3PLs Spotlight Technology
Third-party logistics providers are rolling out increasingly sophisticated technology solutions to set the stage for supply chain efficiency.
As supply chains grow more complex and customer demands escalate, many shippers are depending on third-party logistics (3PL) providers to help them navigate the array of challenges they now must face. In response, 3PLs are deploying advanced technology solutions to serve their clients’ needs and boost their supply chains.
The acceleration of technology adoption in the supply chain due to the pandemic is well-documented, covering a range of topics and tasks.
Most prominently, the pandemic highlighted the value that automation can bring to warehouses and distribution centers, while also underlining “the criticality of data-driven insights for how to plan for your supply chain, how to plan for transportation, and how to plan for inventory management,” says Yemisi Bolumole, Ryder professor in supply chain management at the University of Tennessee.
Consequently, technology is going to play a growing role in the 3PL field in the years ahead as tech solutions become even more sophisticated—and readily available.
“The good news is both physical and data-driven technology is getting more accessible,” Bolumole says.
3PLs’ use of warehouse automation to support shippers has a long history, but recent years have seen “a leapfrog progression in that space” accelerated by pandemic-related demands associated with labor shortages and a dramatic shift among consumers toward ecommerce, says Bolumole.
The price point for robotics has come down for shippers and 3PLs interested in exploring automation as competition has intensified and more providers have entered the marketplace. The result is a wide variety of options for 3PLs and shippers to consider.
“Think about what has happened to the price point of robotics in the past 10 years,” Bolumole says. “We’ve come from a time when three or four large suppliers ruled the industry to today, when we have a lot of competition.”
The proliferation of automation also has brought rapid advances in the technology.
“It’s almost as though before we even get settled into one space, another one is coming to replace it,” she says.
Automation has brought the introduction of more scalable options into the warehouse, helping startups and other businesses adjust to evolving conditions.
“A lot of shippers are leaning on their 3PL to help implement a small-footprint technology solution that can then be expandable as the business grows or as the business needs to change,” Bolumole says.
Beyond the Warehouse
Automation is not limited just to the warehouse. For instance, Polaris Transportation Group, a Canada-based supply chain solutions provider, adopted intelligent process automation—a type of robotic process automation—to manage the flow of administrative documents.
Polaris focused on integrating automation into its customs clearance and order management processes, which were especially demanding and time-consuming for employees.
When a 3PL automates processes, it can not only serve shippers more efficiently, but it can also create time and space for its team members to provide more highly engaged service and more creative problem-solving for clients.
Data analytics helps a supply chain provider support shippers in powerful ways, creating agility for shippers and allowing them to continuously and proactively improve, says Dave Brajkovich, chief technology officer for Polaris Transportation Group. The visibility and business intelligence that a 3PL can offer today can reverberate well beyond the shipper.
“We want to give critical visibility to our customers and partners, so that they can also channel this to their own respective partners and clients,” Brajkovich says.
“Because very clearly a 3PL is a cog in the chain—a cog in a very large supply chain—and the services we provide can help supply chain partners throughout that whole system. A lot of businesses can be helped by the service we provide,” he adds.
Polaris is among the supply chain providers prioritizing the value they can bring their clients through data analytics.
“We’re collecting volumes of good data based on our customers’ history and how they may be more efficient and effective,” Brajkovich says. “We’re creating a framework of business intelligence that we can share with our customers.
“We’re not just sharing with them the data and letting them try to understand it, but we’re providing them new intelligence that helps them better understand their business,” he adds.
3PLs’ use of data to support shippers has undergone a major shift—in part in response to changing consumer demands.
“From the shipper’s perspective, we’ve moved from an era of digital track-and-trace to one of simulate-and-predict,” Bolumole says. “Before, when end consumers were somewhat patient, we thought tracking and tracing was sufficient—telling them where their products were. In today’s world, though, consumer impatience is to an ‘nth degree’ and simulating and predicting where items will be is what the consumer is looking for.”
In addition, in the world of transportation, “we’re beginning to see 3PLs moving into using a lot of predictive data to get themselves or their shippers situated regarding when to spot and when to go contract on the market,” says Bolumole.
When it comes to 3PLs and shippers working together, tech advances make it easier than ever for tech-savvy 3PLs and shippers to collaborate, notes Brajkovich. 3PLs have taken the driver’s seat in working with shippers to ensure all their systems and equipment can communicate productively with one another, making it more straightforward to embrace new and innovative tech solutions.
“You’re not making a decision to eliminate what you currently have,” Bolumole says. “3PLs can help you figure out a way where the old equipment is still functioning and communicating with the new.”
Partnering with a technologically advanced 3PL is a smart way for shippers to bolster their involvement in that kind of innovation and the benefits it provides while limiting their financial investment.
“There’s no better time to take 3PLs up on that offer,” Bolumole says.
Polaris Transportation Group: Managing Sustainable Growth
As a company that has ambitiously embraced sophisticated technology tools, Polaris Transportation Group, a Canada-based supply chain solutions provider, has positioned itself to excel—and to help its clients excel—in any economic environment. Polaris illustrates how a tech-savvy provider can support shippers today.
“Technology has driven everything this company has done during the past six or seven years,” says Dave Cox, president of Polaris, whose services include U.S./Canada cross-border transportation, global logistics, warehousing, and distribution. “Now, in uncertain times, we’re doubling down on it.”
Following a “next-generation transportation” approach, Polaris has invested in both technology and the company’s team members while staying true to the corporate responsibility mission of its roots. The result is a trusted partner that helps its clients maintain and build their position in the marketplace, no matter the broader conditions of the moment.
Polaris’ tech efforts include its in-house Digital Laboratory and NorthStar Digital Solutions, a supply chain technology solutions provider.
Technology provides agility and visibility that has never been more important to navigating the complexities of the supply chain. Technology also allows Polaris to scale, says Dave Brajkovich, chief technology officer for Polaris.
“Technology allows us to handle bigger volumes when the economy is humming along—we can scale up without necessarily adding headcount—and when the economy is not as strong, we can adjust without any human collateral,” Cox says.
“We want to be in this for the long term with our employees, and technology and the ability it brings us to scale our business allows that to happen,” he adds.
People and Technology
That commitment to team members is central to the Polaris approach, Cox says, and heavy investments in technology have lifted mundane responsibilities from employees, freeing them to focus on more fulfilling work, including better engagement with clients.
“We invest in our people, and we want them to have a sense of pride working for the company. That is reflected in conversations with our clients,” Cox says. “Our customers understand when they talk to our people that they’re talking to someone who has a passion for their work.”
One key place where an emphasis on digital innovation and being a high-character company aligns is transparency. Transparency means always being open with clients, avoiding the temptation to embellish the truth, Brajkovich says. Effective technology solutions help make full transparency a reality.
“We want to offer great services, great transit times, and good pricing, but we also want to be very transparent with our customers on the basis of the best possible information and data, even where there are challenges,” Brajkovich says.
As part of its commitment to service, Polaris has placed an emphasis on collecting data and turning that data into invaluable business intelligence for its clients.
“Based on the data that we’re able to analyze now, we’re having more meaningful and more thoughtful conversations with our customers. We are sharing new information about their business, their shipping practices, and trends that we’ve found,” Cox says.
“Those conversations are richer than they’ve ever been before and show how much we care about their success. And that’s leading to a deeper level of trust and to major benefits for our clients,” he says. “They’re getting insights that can really help their business.”