Pushing through pandemic-poignant freight/shipping pain points

July 26, 2021
Supply Chain struggles to unclog transportation arteries

Navigating through the health crisis-addled economy, freight/shipping services has faced myriad challenges that have disrupted trade channels and business transactions with the aftershocks rippling through the various transportation modalities.

Overall, the confluence of events in such a short period of time, coupled with the lasting effects of the global pandemic during the last 18 months, seemed to reveal a sense of fragility to standard supply chain operations, largely because the industry didn’t seem prepared to handle such an intense and lengthy crisis mode.

Hurdles have included cybersecurity attacks that impacted gas and meat purveyors; cargo/container ship reliability and port congestion that created accelerated demand for available space, driving up costs, prices and delays for optional air transport and trucking as well; and protectionist policies enacted to tamp down on global opportunism to encourage domestic trade promoting more localized vendor relationships. 

As the world yearns to emerge from the pandemic miasma with eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel, Supply Chain professionals must look back with a sense of purpose and then return to looking ahead with a sense of resolve.

Enlightenment via great expectations

During the pandemic, the global supply chain seemed to be caught between a rock and a hard place – as in between ports, on the open seas, ensnarled within production, pressured by intensifying demand, wracked by shifting geopolitical interests and wavering tariffs.

From cybersecurity failures and ransomware attacks on meat packagers and producers and oil producers to errant clogs in seaports and waterways to a lack of available manpower to move materials, the COVID-19 pandemic not only wreaked havoc on human health and sensibilities but also on the product pipeline and service convenience.

In fact, vendors offering freight/shipping services either saw these pandemic-related challenges redefine their customer relationships and service parameters or they merely took them in stride as business-as-usual, pivoting when necessary, but striving to maintain expected service levels.

OptiFreight Logistics, a Cardinal Health company, straddled both options.

“Even before the pandemic, OptiFreight Logistics has been dedicated to helping health systems across the country evolve their supply chains to meet the needs of their patients and staff,” noted Melissa Laber, Senior Vice President and General Manager at OptiFreight Logistics. “The pandemic environment shined a brighter light on the importance of a fully coordinated and digitally optimized supply chain – and logistics operation – to operate at peak performance.”

Laber shares five examples that show how they supported and reinforced customer service operational needs via adaptation or creation in both urban and rural areas. OptiFreight Logistics:

• Added shipping locations to their programs for new or temporary points of care.

• Helped to coordinate STAT courier pickups of emergency ventilators for facilities around metropolitan areas.

• Quickly set up new same-day services for laboratories to keep up with the testing demand in rural locations.

• Managed a significant increase in large freight requests to move bulk supplies and equipment due to an influx of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

• Supported national and international shipments of urgently needed supplies and equipment, as well as critical blood donations.

For the past year many of VPL’s customers have had to embrace outside-the-box strategies and outside-their-borders tactics leading to obscured viewpoints, according to Don Carroll, Vice President, Business Development.

“Many of our customers have been forced to source product from outside their traditional networks resulting in unforeseen process challenges and delays,” Carroll said. “For example, a large health system customer in the Midwest came to us asking for help tracking vital PPE product through their supply chain. They were sourcing product from unfamiliar suppliers and found that they had very little visibility into their order and delivery statuses. A significant percentage of their deliveries were being delayed and, as a result, they were scrambling at the very last minute to find alternative product or were simply rescheduling procedures for a later day.”

Consequently, VPL quickly established a “one-off solution” to help them collect POA, ASN and tracking information for these orders, according to Carroll. “This information gave them a longer lead time to react to order delays resulting in fewer delayed procedures,” he indicated.

VPL used the situation to develop a new product to introduce.

“We discovered there was significant market demand for this type of advanced order tracking information, so we took what we learned and introduced it as our newest supply chain SaaS visibility product, VPL View, [which] lets our customers track vital product from the point of manufacturer all the way to the location of patient care,” he indicated. “It not only offers an immediate ROI by reducing delayed procedures, it also reduces the long-term impact of disruptions to the supply chain. This helps to ensure our customers are able to maintain a supply of critical products and ultimately allows them to lower the cost of care and focus on delivering better patient outcomes.”

Believe it or not, suppliers gaze warily at providers about their lack of preparation as much as providers worry about suppliers not being ready. And that can be costly, Dave Belter, Vice President & General Manager, Global Transportation Management, Ryder System Inc., warns.

“There are definitely staffing challenges with some customers, especially in the warehouse setting, which ultimately impacts the ability to have product ready on time and staged for carrier pickup and/or have unloading capacity to keep carriers moving,” Belter observed. “At locations where carriers are delayed due to in-gating, out-gating, loading, unloading and products not ready, carriers are hesitant to go back to those locations and may charge a premium tied to the inefficiency of the pick-up or delivery operations.”

