What Is LTL Tracking? Everything You Need to Know

May 7, 2020

The world of logistics is adopting more of manufacturing's lean methodologies. That certainly includes LTL trucking and tracking.

In fact, you could argue that LTL trucking evolved from the lean concept of "best practices." The same is true for each of the three main over-the-road shipment categories. Each serves a specific best purpose that's suited for a certain goal. These categories are

  • Parcel
  • Less-than-truckload (LTL)
  • Full truckload (FTL)

Regardless of which category of trucking we're talking about, the urgent question is always the same: "Where's my freight?" And without a doubt, of the three categories of freight, LTL is the trickiest to track.

Thus, today we're diving into the best ways to track LTL freight. We'll answer these questions:

  1. What is LTL tracking, and what's considered an LTL shipment?
  2. What are just-in-time and lean methodologies of freight?
  3. How do I track LTL freight?
  4. How do I keep track of my LTL paperwork?

Let's throw this partial load of questions onto a skid and book it!

LTL, Parcel, and FTL: What's the Difference?

Before we get into what LTL tracking is and how best to do it, let's take a closer look at some of the terms above. First, let's cover the defining features of LTL, parcel, and FTL freight.

As a rule of thumb, the weight and dimensions of a specific shipment determines what category of freight it belongs to. For example, the standard size of a parcel shipment is 150 lb. or less. Meanwhile, standard LTL shipments consist of freight weighing between 150 lb. and approximately 15,000 lb.

Whereas parcel freight consists of boxes, LTL is identifiable by the use of pallets. Most LTL loads will have no more than 10 pallets. Subsequently, freight consisting of more than 10 pallets or weighing more than 15,000 lb. gets bumped up to FTL status.

Comparing LTL With Parcel and FTL Freight

As noted above, the question in logistics is always "Where's my freight?" It's easier to answer this question when it comes to parcel or FTL freight than with LTL freight.

Major parcel service providers like USPS, FedEx, and UPS have standard tracking systems that update the status of your package throughout its journey. These tracking programs may even interface with the retail business a customer ordered from. So, even though a parcel may make a circuitous route on it's odyssey to your front door, tracking your package is smooth sailing.

On the other hand, FTL freight is also simple to track but for different reasons. That is due to the dedicated nature of FTL freight. Your shipment is moving from point A to point B. Prior to GPS, the only way to know where your shipment was currently located was to contact the driver. GPS technology and TMS integrations have developed to the point where most check calls are now unnecessary. Not only that, with onboard telematic devices and modern tech stack integrations, all interested parties can check the location of a FTL in real time on a secure network as needed.

That said, tracking LTL freight is the most difficult of the three. This, again, is due to the nature of LTL. Specifically, LTL operates on a hub-and-spoke system. That means the carrier picks up your LTL freight from a shipper or warehouse (the spoke), usually with other freight on the same truck. It's then brought back to a distribution center or cross-dock (the hub) for consolidation. Next, the LTL freight is loaded onto a trailer with other freight that has a similar destination.

So, now that we know why LTL tracking is more difficult than tracking other types of freight, let's take a closer look at what exactly LTL tracking is.

What Is LTL Tracking?

LTL tracking is the process of using shipment-specific information to determine the current location of a load of freight. As such, LTL tracking is useful in predicting the estimated time of arrival (ETA) of freight.

Why Does LTL Tracking Matter?

Maybe you're wondering what's the big deal about LTL tracking. It's all about timing. Most LTL carriers provide online tracking. But due to the nature of LTL freight (one trailer, several deliveries), LTL schedules can lack precision. LTL tracking monitors freight and lends accuracy to a delivery process that can be inaccurate.

The precise timing of deliveries is becoming more urgent as the logistics industry falls more and more into lockstep with manufacturing trends.

The orchestration of LTL shipments and deliveries plays a major role in modern business processes and the value stream of U.S. commerce. To understand that more fully, let's examine the methodologies behind LTL shipments and tracking that we mentioned at the start of this post.

