Transportation is a wildly complex industry. For the companies shipping their products and the carriers hauling that freight, there are an endless number of variables to consider, with each affecting delivery times and costs. Where are the carrier’s trucks starting from, and where are they headed? What’s the price of fuel today? What route is the carrier taking?
For decades, the transportation industry has largely relied on a once-a-year RFP process to lock down new shipping contracts with carriers. The problem? Those contracts are based on a snapshot in time and often don’t reflect the ever-changing nature of the industry. “It’s hard to predict what the future will look like in 12 months,” says Heather Mueller, chief operating officer of Breakthrough, a transportation management and technology provider based in Green Bay, Wisc. “It’s just too static for how dynamic this industry is.”
It was precisely that challenge Breakthrough aimed to address with Network Intelligence, a service offering made available in their FELIX platform, that draws on millions of data points to help companies quickly create more stable and efficient transportation networks. And it’s this brand of creative problem solving that landed Breakthrough on this year’s list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies.
Breakthrough collects nearly 5 million unique data points a day, ranging from an individual freight movement’s energy consumption to the specific route it’s taking. “That data gives us a really comprehensive understanding of how that freight is moving throughout North America,” says Jeff Lang, Breakthrough’s vice president of digital transformation.
The company knew its data was valuable; the question was how to unlock that value. Breakthrough consulted with an advisory council of their clients to figure out how those millions of data points could best be used to streamline the transportation process. “We already had focus areas identified, but they gave us ideas that honed in on the highest return opportunities, and ultimately that iterative process led us to Network Intelligence,” Mueller says.
Network Intelligence was designed to replace the antiquated annual RFP process. Using artificial intelligence, the FELIX platform gives shippers access to real-time data and insights they can use to streamline their network—and even renegotiate noncompliant shipping contracts. The result is a more efficient and dynamic approach to shipping goods. “Transportation is becoming more complicated, and that requires a more nuanced and targeted approach,” Mueller says.
FROM TOILET PAPER TO CAR PARTS
COVID-19 illustrated the powerful role data can play in solving shipping complexities. Breakthrough’s FELIX platform officially launched in February 2020, making Network Intelligence widely available to clients just weeks before the pandemic upended the U.S. economy. In the transportation industry, COVID-19 led to major snarls for shippers and carriers. For instance, companies that made toilet paper raced to find trucks to meet spiking consumer demand. “Shippers scrambling to find new trucks paid enormous premiums,” Mueller says. “RFPs couldn’t have predicted that.”
But the data crunched by Network Intelligence could tell that there was extra carrier capacity, as trucks scheduled to deliver car parts were left idle when automakers essentially shut down production. “Could the trucks that were supposed to be moving auto parts flex over to move the toilet paper? The answer is yes—if you know where that capacity of displaced trucks is,” Mueller says. “If shippers have access to data, that’s a huge opportunity.”