Today, we’re investigating shipment visibility. What exactly does shipment visibility mean? We know we want it. But how do we achieve it? And what’s the promise of visibility for the supply chain as a whole?

It’s no surprise that visibility is a trending topic. Visibility software tools such as IoT devices, digitization software, control towers, and digital twins are some of the ways supply chain leaders are managing the unfolding crisis.

To clarify, shipment visibility is a subset of supply chain visibility. Shipment visibility refers to the software tools we use to follow individual shipments as they traverse the supply chain network.

Put another way, shipment visibility is the process of tracking the real-time status and location of a shipment of goods. Real-time status updates are relayed through IoT devices embedded with the shipment. These devices contain GPS software, as well as other features like temperature gauges and tamper alarms.

Shipment visibility thus provides insight not just into the ETA, but also into the condition on arrival of your shipment. For this reason, shipment visibility is especially critical when it comes to temperature-sensitive freight. Temperature monitoring devices ensure that quality requirements stay within specifications. Therefore, everyone can benefit from shipment visibility.

Shipment Visibility Improves Efficiency

Simply put, proper use of shipment visibility tools allows for more efficient allocation of resources. Make no mistake. When multiplied across the billions of tons of freight shipped each year, even small efficiencies can make a huge impact. Why have a driver sit through a traffic jam or winter storm? Better visibility software tools allow you to avoid both.

When two trading partners both know the status of a shipment, then both organizations benefit. And when trading partners share visibility regarding lower-tier suppliers, it can benefit everyone.

In this post, we’ll touch on all the tools and features of shipment visibility. We’ll also revisit what visibility looked like in the past. And we’ll take a macro view of what visibility can bring the supply chain as a whole. The goal is to provide the pros and cons of shipment visibility or lack thereof. But while we’re at it, let’s explore where visibility can take us. Let’s go!

Looking for Visibility?

There’s no doubt improved visibility is good. Better visibility can be a benefit at the shipment level.

Warehouses and docks with incoming shipment visibility of inbound freight can prepare accordingly. Will five trucks all arrive at the same time? Visibility allows you to game plan for whatever obstacles stand in the way of a shipment.

Or say there’s one last truck of the night. You got a call from the driver or dispatch, who said they’re coming. You ask for volunteers to stay late. But in reality, there was a problem at the previous consignee, and the truck got held up. With real-time shipment visibility, the guesswork is gone. You can send your crew home for dinner and not pay unnecessary overtime. Or if it’s worth your while, you can stay and receive the shipment.

But as noted, the entire supply chain is talking about visibility. Bottlenecks at the ports and threats to folks’ holiday deliveries tend to get people talking. But so do FTC investigations.

FTC Inquiry into Supply Chain Disruptions

Supply chain visibility is one of the buzzwords of the post-pandemic supply chain crisis. We want visibility because no one knows what’s going on! As such, even the Federal Trade Commission wants a better look at what’s happening. That’s why the FTC launched an inquiry into supply chain disruptions. The agency wants to understand why consumer prices and lead times are skyrocketing.

“Supply chain disruptions are upending the provision and delivery of a wide array of goods, ranging from computer chips and medicines to meat and lumber. I am hopeful the FTC’s new 6(b) study will shed light on market conditions and business practices that may have worsened these disruptions or led to asymmetric effects,” said FTC chair Lina M. Khan.

The problem is this. In my opinion, an inquiry like this can only diagnose a list of symptoms. I say that because the inquiry is rearward-looking. Also, the companies being studied have 45 days to respond. That’s half a quarter! It’s the 2020s, people. Everything changes over the weekend, let alone a month and a half!

Which is merely to say kudos. When it feels like the Wild West out there, it’s good to know there’s a sheriff in town. And perhaps the FTC’s spotlight will deter some opportunistic bad actors from price gouging. Maybe we’ll simply all get our story straight. There’s value to confirming what we know and where we’ve been. That kind of visibility has a way of helping people chart a future course.

But let’s not forget what shipment visibility used to look like.

What Shipment Visibility Meant in the Past

Before the pandemic, I would sometimes get an email from a customer asking for the location of a shipment that had already arrived on their dock. It would go like this: “Hey, what’s the status of that shipment?!” If this happened to you, how would you react?

You might be confused. Caught off-guard, perhaps. Maybe your stomach would bungee-jump.

Then you’d frantically jump into the system. Cut and paste the confirmation number. Screenshot the tracking information. Attach the email you’d sent ten days ago about delivery.

You’d feel better. Immediately. Thrilled, even. But just before you could click Send, here comes the follow-up email: “NM. Found it. Sitting on the dock. Thx.”

Visibility may also have meant we asked our customers for a forecast. Sometimes, you’d even get one. Maybe they just copied the prior year’s results. Hey, that’s better than nothing. Often, this was merely an Excel spreadsheet full of guesswork. I’ve seen forecasts that were nothing more than darts thrown by the sales guy. And I’ll admit, I’ve been that sales guy!

That’s almost as antiquated as when the freight industry relied exclusively on paper bills of lading (BOLs)! Drivers used to hand-deliver their paper load documents to the office weeks after they made a delivery. Sometimes a driver would mail their load documents through the post office. If they had an issue, they’d use a pay phone!

Eventually drivers upgraded to sending faxed copies of paperwork. Cell phones and email helped streamline things further. But there’s still plenty of room for growth.

In short, we can learn a lot from the inefficiencies of the past. Thankfully, document digitization has come along to revolutionize the freight industry.

Document Digitization for Improved Shipment Visibility

Document digitization software frees you from all the paperwork bottlenecks of any given shipment. Digitized load documents also eliminate the daily back-office shipment of files to the filing cabinet. Instead, you can store all your documents on the cloud. That means you can search for a piece of information with the ease of a Google search.

Beyond that, digitized documents become the big data that integrates with other supply chain visibility tools. This is where the future of shipment and supply chain visibility align. Machine learning software powered by big data and artificial intelligence (AI) has the anticipatory capabilities that can free bottlenecks. Ideally, supply chain partners sharing shipment visibility can react together, in real time, to obstructions, delays, or demand spikes.

Further still, networks and competitors across vast swaths of the supply chain will someday share visibility. One can imagine something like the simple rerouting feature on our smartphones’ map apps that will one day include global air and ocean freight. San Pedro Bay is a little busy today, so let’s recalculate.

In other words, further advances in supply chain tech are definitely coming. Indeed, the software tools already at our disposal are reason for optimism in the face of an uncertain supply chain crisis. So if you’re looking for a place to start to prepare for what’s coming next, start with digitization. Digitization helps form the digital backbone that the tools of the next evolution will be built on.

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.