NMFC Codes: Why Fleet Management Teams Need to Know About Them

May 8, 2020

Hello, fleet managers. Today we're going to dissect a topic that resembles shelves in a supermarket. And why is that? The topic is the National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC). It's a very structured view—let's say standardized—over kinds of cargo to help people determine what freight shipments should cost.

You may have a pile of dozens of printed and bound paper pages on your desk to help you deal with the NMFC. Am I right? Well, this blog post is about understanding that dusty piece of technical and confusing cargo description.

To start this journey, let's first understand what NMFC codes are.

Classifying Freight Shipments With the NMFC Codes

NMFC is a collection of codes used for classifying freight shipments.

Back in the old days, there was no standardization in the logistics industry. Regulators started to work on a classification to define the cost of transporting goods according to their type and weight.

How unfair would it be for shipper A to pay the same as shipper B to transport the same kind of cargo—iron beams, for example—yet shipper A's cargo weighs twice what shipper B's cargo does? Tremendously unfair, that's for sure!

That's why the National Motor Freight Traffic Association (NMFTA) came up with a classification system for freight shipments depending on the type and weight of transported goods.

Now, let's complicate things a little bit more, OK? But don't be afraid—I'll be gentle, I promise. Let's talk about the classification itself and how to interpret the codes.

A Little Help Here, Please: Understanding the Basics of NMFC Codes

NMFC organizes freight shipments into 18 freight classes. Then, a number between 50 and 500 identifies each of those classes.

To clarify, a class number is associated both with a type of article and its weight range per cubic foot. For instance, a cat bed—which is an example of the "Accessories or Furniture" type of article—weighing less than one pound per cubic foot is in the freight class 400. However, a snowboard—which is an example of the "Athletic Goods" type of article—weighing less than one pound per cubic foot is also in the freight class 400.

Here's a partial version of the NMFC with more examples of codes. Note that the NMFTA frequently updates the NMFC. But you may be up to date with new releases if, for example, you follow this news. Nevertheless, to access the most recent and official version of the NMFC, you must buy it from the NMFTA store.

So far, you know what a freight class is. Next, you'll learn how freight classes are actually determined.

Factors That Define Freight Classes

Four factors determine a freight class.

  • Space the cargo occupies in a trailer compared to the cargo's weight—or the cargo's density. Usually, a lower-density shipment item is in a higher class, and a higher-density shipment item is in a lower class.
  • Cost—time, labor, special equipment, and other—of stowing the cargo in a trailer. For instance, heavier, more dangerous, or larger cargo costs more to stow in a trailer.
  • Easiness of cargo handling. The more difficult it is to handle a specific type of cargo, the higher its freight class number is.
  • Fragile or perishable cargo that requires refrigerated or even temperature-controlled transportation has a higher freight class number.

Some shipment items have a fixed class. Others' class rating depends on density—dimensions, weight, and pallet count. Packaging, value, and other factors can also come into play. For instance, a machine that weighs half as much as another but has the same dimensions and is on a pallet with the same standard size—in other words, it's denser—will be in a higher freight class, which means it'll be more expensive to transport.

"But how does this knowledge help me in my daily life as a fleet manager?" you may ask. Let's talk a bit about that in the next section.

The Importance of the NMFC Codes

NMFC codes are a mechanism for fleet managers to define the lowest and highest cost limits—and specific costs in between those—to transport a specific type of cargo that lies within a certain weight range. As a result, shippers know what the freight shipment will cost. Consequently, shippers and carriers also determine shipping rates that the recipient will pay.

To sum up, fairness in charging for freight shipments is in the origins of the NMFC's creation. The NMFC codes are related to price. But there are other reasons these codes matter. Without classifying cargo with the correct freight class, carriers may run into:

  • Inefficiency problems, such as less-than-truckload (LTL) freight shipments, estimating a longer time to load a trailer, and paying for more personnel to load a small or lightweight load. So, the profitability of an LTL logistics provider partially depends on freight NMFC codes.
  • Safety problems in the load that demand refrigerated or temperature-controlled transportation. Specialty distributors and refrigerated logistics providers—such as those for flowers, pharmaceuticals, or meat, for example—base their entire business model on the NMFC codes of the cargo they carry.

Just by looking at a freight class associated with a parcel:

  • You're able to understand that despite cargo being small, it weighs a lot or is denser. That's important to know so you can effectively manage the truck's load.
  • If the cargo is heavy or dense, then you'll most likely take longer and need more personnel or equipment to load it into a trailer.

What if you want to know even more about the NMFC codes? Read on.

Advanced NMFC Codes

Besides the type of article, its weight range per cubic foot, and the freight class, the NMFC contains density intervals—or sub-ratings. For instance, before August 5, 2017, the NMFC referred two sub-ratings breakdowns—a nine-tier and an 11-tier. Since February 4, 2018, the nine-tier sub-rating breakdown was discontinued and sub-ratings were fixed in 11 tiers. Just for your understanding of what a sub-rating is, the changes that came into effect in 2018 were:

  • Before August 5, 2017, in the nine-tier breakdown, density sub-rating nine meant that the article weighed at least 15 pounds per cubic foot. But in the 11-tier breakdown, the same sub-rating meant that the article weighed at least the same 15 pounds but less than 22.5 pounds per cubic foot.
  • As of February 4, 2018, density sub-rating nine means that the article weighs at least 15 pounds but less than 22.5 pounds per cubic foot.
  • As of February 4, 2018, there are always two other tiers besides nine: tier ten for articles weighing at least 22.5 pounds but less than 30 pounds per cubic foot, and tier 11 for articles weighing 30 pounds or more per cubic foot.

Conclusion and Advice

To sum up, this post explained to you:

  • What the NMFC is
  • What NMFC codes are, how to calculate NMFC codes, and where you can find them
  • How to interpret NMFC codes
  • How to roughly calculate NMFC codes based on cargo density, stowability, liability, and ease of handling
  • The use and importance of NMFC codes for shippers and carriers, including freight shipment cost calculation, the profitability of LTL logistics providers, and the safety problems that can arise from incorrectly NMFC-coded cargo that must be refrigerated or temperature-controlled when transported
  • A few advanced topics on NMFC codes, such as density sub-ratings

Before you start discussing rates with your logistics provider, calculate the NMFC codes of your freight. And make sure the correct NMFC code is in the freight quote or bill of lading (BOL). Also, the more detailed a shipment item is, the more likely you are to prevent a carrier from reclassifying it.

Freight class calculators are good at calculating cargo density. However, the classes they calculate are always estimations. That's because not all freight classes are based on density—it depends on the shipment item.

This post was written by Sofia Azevedo. Sofia has most recently taught college-level courses in IT, ICT, information systems, and computer engineering. She is fond of software development methods and processes. She started her career at Philips Research Europe and Nokia Siemens Networks as a software engineer. Sofia has also been a product owner, working in the development of software for domains such as telecom, marketing, and logistics.

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