Automation must always come with a human touch

Technology’s imprint on our industry over the past 50 years has enabled profound automation advances that are likely to continue their march of progress over the decades to come. Whereas in the past we saw technology as a tool to accomplish a task, many now see automation as an end unto itself, but this may not be the case. While it plays a considerable role in forwarding air cargo, we should be cautious about overlooking the most incredible technology of all — human ingenuity.

As e-commerce continues to drive air cargo volumes to the highest level seen in years, a growing middle class of consumers is benefiting from automated rapid fulfillment and quick delivery. Most of these shipments, however, consist of small packages delivered to the consumer’s door by postal authorities that are struggling to maintain workable margins. The overshadowing concern of both postal services and integrators is that their primary customers could one day become their fiercest competitors.

Automation also provides forwarders with benefits – maybe not as much in small-package consumer delivery, but in serving the large cargo delivery needs of e-commerce-related companies. These forwarders tend to focus on three significant categories of freight transport that are assisted by technology but always demand the human touch. These consist of the “wild call,” repetitive supply chain support and project cargo.

Forwarders know the wild call as the routine heavy freight transaction coming from the occasional shipper satisfied with using basic transactional technology to book and trace shipments. Repetitive supply chain support includes the transportation of components supporting manufacturing operations and finished goods, shipped in bulk to distribution centers. There are no universal solutions for these shipments, as they often rely on specifically designed strategies using multiple modes. Finally, project cargo consists of transporting large sizes and weights, creating logistical challenges that only customized solutions can address.

Brandon Fried is the executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association

Forwarders may benefit from e-commerce-related opportunities, but they rarely overlook the genuine yet differing needs and solutions of the other market segments. They tend to pay attention to the basics, such as providing knowledge to the customer about how regulatory requirements could affect shipments and their overall strategy. Forwarders serving the three primary heavy freight categories may use automation as a tool to assist, but they primarily rely on their people to focus on the specific infrastructure challenges these shipments present.

Forwarders serving these shipment types also realize that delivery accuracy, and not speed alone, is essential to satisfy the customer. Many of these shipments are only deliverable at specific times, dates or odd locations, so providing a range of options to the customer, based on the budget and specific requirements, is often more important than the speed of the transportation itself.

Just as technology helps passengers travel more efficiently on airlines, it also assists forwarder customers in booking and provides the transparency today’s shippers want and deserve. Such automation offers the forwarder operational benefits, including more efficient carrier communication through electronic bill-of-lading data interchange and shipment status updates.

However, boxes, unlike passengers, do not find their way to the airport, do not subject themselves to security screening, navigate a maze of export regulations, or yell for help if left behind or loaded onto the wrong aircraft. Once off the plane, they cannot clear themselves through customs or deliver themselves to their destination. And they most certainly cannot phone home to let folks know their whereabouts.

The primary question for forwarders and freight transportation providers is whether technology is a support tool or an end unto itself. While those forwarders who ignore the benefits of automation in the shipping process may do so at their peril, no electronic panacea exists, and even the most advanced technological tool has its limitations. Just think of the time when you needed product or service assistance only to get stuck in the frustrating, endless loop of an automated phone attendant that failed to provide the customer service as envisioned. Is that our vision for the future of airfreight?

The strength of forwarding has always been its interaction with shippers while it enables technology to perform rudimentary tasks and deliver data as requested for analytics and shipment status information. Digitalization itself must not be feared, but solely relying on automation as the primary customer service interface should be frightening to forwarders.

Some industry critics insist that forwarders must keep up with rapidly growing technological advances or face assured obsolescence. However, while automation may be an essential tool, it alone will not address all logistical complexities, provide personalized service or determine which companies survive. The free market, and not automation alone, will always decide the answer to that critical question.

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