You're Just in Time for a Quick Lean Recap

One of the recent trends in manufacturing is just-in-time (JIT) inventory planning, which is "is a strategy to increase efficiency and decrease waste by receiving goods only as they are needed in the production process, thereby reducing inventory costs."

JIT is part of the greater lean methodology, which is focused on continuous improvement and best practices. Lean began in manufacturing with the Toyota Production System (TPS), but since then, many other business sectors have adopted it. As a whole, TPS and lean accomplish continuous improvement by eliminating waste from every and any specific process in your value stream. This involves regular evaluation, communication, and teamwork. Once you have removed all identifiable waste, what remains becomes a best practice.

As more and more businesses rely on JIT shipments to streamline their supply chain by harboring leaner inventories, LTL tracking becomes increasingly important. That's because assembly lines and value streams can get log-jammed if the wrong LTL shipment is lost in transit. And that's when the siren song of "where's my freight?" reaches a fever pitch.

Now that we know the vital role LTL tracking plays in the value stream of American commerce, let's determine our own best practices.

How Do I Track an LTL Shipment?

There are various ways to track an LTL shipment, and they all involve a number.

The key to tracking your LTL freight is figuring out which specific number is assigned to your shipment. The typical numbers you will need to reference in order to track your LTL freight include the following:

  • Bill of lading number: Every BOL has a unique number. A BOL is a form that documents and describes the freight being shipped from one location to another. In LTL, this is vital because freight involves multiple stops and changes. Thus, best practices of every companies involved in LTL is to check the BOL against the freight to confirm and it is correct. This check process leaves a paper trail that can be used to pinpoint the most recent location of the LTL freight.
  • Progressive number: The carrier uses the PRO number to identify freight when they pick up a shipment. When you see someone at the dock slapping stickers all over a piece of freight, it is usually a barcode with a PRO number. Because this number is assigned by the carrier—and barcodes are scanned into a carrier's system—the PRO number is a very reliable way to track and trace the latest checked status of your LTL freight.
  • Purchase order number: PO numbers are standard throughout the entire business world, not just freight. Every purchase order gets assigned a number by a customer. In freight, the customer may mean the party that purchased the shipment or the party whose goods are being shipped. You should include a PO number on all documents surrounding a specific order. POs should appear on order-specific communications, including email correspondence with customers, payment information, receipts, and BOLs.

Following these best practices, one of these three numbers should produce the location of your LTL shipment. But once in a blue moon, LTL goes haywire and a load is lost in plain sight. When that happens, you can try troubleshooting some additional numbers.

Other Tracking Numbers to Troubleshoot

LTL carriers often include several other reference numbers on paperwork that you may be able to utilize in order to track lost or missing freight. These include

How Do I Keep Track of My LTL Paperwork?

OK, now that you've tracked your LTL shipment, it's onto the next thing. But first, what's the best practice for logging the information and keeping track of load paperwork?

As noted above, GPS transformed trucking. The same might be said in the near future about companies, like Vector, that are transforming document management in freight. Imaging tech has evolved from paper and snail mail to faxes to copiers to cloud-based scanning.

Software like Vector's perfect scan technology assimilates the information from paper BOLs and PODs into load files. This could certainly become a best practice in trucking because it leads to more rapid exchange of information. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to automated invoicing.

When paperwork and tracking events are all collected automatically in a load file, there's nothing left to do upon delivery except invoicing. This is continuous improvement personified.

In Conclusion

We've seen the important role LTL freight plays in the value stream of commerce. The next time you find yourself dealing with the uncertainty of tracking LTL, employ the best practices we discussed today. But don't settle. Now more than ever, we must be open-minded and look for better solutions.

As the world's supply chain expands and evolves, its clear that those who strive for continuous improvement will win in the end.

This post was written by Brian Deines. Brian believes that every day is a referendum on a brand’s relevance, and he’s excited to bring that kind of thinking to the world of modern manufacturing and logistics. He deploys a full-stack of business development, sales, and marketing tools built through years of work in the logistics, packaging, and tier-1 part supply industries serving a customer base comprised of Fortune 1000 OEMs.

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