The Many Flavors of Transportation Management Systems

  • April 28, 2021
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With the many current challenges facing transportation — driver shortages, higher client expectations and the demands of ecommerce — the need for mastering the vast quantities of related data has never been greater. A recent webcast by Kevin Zweier delves into the role of transportation management systems (TMS) and what you should look for.

What constitutes a TMS, and what can it do for you?

A TMS is a planning and execution tool for transportation operations. That said, there’s no one agreed-upon definition of what capabilities these systems must provide. Several types of applications are referred to as a TMS. They may focus on various specific functions including fleet routing, parcel rating, carrier selection, rate coding, carrier tendering and global trade management applications.

However, most users look for a TMS that will integrate and automate all the processes and variables under the shipper’s geographic and modal purview. These include order entry, order consolidation, optimization, mode and carrier selection, execution and tendering, tracking and visibility, freight settlement and analytics. In short, all the processes in play when a shipment enters the world of the transportation administrator while rendering the entire workflow as visible as possible.

The evolution of transportation management systems

The earliest TMS systems from decades ago brought basic functionality such as load consolidation, rate management and facilitating communications with carriers. As we moved into the 2000s, we saw TMS applications add more robust feature sets. Some of these included cross-docking and pooling, multi-modal routing, building continuous moves, private and dedicated fleet routing, international implementation and the integration of freight payment.

Today’s systems have achieved new levels of visibility and control. Leading-edge solutions can provide real-time visibility of in-transit loads and the ability to see, on the fly, additional capacity options with availability and costs. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence (ML/AI), some of these applications can deliver predictive analytics, giving load time-to-destination forecasts that consider variables such as traffic, weather and congestion at hub locations.

This inexorable progress in TMS reach and capability has been aided by the relentless pace of technology platform evolution. The earliest TMS implementations depended on clunky, green-CRT-screened terminals and huge (and hugely expensive) mainframes. The 1990s saw the rise of onsite client/server systems that brought faster speeds and graphic interfaces that were vastly more user-friendly. These systems weren’t as costly, but price was still a significant barrier.

TMS migrates to the cloud

Today we see TMS systems migrating to cloud computing platforms. They’re increasingly provided as SaaS (Software as a Service) offerings — highly configurable suites of adaptable, continually updated software applications packed with new features and enhanced capabilities. They can be accessed from any modern web browser, requiring no dedicated hardware on the user end — allowing for cross-platform compatibility — and substantially reducing the cost of entry. Sold on a subscription model, they come with monthly or per-shipment pricing structures.

These most recent developments come with a substantial upside. No investments in hardware and subscriptions to continually upgraded software mean that your new TMS solution won’t age and become a “legacy” system that is too expensive to upgrade. You’ll always have the latest tech at your disposal.

Transportation management systems fulfill their potential

Today’s state-of-the-art transportation management systems are now close to fulfilling their ultimate promise: to be genuinely holistic supply chain management tools. They’re a transportation Swiss-Army knife — helping automate many repetitive and tedious labor-intensive tasks, from shipment capture and entry to carrier payment and management. They make it possible to lower freight and equipment costs throughout your network. Their real-time visibility and information management capabilities allow you to make operational decisions armed with the right data and quickly enough to make a difference.

— by Kevin Zweier

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