The rise in online shopping during the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the global supply chain past its limits, with brands realizing the struggle of transporting goods from Point A to Point B.
While the constraints don’t seem to be easing up, logistics players are looking to give brands a better peek behind the curtain so they can gain accuracy regarding where their products are located, and give both retailers and consumers better insight into how long it will take to get their goods in hand.
Today’s logistics winners are seeking to leverage data in the name of transparency, while eliminating the additional costs that have been added as raw material price increases, freight rate climb and time spent on the road adds up.
Flexport is a name that has gotten a ton of traction in supply chain circles over the past year, serving as a digital freight forwarder, global trading platform and customs broker that seeks to give importers more visibility into where all their goods are at any given moment down to the SKU level, as well as more control over the process to divert product elsewhere when necessary.
The do-it-all freight forwarder is now valued at nearly $8 billion after generating a $935 million Series E funding round in February, and serves more than 10,000 clients and suppliers, offering a range of services including ocean, air, truck and rail freight, drayage and cartage, warehousing and even management of areas including clearing customs and offsetting carbon emissions. Flexport generated $3.2 billion in revenue in 2021, but perhaps more importantly, it turned a profit for the first time.
Like any freight forwarder, Flexport sells the transportation of cargo, but its primary product is a digital solution that interfaces with customers and stakeholders. The company’s technology aims to automate the process of tracking and managing shipments, down to the level of each individual unit of product.
The platform gives users access to ETA forecasts and see alerts if there is a shipping delay, giving shippers advanced warning without requiring them to send an email or pick up the phone. This is the major difference between Flexport and many traditional freight forwarders, which still often manage operations with manual processes.
Flexport has made headlines in recent months, with CEO Ryan Petersen serving as the subject of a Forbes cover story in February (under the cover headline “Can this Guy Fix the Supply Chain Mess?) and a “60 Minutes” profile outlining the current supply chain struggles. Petersen has been outspoken about many of the problems he has seen in the current supply chain environment, particularly at the overburdened West Coast ports.
In 2021, Flexport added order management capabilities so that a client’s contract factories can alert them when an order is ready. That way the importer can more easily secure a container and its placement on an ocean freighter.
To close out the year, the company introduced an Ocean Timeliness Indicator (OTI), which measures the amount of time taken to ship freight from the point at which cargo is ready to leave the exporter to when it is collected from its destination port.
As the company seeks to bridge the digital and physical gaps in the supply chain, it is prioritizing partnerships that embrace technology. For example, Flexport integrated an API portal from the Port of Rotterdam to deliver port information, ETA predictions and ship arrival and departures.
Flexport is even looking to dabble in areas like autonomous air freight, and has already committed to purchasing two 100T aircraft from Natilus, which are expected to test flight in 2023. The digital freight forwarder also linked with a small business lender to offer an accelerator program called ODX Flexport, with a goal of investing in 60 to 80 startups over the next two years.
Another major supply chain tech provider that has skyrocketed in relevance since the start of the pandemic, Project44 has a mission to help brands optimize the movement of products across the chain amid the continued disruptions.
Like Flexport, Project44 has seen numerous funding rounds, receiving a $420 million investment in January, marking the company’s third major financing of more than $100 million since December 2020. In total, the technology provider has raised $817.5 million, and is now valued at $2.2 billion.
At its core, Project44 is a supply chain visibility platform, but it offers a carrier network with more than 140,000 multimodal carrier integrations and 2.7 million trucks. The platform supports all transportation modes and shipping types, including air, parcel, last-mile, less-than-truckload, volume less-than-truckload, groupage, truckload, rail, intermodal and ocean.
The company now says it tracks more than 1 billion products annually across its transportation modes
The platform’s technology is built to help companies see how their shipments are moving through distribution networks and to help adjust in case of bottlenecks or changes in market demands. The company uses API technologies and other integrations to collect information from numerous freight transportation and logistics providers and put it into a format that retailers, manufacturers and other shippers can use.
In 2021, the company went on an acquisition spree of sorts, picking up ocean freight intelligence provider Ocean Insights and another AI-based supply chain visibility technology provider, ClearMetal. The company made its biggest deal in the last-mile delivery space, acquiring delivery experience management platform Convey for $255 million in September. And most recently, the company bought out Synfio, a Germany-based rail freight visibility platform, enabling Project44 to extend its barge visibility for inland waterway segments throughout Europe.
