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Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of sitting in on a discussion and reading some papers on the Future of Freight Transportation. I specifically would like to acknowledge the work of Steve Sashihara at Princeton Consultants and a recent Supply Chain Digest report that helped shape my ideas for this blog. While I previously had some sense of what was going on (i.e. ecommerce, Amazon) in this sector, I was surprised by the range and profound nature of the changes that are taking place. I would like to share some of the major changes with you.

Manufacturing in the Future

The big drivers of change are automation, digital technology, and robotics. Manufacturing is increasingly being performed by robots; automated systems are sorting the products and then loading them on trucks. Sensors are becoming ubiquitous and are now on products, pallets, SKUs, drivers, facilities, tractors and trailers. Conveyor systems move the right product to the right piece of trucking equipment at the right time. Loading software tells you how and where to load the product on the truck or trailer to maximize cube utilization and avoid load imbalances.

With the advent of 3D printing and artificial intelligence, companies can manufacture their products in the locations closest to their customers and/or distribution facilities. What this tells you is that the jobs of assemblers, sorters, fork lift drivers and loaders will increasingly be replaced by machines. While some manufacturing may come back to the United States or Canada, many of the traditional jobs will not.

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The previous blog looked at the potential Trump Effect (http://www.dantranscon.com/index.php/blog?view=entry&id=258 ) on Freight Transportation in 2017. This blog will focus on some of the other variables that are likely to shape the freight world in the coming year.

Upswing in Economic Growth

While 2016 was a soft year economically and in terms of freight and freight rate pricing, shippers, carriers, and economists are somewhat more optimistic about the New Year. Interest rates are likely to remain low (although there will likely be some increases in 2017). Household balance sheets are expected to remain in good shape. Employment levels in the U.S. are projected to remain strong. Investment in energy development is likely to increase. Inventory levels are predicted to decrease, driving an increase in manufacturing. Donald Trump has committed to increase the number of jobs in the United States in the coming year. The improving U.S. economy will likely help boost the Canadian economy as well.

Increase in Cost of Diesel Fuel

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On September 23rd, Logistics Management hosted a webinar at which time the co-authors of the annual Masters in Logistics study presented their major findings. For 25 years, this study has been gathering data from a large sample of shippers and carriers across various levels of spend and size. The three presenters, Karl B. Manrodt, Ph. D., Professor, Georgia College, Mary Holcomb, Ph. D., Professor, University of Tennessee and Tommy Barnes, President, Project 44, highlighted some major changes taking place in Freight Transportation.

E-Commerce is changing the Freight Spend Allocation across various Modes

In 2015, 21.9 percent of freight costs were spent on over the road truckload shipping while 21.7 percent were spent on LTL shipping. In 2016, these percentages declined to 17.8 percent for truckload and 15.0 percent LTL freight. Surface Parcel (i.e. FedEx Ground, UPS) increased year/year from 6.1 percent to 11.5 percent. Small parcel freight volumes increased by one percent. In another area of the study, the researchers revealed that 10 percent of freight shipments move from a DC direct to consumer while 21 percent now moves direct from a plant direct to consumer. This further reinforces the impact that E-Commerce and omni-channel marketing are having on freight activity.

Organization Structures are adapting to Market Dynamics

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Amazon launched a new mobile phone, the Fire Phone that could be a true “game changer,” not just for mobile communications or retail sales but also for freight transportation. Let me tell you why.

Unlike other cell phone manufacturers, Amazon is looking for e-commerce business, not mass profits from mobile phone sales. That is the raison d’etre for this phone. Like Apple, they have created an entire ecosystem. Unlike Apple, their ecosystem is not based on selling just computer hardware and software such as iTunes, iPads and iPhones. Amazon wants their hundreds of millions of registered users to buy books, consumer electronics, toys, household supplies and toasters from their massive warehouses of products.

Amazon has a huge inventory of data on consumer preferences and purchasing behavior. It can tailor its marketing messages to specific target markets and then cross-sell them on purchasing other lenses for a camera or tennis clothes to go with the purchase of a new tennis racquet. Amazon’s Firefly technology allows the user to point the phone at an object and then be transferred to an Amazon website that will sell you the product. This is a neat trick (e.g. clever software) that will allow impulse buyers to obtain instant gratification.

Last but not least, the purchase of the Amazon Fire phone provides the user with a free one year subscription to the Amazon Prime $99 a year freight delivery service. So as the user sees a product in a magazine or store, the Fire Phone can take you immediately to a website that will sell you the product and suggest others that you may like. With another click on the Fire, the user can then arrange to have the goods delivered to their home or office within two business days. Clearly the Amazon Fire is trying to create a new e-commerce business model. Like every other new business model, it will take some time to gain traction. If, and more likely when it does, it could dramatically change the world of freight transportation.

The Amazon Fire will allow consumers to “point, shop and ship” almost anywhere, any time. The speed and simplicity will appeal to anyone who prefers to look at a photo and shop without going to a mall or even searching online to find an object. Of course, the Fire Phone has a number of other interesting features like 3-D imaging and an enhanced camera so it can compete with other mobile phones.

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