Overseeing a shipping fleet today comes with a variety of challenges. Managers have to contend with a number of unpredictable factors—like shifting weather patterns, fluctuating fuel costs, and changing customer routes, among other things. In addition, most customers have high expectations today. They’re data-driven, fully empowered, and quick to jump ship when they aren’t happy with the service they’re receiving.
With so many uncontrollable factors at play, fleet managers need to perform cost calculations carefully. They must optimize whatever they can control in order to keep costs down, streamline operations, and ensure supply chain customers stay happy. And this starts with having a thorough understanding of all available shipping options so that they can make the best decisions.
One strategy that all managers moving large freights need to know about is full-truckload (FTL) shipping. Simply put, with the right approach, FTL can be highly beneficial for shipping loads of all sizes. It can also be cost effective, which is important when you're considering a shipment's landed cost.
With this in mind, let’s explore this popular shipping method, starting with the basics.
As the name suggests, a FTL involves dedicating an entire truck for a single shipment. Typically, a FTL shipment will have at least 10 pallets or more, depending on their overall size and weight. The average FTL shipment is somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds.
The important thing to remember about FTL is that multiple customers don't share cargo space. This is an exclusive service—one that’s designed to be private. In other words, be wary of any company selling FTL and asking to share space. Even if they give you a discount, they’re not offering you FTL, and the transaction should be handled differently.
The opposite of FTL involves serving multiple customers with a single truck. This approach is called less-than-full truckload (LTL). In an LTL scenario, the warehouse fills the truck with items that are going to many destinations. In turn, the driver will need to make several stops over the course of a route, dropping off a portion of their cargo at each one.
LTL shipments are usually for transporting small freight, where the driver is delivering limited amounts of goods to each destination. For example, Amazon—which does a lot of its business selling to smaller customers (for example, individual buyers)—offers one of the most commonly used LTL services. LTL deliveries are usually kept to 10,000 pounds or less.
There isn’t a single type of FTL truck. Instead, a variety of trucks can support FTL endeavors. Let’s explore some of the more popular ones.
RGN trailers are considered lowboys, which refers to a semitrailer with two deck heights. Companies typically use this type of truck for transporting freight that's extra long or tall—perhaps a shipment of timber from the forests of Oregon. RGN rigs can transport up to 150,000 pounds at a time.
Flatbeds are common, with a driver’s cab and an open trailer. Durable by design, these are excellent trucks for transporting bulky items without height restrictions.
Step decks—or drop-deck trailers—are flatbed trailers with two levels. They're ideal for transporting freight that has height restrictions.
Just as the name suggests, dry van trucks—or box trucks—are fully protected from the elements. They have two sides, a roof, and a door on either the side of the truck or the rear.
Refrigerated trailers—or reefer trucks—are made for transporting perishable goods like fruits and vegetables. These trucks are similar to dry vans, but they contain insulated cargo areas.
Ultimately, the type of truck you select for FTL delivery will depend on the type of cargo you’re transporting and the type of route you're traversing. Carefully consider your needs before selecting a truck for an FTL transport. The last thing you want is to pick the wrong vehicle for the task at hand. That can be an expensive mistake that results in damaged cargo, a canceled trip, or higher freight-hauling bills than are necessary.
As you can see, there are many scenarios where a fleet manager would use FTL to transport items. Here are some of the top advantages to using FTL.
One of the top reasons for slow or delayed deliveries is having to make multiple stops on a route. The more stops that a driver has, the higher the chances are for things to go wrong—like traffic jams, poor traffic management, being unable to find a delivery address, backed-up warehouses, and accidents.
For the most part, FTL eliminates these mid-route stops. Aside from travel breaks, the only time that stops typically arise during FTL transport is during shipping transfers.
FTL shipping cost is largely determined by fuel cost and total distance traveled. This provides more opportunities to negotiate rates. As a result, businesses can save a lot of money on the total cost of transport compared to LTL.
There’s no way around it: Shipping items by truck is risky. Sixty-six percent of theft happens while cargo is in transit, and only 11 percent happens at the warehouse.
One of the reasons shipping managers use FTL is that—barring item transfers—items typically remain in the truck until delivery. This can reduce instances of items getting lost, stolen, or damaged. In turn, this boosts customer satisfaction while keeping costs and refunds at a minimum.
Add it all up, and FTL is an excellent choice for transporting valuable, dangerous, or high-risk cargo.
What else should you think about if you're mulling over whether to use FTL?
One of the top reasons shippers tend to avoid using FTL is because they assume it’s only for massive shipments, and they don’t have enough cargo to fill the truck.
Companies tend to have varying shipping policies. Sometimes it’s possible to ship FTL with only a partial load. (It sounds contradictory, I know!) This strategy can be helpful when shipping highly valuable cargo or when you need a speedy delivery. It's something to consider as you refine your fleet management plans.
When you ship items LTL, you need to share common cargo space with many other customers. As a result, you sacrifice the ability to space items out as needed.
On the other hand, when shipping FTL, it's possible to place items strategically in a cargo bed. This is a better choice for fragile items.
Ultimately, you get what you pay for when shipping FTL. While you can expect to pay more for this service, what you wind up with is a shipping option that is customizable and personalized to your needs.
Like everything else, FTL has downsides.
For example, FTL is highly resource intensive—especially if you use this option often. FTL ties up drivers, requires extra gas, and places additional strain on the environment. For these reasons, it makes sense to use FTL sparingly. Try to reserve it for situations where LTL isn't a viable option—for example, when you're shipping more than 10,000 pounds.
One of the downsides to shipping perishable goods by LTL is that it can require using individual refrigerated containers. This increases the risk of something going wrong (for example, a spill or refrigerator malfunction) while reducing available space.
Instead, it’s typically better to ship perishable items using FTL. Doing so will provide full use of the refrigerated cargo area, allowing you to ship a bigger load. Plus, your goods will get to the destination sooner, helping prevent items from spoiling during transport.
Fleet managers all focus on the same thing: building an efficient operation to increase productivity and profitability while keeping customers happy—and the country running.
By familiarizing yourself with FTL and LTL, you're much more likely to pick the shipping mode that works best for the task at hand. And that’s the ticket to a streamlined fleet—and a healthier bottom line.
This post was written by Justin Reynolds. Justin is a freelance writer who enjoys telling stories about how technology, science, and creativity can help workers be more productive. In his spare time, he likes seeing or playing live music, hiking, and traveling.