If anything, the pandemic forced providers and suppliers alike to flex their capabilities at flexibility.

“Like the rest of healthcare, during the early days of the pandemic, our day-to-day operations changed significantly,” recalled Jim Van Duyn, CIO, MedSpeed. “Our customers rapidly closed non-acute facilities and increased PPE, specimen and equipment movements. To support them, we leveraged our technology to dynamically alter our routes on the fly. Last summer, as non-acute facilities began re-opening, while various parts of the country continued to surge, we needed the ability to adjust again to accommodate peak capacity. More recently, vaccine distribution has also required dynamic routing. The investments we have made in tech, analytics and experienced personnel have allowed us to scale up and down in support of our customers. I think this is one of the most important things we could have done to help them over the past 18 months, and I am confident that it has strengthened our relationships.”
Further, the pandemic steered more organizations to investigate and implement digital and virtual solutions as alternatives to standard operating procedures. “As long as customer expectations and demands continue to rise, customer service will be a top priority and driving force for corporations and companies in any industry,” insisted Matt Motsick, CEO, RPA Labs. “Maintaining high-quality standards for customer service in logistics and supply chain management is critical for continued growth and success in these challenging times.”

As a result, RPA Labs launched RPA Engage, which incorporates an advanced “chatbot” and “automated email responses” for transportation service providers in many industries to improve customer service and increase efficiency, according to Motsick. The “no-code” service can provide customers within seconds requests for spot quotes, shipping schedules, real-time tracking, on-demand customer service and reliable Q&A access all without human intervention, he adds.

For example, three key employees at SEACORP spent hours every day manually responding to customer quote inquiries until they implemented RPA Labs’ new service featuring “Rippey,” the artificial intelligence (AI) voice of RPA Engage.

“Since implementation, they automatically generate dozens of quotes every day for customer inquiries and now only need one employee managing exceptions, allowing their key staff members to reclaim time and shift their focus to high-level business initiatives,” Motsick indicated.

Ken Fleming, President, Logistyx, highlights the global, international impact the pandemic wreaked on supply lines.

“Among the many challenges faced by Logistyx’s clients in the last year, Brexit was a top concern for many,” he indicated. “Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) created numerous complexities, including:

• Updated payment terms, product codes and customs codes to match the new numerical identity of each shipment’s origin.

• Overwhelmed EU mainland European distribution centers.

• Shipments to Britain no longer considered domestic when shipping from within the EU.

• GDPR and DPA compliance shipping to/from the U.K. and EU.

• New fees, fines and penalties.

• Currency fluctuations.

 “Shippers turned to Logistyx to ensure rapid compliance with the new trade policies and requirements,” he continued. Logistyx worked well in advance to ensure we accounted for updated country codes, import and export taxes, customs paperwork and shipment consolidation, as well as ensuring clients could easily alter their shipping workflows to accommodate the new realities and complexities of international shipping to and from the U.K. In the midst of so much supply chain chaos, Logistyx helped many shippers that cater to this region maintain a great deal of normalcy.”

Point, click, pivot, presto!

While the pandemic and its butterfly effect on supply chain tentacles around the globe may have initially disrupted the unprepared, it also reinforced and strengthened the nimbleness of those that were more ready than not.

“The past 18 months has really tested the resiliency of the entire healthcare supply chain and it has been found lacking in a number of critical areas,” reflected VPL’s Carroll. “As VPL has considered how we can positively impact some of these shortcomings we have discovered that many of the issues stem from a significant lack of visibility and transparency into the movement of vital product from suppliers to providers and then, in some instances, to the patients themselves. 

“Supply chain data is often hidden or siloed or both,” Carroll continued. “Capturing that unseen data, and unlocking the insights contained [inside], give supply chain leaders enhanced end-to-end visibility into movement of vital product, and delivers the transparency and resilience required to provide quality patient care.”

VPL has fortified its cloud-based Healthcare Supply Chain Visibility Platform to give supply chain leaders the ability to see clearly into order status and end-to-end movement of vital product, according to Carroll. “By offering crucial insights into oft hidden or siloed data, it improves operational efficiencies, mitigates risk, and increases transparency and resilience in the supply chain,” he added.

Effectiveness and efficiency

OptiFreight Logistics maintained its customer commitments but recognized its customer base needed more than that – particularly now.

“Efficiency has always been a focus for OptiFreight Logistics, and during the past year, it has been a differentiator for us,” Laber emphasized. “By looking into our internal analytics and data capabilities over the past few years, we built tools that allow our team to anticipate and proactively react to customers’ needs. Based on those needs we created a customer-facing analytics platform called TotalVue Analytics, which gives our customers the ability to track their progress in real time through a cloud-enabled platform. Customers can view key benchmarks, identify best practices, leverage real-time analytics and implement ongoing cost-reduction strategies.”

As an example, Laber refers to a prominent health system in the Midwest that sought a deeper dive into its logistics expense stream.

