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The Technologies Reshaping the Intermodal Industry

Intermodal transportation is flexible, scalable, efficient, and cost-effective, but it also requires extensive planning and precise logistics.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an explosion in e-commerce and put intense pressure on the entire supply chain, including intermodal operations. Customers not just wanted –– but needed –– quick and reliable deliveries. They often couldn’t head out to the stores and malls to pick up necessary items, instead ordering almost everything online. 

While lockdowns will end (eventually), these consumer expectations won’t go away. This means that intermodal shippers need to embrace the technology that ensures their shipments not only meet but also exceed customer expectations. For an industry that has traditionally been slower to embrace innovation, this can be a tough sell. But it’s also necessary for companies to stay in business and adapt to the changing economy. 

Here are five technologies that you need to be aware of that will reshape the intermodal industry.

1. Blockchain 

Intermodal shipments have longer and more complex supply chains than unimode shipments. This often means data sits in silos within each individual provider’s system rather than being shared across platforms and being made available when and where it is needed. Intermodal operators don’t have the necessary data and visibility across all transportation methods to manage demand, keep customers updated, and ensure efficient shipping. 

Take processing and managing shipping documents. This can account for up to 20% of the transportation costs and one-third of the transport time. Shippers have to manage contracts, tracking numbers, bills of lading, and more. 

Blockchain provides a secure platform that can replace manual- and paper-based systems. It allows all transport companies and shipping operators to share information and collaborate across the supply chain while offering high levels of traceability and visibility. The encrypted public ledger can be shared not only with shipping partners but also with customers, greatly improving security. 

Green Technology 

The COVID-19 pandemic put climate change firmly in the spotlight. With flights grounded and much of the world confined to their homes, CO2 emissions fell by around 7%. Consumer awareness and pressure mean that the transportation industry needs to clean up its act, especially trucking, which accounts for around 6.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

Intermodal transportation is in itself often a sustainable shipping option. Intermodal shippers have the flexibility to choose the forms of transport that are more environmentally friendly, such as rail and shipping. 

Renewable technology including hydropower, wind, and solar-powered systems leads to cleaner, greener shipments and helps companies meet their sustainability goals. 

In the maritime industry, the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar became the first ship to circumnavigate the globe on solar power alone while technology group ABB is working on hydrogen fuel cell systems for passenger and cargo ships. 

Ports are working on projects including:

  • Embedding clean energy
  • Electrifications
  • The bunkering of cleaner fuels

Singapore’s ambitious project in Tuas will see the port become the world’s largest fully automated terminal by 2040, with fully electric guided vehicles, and centralized container-handling facilities, which will reduce inter-terminal haulage emissions. The port has also been built using reused and recycled materials.

Instead of ruling trucking out completely, companies can implement new technology to plan more efficient routes and reduce emissions.  

Fleet management systems allow business owners to keep track of their drivers’ route data and help drivers and fleet owners plan more efficient routes. Idling reduction technologies can reduce the emissions produced when a truck is left with the engine on. Regular maintenance such as checking the brakes, tire pressure, and the oil level can increase fuel efficiency and reduce harmful emissions. 

Autonomous vehicles

Autonomous trucks, trains, and ships may sound like a dystopian concept, but they are already a reality and the technology is hugely beneficial for intermodal shippers. 

Take the trucking industry. Autonomous trucks could cut operating costs by as much as 45%, which would result in cost savings of between $85 billion and $125 billion. Platooning, where one driver controls several following trucks, is being tested in multiple locations

Positive train control systems where trains can be monitored and stopped remotely are already in operation in the US and Europe. Mining company Rio Tinto has completely automated its 1500km railway in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The AutoHaul operates up to 50 automated and unmanned trains at any one time. 

Much of the technology to deploy autonomous ships is already in place, and pilot projects are up and running in Europe. Marine systems provider Kongsberg is installing and testing autonomous technology on two vessels as part of a project that has already received funding from the European Union. 

According to the company, “An autonomous barge in operation is expected to take around 7,500 trucks off the roads each year and will result in reductions in both traffic congestion and emissions.”

Weather Intelligence

There have been many examples of extreme weather severely affecting all types of transportation methods, and the benefits of intermodal can quickly become its downfall when you factor in weather disruptions. 

But if you’re aware of potential weather problems in the area your shipments will be moving through, you can better anticipate possible delays and longer delivery times, and take action to mitigate or prevent these delays. That’s where weather intelligence software can help. 

shipping logistics dashboard

By deploying weather intelligence software, you can

  • Get 24/7 hyperlocal minute by minute weather insights 
  • Plan routes around weather to reduce delays
  • Trigger the right alerts to notify drivers of hazardous weather
  • Protect valuable assets to avoid weather-related cargo damage
  • Minimize end-to-end disruptions through better, proactive decision-making

Data Analytics Solutions 

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive maintenance, blockchain, autonomous vehicles, sensors, weather intelligence –– what do they all have in common? They all rely on collecting, centralizing, analyzing, and gaining actionable insight from data. 

Data can have a huge impact on all areas of the intermodal shipping journey, but only if you have the necessary systems in place to make the most of the information you already collect. 

Data analytics solutions help you harness the ever-increasing flood of data from a wide range of sources. You can make sense of this data and extract insight that allows you to:

  • Improve shipping times
  • Switch to predictive maintenance 
  • Keep your customers informed at all times
  • Reduce costs
  • Enhance collaboration and visibility across all partners, suppliers, and vendors

There is unlikely to be just one technology that will transform the intermodal industry. Instead, the interplay and overlap between the different solutions will be crucial for success. One thing is for sure: you need to get your data in order if you want to remain competitive.

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