This year, Project44 has continued to adapt with modern supply chain concerns, launching a Supply Chain Crisis Tracker that helps users monitor and share the effect of black swan events such as the Ukraine-Russia war and the Canada convoy protest on supply chains via regular updates on truck delivery performance.
Additionally, Project44 launched a new Yard Solutions suite to help facility and operations managers automate the trailer load and unload process with loading dock management and enhance yard forecasting and planning processes with predictive ETAs. Also, users can run reports to understand how many appointments and trailers arrive per day at a dock, and how long drivers are waiting to unload.
In March, the firm launched a port intelligence solution with real-time data on congestion and container flow at all global ports. For example, when the Russia-Ukraine conflict emerged, Project44 data showed a 52 percent increase in export dwell times from Ukraine and an immediate 40.2 percent drop in daily peak TEU vessel capacity calling at Russian ports. Similarly, vessels waiting near Yantian spiked by 44.1 percent when the most recent Covid-19-related lockdown took effect in Shenzhen.
These real-time insights are designed to enable companies to proactively keep their finger on the pulse of supply chain disruptions, black swan events and their impact on terminal operations and the resulting shipment delays.
Project44 claims its algorithms can offer granular location data of 11,800 berths globally, down to 20-meter precision.
Darkstore wants to “make all of the world’s products accessible all over the world.”
As part of its core aim, Darkstore launched a mobile platform in 2020 called FastAF, which serves as an online marketplace for brands that partner with Darkstore. The company says it offers thousands of products from more than 600 national and local retailers on the app, many of which aren’t available on other e-commerce platforms.
Products on the app are delivered to a consumer’s doorstep in two hours, but the company says that deliveries average just 27 minutes. Thus far, trial locations include Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, where Darkstore operates a series of micro-fulfillment centers that store the brands’ products. Customers who want to send an item back use the FastAF app to request a return in the same two-hour span.
Darkstore, which raised more than $30 million in two 2019 rounds, is valued at $200 million. The five-year-old startup will continue its focus on developing proprietary technology to help propel FastAF in delivering products quickly from its micro-fulfillment centers.
With FastAF, Darkstore wants to entrench itself within the culture of each market it enters by partnering with local brands and curating product selection geared to each city. But the tech provider also has partnered with brands across the fashion spectrum including Nike, Carbon28, Everlane and Outdoor Voices.
The company is aiming to become similar to a store by creating brand pages in the app and mimicking an aisle-browsing experience on the home screen. The FastAF app is designed so that users also don’t have to go to several sites to find the products they want.
FastAF partners with brands through wholesale and consignment models. The service is free for customers and revenue comes from the brands’ partnership deals. Last year the app charged $9.99 in delivery fees for orders under $35, but doesn’t charge a fee on orders above that threshold.
While so many logistics providers are focused on improving supply chain issues and getting delivery to the consumer as quickly as possible, Fillogic is built on the idea that larger shopping centers and malls still have considerable untapped potential to enhance the distribution ecosystem.
Fillogic aims to help retailers and shopping centers convert underutilized space at physical locations into tech-enabled, micro-distribution hubs, giving consumers a more convenient area to pick up products and giving last-mile delivery providers a better option to collect and ship items to a shopper’s doorstep.
The platform’s rise comes as the demand for industrial real estate continues to soar and prices go through the roof. Rents for industrial real estate ended 2021 averaging $7.11 per square foot, up 11.3 percent year-over-year, according to JLL data. And from 2019 to 2021, companies that notched industrial leases for logistics and distribution purposes had the largest increase in activity, with lease deals rising 46 percent in the two-year stretch.
The issue surrounding many mall-based retailers is that they don’t have the resources on the back end to fulfill the majority of product out of their stores in the way retail giants like Walmart and Target are capable of. To support this ambition, the Fillogic staff enters stores seven days a week, multiple times a day to aggregate the items necessary to ship out of its hub within the shopping center.
“Retailers need to reach their consumer from their most valuable assets, their existing stores, their inventory and the people that service them,” – Bill Thayer, Fillogic.
