Morten Laerkholm told The Loadstar that when the platform could not provide a quote, it would send the request to its network of forwarders, who should reply within 24 hours.

He added: “While building a business, you need to stay focused, and not try to be everything for everyone. Our focus has been to deliver a good portal and customer experience to our focus segment, which for the time being is customers mainly in Denmark.”

For airfreight, things fared little better. Again, just one platform could provide a quote on Shanghai-London, Freight Filter, with a 30-day airport-to-door service for £264. Transporteca offered to quote within 24 hours.

Unintentionally, Freight Filter introduced some humour with an attractive £69 quote for an airport-to-airport service on the Shanghai-LAX route. However, the expected delivery time was 43,052 days (117 years). Mr Dalgleish noted that this was a technical glitch, which would be corrected.

Freightos again showed its US bias, supplying 15 results for Shanghai-LAX, the cheapest of which came in at £363.

Kontainers’ Mr Parker said the platform was unable to quote on the routes because it had initially focused on UK exports, but had since launched in the US and would be going live in China in April.

This was a familiar theme across the platforms – they were working towards global services but had not yet completed full development.

Mr Buchman said it was a challenge for digital marketplaces to juggle both supply and demand.

“Too much supply (forwarders on the marketplace) without enough demand (shippers) means unhappy forwarders abandon ship; too many shippers without forwarders means unhappy customers,” he explained.

“Balancing global roll-out while ensuring we have high-quality forwarders with truly competitive rates is a significant challenge, which we are resolving with gradual, measured expansion.”

When it came to ease of use, all four systems proved simple and straightforward, with relatively few menus to wade through before processing a quote – though Kontainers’ site was initially confusing.

It offered an immediate quote option on the home screen without the need to sign up. However, many functions were limited to members – including the ability to correct mistakes without restarting a quote from scratch.

Mr Parker said one of the reasons certain features were only available to those that had registered was to prevent fake requests from forwarders trying out the site.

Mr Buchman argued that freight platforms, far from threatening forwarders, in fact helped tech-enabled forwarders to outsmart their less tech-focused rivals.

“The CIA uses big data for exception management with Palantir. Tesla manages exception management for the chaotic world of automobile travel. AI, machine learning and big data can absolutely empower forwarders, freeing up their time to, in turn, empower their customers.”

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  • Steve Cooper

    February 09, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    Only speaking with a human being can certain issues be handled. For example, if a carrier ‘cannot cover haulage’, the AI will state the same. As a human forwarder, I could ask many haulage companies who work for these carriers and have haulages covered on a ‘preferred haulier’ basis. Or merchant haulage. This is one example of many, AI will not have the capacity to think logically and logistically to overcome certain issues. And how many times in our private routine do we say to ourselves, “I just need to speak with another human”, whilst waiting on an automated system trying to figure out why we have been charged £10 extra for our Broadband connection.

  • Rachel Finch

    February 09, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Imagine if uber only worked when you wanted to go to certain places at certain times with surcharges going up and down for no reason. Stupid.