“The materials management team wanted to know ‘everything about anything that’s moving,’” Laber recalled. “That’s a significant challenge for a health system as complex and growing as this one, with literally thousands of shipments moving at any given time. But taking on complex challenges is what we do every day. By leveraging our advanced technology, we synthesized more than three million lines of data to see what was being shipped, where it was going and how much the health system was paying. Thanks to our partnership, this health system has full logistics visibility and spending control – and continues to find opportunities to save.”

Laber recognizes that while pandemic fatigue may be intensifying, she feels it’s important for suppliers and providers to incorporate learnings from the last year into current and future plans for operation.

 “We recently had the opportunity to work with a customer to coordinate the shipping of a donation of PPE and other critical supplies to India,” she said. “The OptiFreight Logistics team and the customer worked together to ensure that these products were staged, packed, transported and flown to India in a time of great need. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been floored by the way our teams partnered with our customers to make sure supplies reached their destination quickly, efficiently and in a cost-effective manner as we work to beat COVID-19 around the world.”

Digital, virtual endeavors

MedSpeed’s Van Duyn acknowledges the benefits that digital and virtual technology as well as cybersecurity fortification and protection bring to same-day logistics services – from within its own operations to share externally with its customer base.

“We deploy a proprietary technology platform to support everything from item tracking to route design to measurement of the system,” Van Duyn noted. “While people are the heart of what we do, we rely heavily on technology and analytics to make our service as efficient and effective as possible – something that has been critical during the pandemic.

“Over the last several months, we have witnessed the issues ransomware and other cyberattacks have caused for our customers and partners,” he continued. “A major initiative within MedSpeed has been to limit our exposure, which protects us and the customers we serve. We have approached this on two fronts. First, our IT team has made it a priority to shore up our system infrastructure against any potential intrusions. This includes systems security, penetration testing and active monitoring. I like to describe this as walling off a fort so that it is incredibly difficult for your enemy to get in.”

Unfortunately, cyberattacks generally emerge from within an organization because they’re enabled and invited by people, according to Van Duyn.

“But all of that work is for nothing if you have an employee who lowers the drawbridge for an intruder,” he added. “Over 90% of attacks occur because an employee was tricked into providing information. This is why training about social engineering and testing the team regularly are critical.”

Logistyx bolstered its carrier fleet to give customers ample choices and options.

“We drove carrier capacity management by continually on-boarding new carriers into our cloud-based system to ensure customers had access to the widest selection possible when determining which carriers and services best met the needs of each parcel shipment,” Fleming noted. “This expanded carrier roster helped ensure that when one carrier lacked capacity, another was ready at hand to fill the void. We even worked with some omnichannel retailers to redefine the meaning of a carrier to include the emerging gig economy and offer their fastest fulfillment yet.”

Further, Logistyx improved its data analytics offerings and business intelligence technology so that customers could “predict parcel shipping disruptions ahead of time, enabling them to move shipping volumes to maintain on-time-delivery rates,” Fleming indicated. “By giving our customers better insights into the performance of their deliveries – in terms of cost, on-time-in-full, and customer satisfaction – they have unlocked new efficiencies in their shipping operations,” he added.

Ryder’s Belter emphasizes flexibility as being both a useful strategy and tactic for cementing ties between suppliers and customers.

“We encouraged ‘shipper of choice’ behavior with level loading, drop trailer privileges, increased tender lead time, and increased appointment times for loading and unloading across multiple shifts and expanded days of the week,” he said. “This matters because carriers are more apt to keep their capacity commitments with these conditions in place. Flexibility is key, and carriers that are afforded that luxury will keep their capacity commitments. Internally, we are using the ongoing carrier management process – or scorecard review calls – to deepen our partnerships with carriers on behalf of our customers so that we can continue to keep freight moving within the supply chain. Facilitating carrier-shipper collaboration to advance operating efficiency and impro‑ve service levels leads to deeper partnerships and sustainable improvements in both service and cost.”

RPA Labs embraced the notion of remote operations to emphasize customer service proximity, according to Motsick.

“Our entire business has been operating remotely since the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s worked really well for us,” he said. “Many of our employees are positioned throughout the United States and around the globe, giving us coverage in all time zones. This means we can be available to support our customers around the clock while keeping our employees and families safe during the pandemic. We’ve become selective about the opportunities we take to travel for conferences and opted in for more web-based meetings, which has reduced operational costs associated with travel and allowed us to be more productive with our work hours. Now that the pandemic is coming closer to an end, a small team is working out of a new office in Louisville, Colorado, but we’ve implemented flexible schedules and have one designated day a week to work from home. Spending less time in the office means that when we’re there, we work really hard to achieve our goals, and have seen great productivity in return.”

Read on:
Freight/shipping suppliers pivot, pursue pandemic-induced logistics improvements