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International Trade

The Evolution of Freight Forwarding: From Written to Digital, and Beyond

At its core, the role of a freight forwarder in today's modern society is a simple­ yet important one. These are the hardworking men and women who make the transportation of goods possible all over the world. Anytime a product is successfully moved from the manufacturer into the marketplace, or from a producer into the hands of a customer, you have a freight forwarder to thank for it.

A common misconception about freight forwarding is that these people are actually responsible for physically moving goods from one place to another. Instead, they're more logistics-­based. They contract with carriers (or even multiple carriers) to help arrange various shipping modes that can include but are certainly not limited to things like steamships, trucks, trains, airplanes and more. Oftentimes multiple modes of transportation can be required for even a single shipment and freight forwarders are responsible for keeping track of it all and helping everyone involved stay as sane as possible along the way.

If you compared the first freight forwarder in existence to one from today, their role would be essentially unchanged: items are still being shipped all over the world and they're still an integral part of making it all happen. Nearly everything around today's freight forwarders, however, has changed dramatically - particularly as technology continues its dramatic march towards the future. Pen and pencil was replaced by the printed press, which itself has since been supplanted by digital technology.

In many ways, the evolution of the freight forwarding process is almost as interesting as the process itself.

The Long History of Freight Forwarding

Many people don't realize that the history of freight forwarders is a long and fascinating one -­ it doesn't just date back decades, it dates back centuries. One of the earliest examples of a freight forwarding business takes the form of Thomas Meadows and Company Limited. Based out of London, England, it was established all the way back in 1836. Back in this era, the role of a freight forwarder was understandably quaint by today's standards.­ They arranged for carriages to help transport items by contracting with various local carriers in the area. They also offered advice on documentation, offered insight into certain challenges that customs requirements may present and more.

In the 1800s, it has been written that the earliest freight forwarders were often innkeepers who were responsible for holding and re­-forwarding the personal items that hotel guests would bring with them. As freight forwarding naturally evolved into a more business to business centric affair, trade between countries (particularly in Europe) become popular. In the 1970s, the arrival of both reliable trains and steamships created a demand for trade between Europe and North America almost overnight -­ giving birth to the booming international shipping industry.

Flash forward to today and what was once a small, cottage affair has quickly transformed into one of the dominant industries on the planet. The United States Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics, for example, estimates that 55 million tons of freight valued at almost $50 billion were moved across the United States transportation system each day in 2013.

Most interestingly, this is one trend that does not show any signs of slowing down in the near future. The same study revealed that the value of freight being moved was expected to rise from its high of $882 per ton in 2007 to an incredible $1,377 per ton by as soon as 2040.

To say that freight forwarders play an important role in these proceedings is something of a dramatic understatement.

A Process in Transformation

For many decades, freight forwarders actually operated in a way that was very similar to most other businesses: they survived by dealing with a mountain of paperwork each day. Customers filled out reams of documents about what they needed, when they needed it by, what types of services they expected and more. Employees had to spend time going over and processing that paperwork before a transaction could even begin to take shape.

Yet for so many years, this is just the way things were. It was less an ideal way of doing business and more a necessary evil.­ What other option did the industry have?

As it did in so many other industries, however, technology quickly came along and changed the game for all time and for the better.

Computers didn't necessarily make it easier to process paperwork, but they did make it easier to keep track of it all. Over the years filing cabinets were replaced with computer hard drives, giving way to software­ based logistics solutions that made it easier for even smaller forwarding companies to manage a heavier workload. Communication was still an issue, however, as the sharing of documents still took a great deal of time ­- decreasing visibility and adding unnecessary stress to something that (in theory) could be a straightforward process.

With the rise of broadband Internet connectivity, a new wave of advancement across the freight forwarding process took place: the cloud. Practically overnight, freight forwarders essentially became transportation management systems services providers. Mobile phones made it easier to work on­-the-­go (particularly valuable in an industry that operates on an international platform) and the cloud made it easier to have documents where you needed them to be, when you needed them to be there, no exceptions.

With these types of digital tools, it is now possible for freight forwarders to not just do their jobs more effectively, but to actually offer a superior level of service than ever before. Even smaller freight shippers can give themselves a competitive advantage by delivering the complete, end­-to-­end shipment visibility that their customers need ­ something that used to essentially be impossible when we still lived in a world of pen and paper.

Everything from quickly finding the best carriers to meet a current demand to consolidating orders to make record keeping as efficient as possible is now possible, particularly as cloud­-based supply chain solutions become the new norm.

It used to take days for a freight forwarder to find the latest international shipping rate to provide an accurate quote to a potential client. Now, this is something they can do instantly or within a few hours.

Technology has changed the industry in so many ways that even the process of connecting with a freight forwarder is now easier than ever. Instead of spending hours making telephone calls trying to find the best organization to fit a business' needs, the Internet has distilled this process significantly. Platforms exist that essentially act asExpedia for shipping containers so ­customers can now go online, outline exactly what they need and create quote requests for shipments in minutes.

Once quotes start coming in, shippers can compare them against one another, check reviews and ratings for forwarders and more, all from a single point of access. They can then accept or decline quotes, converse with freight forwarders for clarification, share and manage shipping documents and more all from a single online platform. No more phone calls or even needlessly difficult e­mail strings are required.

In the End: The 21st Century and Beyond

As you can see, freight forwarding has evolved over time in number of fascinating and important ways. Now that technology is more advanced than at any point in human history, freight forwarding (especially on an international scale) isn't just easier to understand ­ it's also easier to navigate. Yet despite all this, the goal of the freight forwarder and the principles that they operate on have remain unchanged since all the way back in the 1800s: customers have to get an item from "Point A" to "Point B" and they want to help make it happen.

As an online marketplace for international logistics, Fleet specializes in not only helping the freight forwarding process continue its evolution, but to also help make international shipping easier for businesses of any size. The internet has connected the world together in a more intimate way than ever before -­ there's no reason that the same shouldn't hold true for international shipping. Fleet handles international shipments of all types, shipped by ocean, by air, across countries and beyond ­- doing our part to continue the fine tradition and example set by our predecessors all those years ago.

Max Lock - Fleet CEO

The article was originally shared on LinkedIn

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