Upon collecting this data, the company sorts the aggregated items by freight delivery network and ZIP codes for convenient, consolidated pickup by local parcel carriers, all of which are part of the Fillogic’s delivery provider network (DPN).
Ship-from-store services provided by Fillogic can alleviate the costs that would typically occur from shipping these items from a distribution center that is miles away from the end consumer. Think of it like this: If a retailer can increase the percentage of online orders being fulfilled out of their stores, transportation costs decrease after a smaller percent of online orders are now coming from an out-of-state distribution center.
“When you think about it, e-commerce at scale is not cheap. If you’re going to go build more distribution centers in the middle of country, because you want to provide a wider assortment for your consumers, you’re only servicing off of one inventory in the middle of that country,” Fillogic co-CEO Bill Thayer told Sourcing Journal. “Retailers need to reach their consumer from their most valuable assets, their existing stores, their inventory and the people that service them. We provide a transactional logistics service that makes that more efficient.”
Currently, the company has more than 450 retail centers in its network as part of its collaborations with major shopping centers. It now operates 30 micro-distribution hubs, but has plans to scale up to 45 locations. Despite its presence in these shopping centers, the Fillogic’s distribution hubs are designed to fulfill orders made at digitally native brands that lack a physical presence.
Even though the platform is built to help retailers optimize their existing assets, including their employees, a retailer can instead opt to offload labor associated with picking and packing ship-from-store orders entirely onto the Fillogic team, which ideally can minimize associated labor costs as well.
Sustainability is a hot buzzword in apparel circles, but logistics players need to follow suit given the amount of climate impact the combination of ocean freight, air freight and intermodal transportation can have. One logistics company is looking to make fossil fuel-burning yard operations a thing of the past—and reduce the hazards that come with working in the field—by instead introducing autonomous, zero-emission yard trucks to the freight transportation world.
Outrider was built to keep freight moving efficiently, while maintaining employee productivity in fully automating yard operations via a three-part integrated system of management software, autonomous vehicles and site infrastructure. With the cloud-based software, Outrider’s Mission Control team can manage autonomous yards to dispatch and monitor multiple trailer moves, either onsite or remotely. Additionally, the technology can work stand-alone or in concert with other supply-chain software.
The system can autonomously hitch to and unhitch from trailers, robotically connect and disconnect trailer brake lines, interact safely with loading docks, track trailer locations, and centrally manage and monitor all system functions. The added benefit here is that a human being doesn’t have verify the connection manually, so it also doubles as a significant risk reduction for workers that are within the yards.
“Automation is key to relieving the inflationary pressure on the supply chain,” said Andrew Smith, founder and CEO of Outrider. “Distribution yards are critical links in the supply chain and prime targets for automating the flow of goods between over-the-road transportation and fulfillment centers, warehouses, and manufacturing plants. Automating yards requires backing trailers of all kinds safely and precisely into parking spots and dock spots billions of times a year.”
Outrider says this “articulated backing” technology is fully autonomous, adheres to strict operational requirements, and is capable of seamlessly controlling a trailer through its full range of motion. With this technology, the Outrider system is able to precisely back the diversity of semi-trailers that are used in the industry, including 28-foot, 48-foot, and 53-foot dry van trailers, containers, and refrigerated trailers—all without teleoperation or other types of human interaction.
Outrider’s area of coverage may seem niche in that it is largely focused on distribution yards. These yards include the space between a warehouse and a highway, where trucks often emit fumes while helping trailers into the right position for loading and then hitting the open road. But these yards are often an overlooked area of the supply chain that doesn’t often get significant attention.
The technology has gained traction over the past year. Last November, Georgia-Pacific confirmed that it had completed more than 1,000 autonomous trailer moves in its Chicago-area distribution yard.
Additionally, the introduction of autonomous trucking options comes at a time when the trucking industry is in the middle of a years’ long labor shortage made worse by the pandemic. The American Trucking Associations estimates the country is short around 80,000 drivers—a number that’s expected to rise in the coming years.
To date, the company has raised a total of $118 million in funding, developed an extensive patent portfolio and completed multiple pilot programs. The company says it partners with large, logistics-dependent enterprises that represent more than 20 percent of all yard trucks operating in North America.