What does a prop like the tricorder that appeared in the 1960s TV series Star Trek and its subsequent franchises have to do with trucking industry trends in 2016? Maybe more than you think.
At the turn of the millennium, Augie Grasis, today the CEO of a new LTL freight price comparison and booking site called ShipXFreight.com, was one of the founders of mobile content company Handmark in Kansas City, MO. And that was a key point in the evolution of mobile technology, he says: "It was right at the time when we all had mobile phones but were just using them for voice."
The Handmark team brainstormed what could be done with mobile phones, and particularly what functions they might incorporate. They ended up thinking of the fictional Star Trek tricorder, which comes in a medical version but also a more general scientific scanning device that senses, computes and records information.
"Nobody really knew what was going to happen with mobile phones," Grasis tells Fleet Owner. "But in 2000, that was our vision — we said, 'Someday, people are going to be carrying around a tricorder.' If you've ever watched Star Trek, they're carrying these things around with basically all the information in the universe right there on this handheld device.
"And if you think about it today, that's really your mobile phone and using it to connect to the Internet," he continues.
Handmark would become one of the first companies to provide news and sports reporting on mobile phones, and ultimately was acquired by Sprint about three years ago in April 2013. And in the time that followed, Grasis recalls chatting with his friend Kevin Childress, a fellow Kansas City guy who's CEO of MyFreightWorld, a provider of freight, transportation and supply chain management apps.
Think of online tools that for years now have allowed consumers to price out and purchase things like plane tickets, hotel rooms or auto insurance. That's what Grasis and Childress did in that conversation, which turned to freight; it seemed that a tool of that kind wasn't really available for that industry.
"I was actually very surprised that this didn't already exist," Grasis says. "So I did a number of months of due diligence to understand the industry and what was available, and I determined there was an opportunity" for what would become ShipX.
Trend in freight booking?
Grasis explains that ShipX is "a website that allows shippers to go on and tell us what they're trying to ship, from where to where, and we aggregate pricing from about 25 carriers at this point" that customers then can choose from. On a typical route between U.S. cities, users will get some 5-7 quotes for a shipment; some might choose based on cost alone, while others will also consider things like carriers' service records.
It's free to check out, which he encourages doing. "We designed it to be very quick and simple — we think it's easier to book your freight on our site than it is to buy a plane ticket," he contends.
Now think of APIs, or application program interfaces. ShipX partners with project44, a company that specializes in freight and logistics APIs, to connect with carriers' systems. That allows not only freight tracking updates from the carriers to be provided via the ShipX site but gives the carriers some dynamic pricing capabilities as well.
Who gets what out of the ShipX app? First, ShipX gets a $25 fee for less-than-truckload (LTL) freight booked via the site.
"We don't mark it up any more than that," says Grasis. "So in a lot of cases, particularly less-frequent shippers and small businesses that maybe don't have volume rate agreements with carriers, they find they can save 20, 30, 40% with us sometimes." Thus for shippers, he claims the site can offer simplicity and ease of use — saving time — as well as potential cost savings thanks to ShipX's carrier agreements.
Meanwhile, for carriers, "I think they like it because they're getting the same rate that a 3PL [third-party logistics company] would give them," adds Grasis. "This takes the middle man out, so the end user is getting a better deal, but it's not coming out of the carrier's margin.
"There's no reason to be paying a 20% or 30% markup — it's a simple transaction," he continues. Also, carriers can use ShipX to adjust their prices on the fly if, for example, they have trucks to fill on a particular route. "Carriers can tweak their prices in certain lanes instead of just publishing blanket prices," according to Grasis.
ShipX thereby takes the place of a 3PL freight broker, but Grasis doesn't believe those are going to disappear by any means. "We're doing what a lot of other industries have done — for example, the travel industry. But travel agents haven't gone away. If you're booking more complex travel around the world, you'd probably go to a travel agent who has experience in that," he tells Fleet Owner.
"And similarly, there are a lot of 3PLs that thrive on those complex, volatile shipments," he notes. "So 3PLs aren't going to go away with what we're doing."
As technology's future unfolds
The folks at ShipX are also predicting that 2016 will be a year when supply chain functionality makes big strides in adopting digital technology. Here's an excerpt from a blog entry on the site concerning industry trends:
"The high-tech future of supply chain management is often discussed, without having actually happened yet. In the meantime, shippers and carriers are moving through a transitional phase. Supply chain functions of the past are melding with the ones of tomorrow — man and machinery learning to work with computers and big data."
The world of trucking and freight shipment today has some similarities to mobile phones around the year 2000, with scores of new ideas churning and that sense of being right on the edge of new technological advances. Grasis reflects on how his company tried to discern where mobile phone technology would lead when many saw the potential but no one had all the answers.
Back at Handmark, "we were kind of on the leading edge of a lot of mobile technology, and what we learned was that it was a pretty undefined path at the time," he says. "We really had to establish a business model and had to reinvent ourselves a couple times. We learned to be agile.
"We learned that we had to adapt as new technologies came along ... At ShipX, what we're doing is not necessarily a technologically groundbreaking thing, but for this industry, I think it's going to really make a difference."