Technology: Supply Chain Visibility in the Food & Beverage Industry

Zack Gibbs | Trimble

Freight visibility in food and beverage operations can help address challenges, keep you in compliance with regulations, and improve efficiency and profitability.

Back in the days of paper catalogs (remember those?) you placed an order by mail and waited for the item to arrive. There was no point in asking when that would happen, because for the most part no one had any way of knowing the answer.

Clear & Essential 

Things are a bit different today, to say the least. You place your online order and from that moment on you can track its location and status. You can even get an email or text telling you it’s been left on your doorstep—before the delivery driver even gets back to the truck.

For most consumers, that’s just a convenience. Let’s face it—it’s really not that big of a deal if your dog’s new toy arrives a day later than expected. For businesses (and arguably the entire economy), however, the stakes are considerably higher. 

Freight visibility is not only important; it is now increasingly essential. Most people, however, imagine supply chain as a series of interconnected links. Equally important, however, is the constant motion and the movement between these links. 

And much of that activity takes place on trucks. The trucking industry, in fact, carries more than 10.5 billion tons of freight annually. That’s more than 75% of all cargo in North America, so it’s easy to see how knowing the location and status of raw materials and finished goods can have a significant impact on suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and end users.

Growing Demand for Freight Visibility

In most cases, the demand for visibility into freight location and status is about having the ability to proactively adjust to challenges that threaten to disrupt complex and interconnected supply chains. This approach to proactive freight management is aimed at offsetting the potentially costly effects of late or missing loads on production and distribution operations while increasing competitiveness in sales and customer service.

In particular markets, and especially in food and beverage operations, freight visibility takes on increased importance. Beyond assuring the quality and safety of food and beverage products during processing and packaging, consumer and industry organizations are also pushing for proactive food safety measures and advanced analytics.

Beyond the obvious need to maintain the integrity of perishable loads, new regulations are putting more responsibilities on everyone in the food and beverage supply chain, requiring the ability to know where loads are located at all times, and to record their movement. Since the 2011 introduction of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), these more stringent rules and regulations aimed at ensuring the quality and safety of products throughout the supply chain have had a significant impact on food and beverage transportation operations.

While FSMA takes an arguably important preventive approach to food safety, it also leads to challenges for the transportation and logistics industry. With its new standards for transporting food and beverage products throughout the supply chain, FSMAs regulations have measurably increased accountability for carriers and logistics services providers.

Establishing Best Practices to Meet Demands

According to a Trimble Transportation survey, 40% of food and beverage companies find that regulatory demands are their biggest supply chain challenge. The requirements for preventive measures (and the exposure for failing to meet these guidelines), while food and beverage products are transported are now leading companies to take steps to improve and establish best practices.

Driven by shippers requiring advanced visibility capabilities of carriers, brokers and 3PLs—and to stay compliant with FSMA regulations, protect their brand and earn their customers’ trust—many food and beverage transportation companies are using supply chain technology to monitor and manage loads.

For transportation companies, this means investing in solutions that track food and beverage loads during transport. However, while actively monitoring loads helps ensure food safety and meet customer needs for traceability, it also leads to higher transportation costs throughout the supply chain, and that too, has become a major challenge for food and beverage companies (and the operations that haul their products).

Based on responses to the survey, one of the top challenges faced by food and beverage companies is fluctuating and rising transportation costs derived from regulations and shipper demands that require operations to keep detailed and easily retrievable records on perishable products during transport.

Those needs also compound the pressure across the industry to stabilize and reduce costs at every step in the supply chain. In fact, 43% of food and beverage leaders rank solving supply chain efficiency challenges as one their most current priorities.

Visibility Technologies Improve Operations & Lower Costs

As a result, forward-thinking companies are now actively seeking and using new solutions to solve those issues. Across the board, leading-edge operations in the food and beverage transportation market are leveraging visibility technologies to meet operational challenges, enhance efficiency and productivity, lower costs, and adhere to new regulations.

For example, growing in use today are temperature monitoring and tracking systems on refrigerated trailers, containers and delivery vans. These solutions are used during transportation to track shipments and protect carriers and logistics service providers from cargo claims by enabling automated alerts when customizable temperature thresholds are breached. With early warnings about equipment issues, operators can proactively respond and take appropriate measures to ensure load integrity and food safety.

Visibility solutions also help food and beverage transportation companies remain in compliance with FSMA and other regulations by keeping track of and consolidating data on refrigerated truck temperatures and making that information available to meet regulatory record- keeping requirements.

Advanced visibility technology platforms go well beyond the simple track-and-trace methods of just a few years ago. They can allow key stakeholders to see tailored, real-time notifications about current load status, including arrivals and departures at pick-up and destination locations, and provide in-transit updates using actual GPS-based positioning for individual shipments, a grouping of shipments, or across an entire supply chain.

That also allows for managing food and beverage load issues by exception. For example, if you only have to address issues with loads that are not on schedule or have temperature breaches, you are using significantly less management time than you would actively monitoring and managing 100% of the loads in a supply chain.

Addressing Issues with Data

There’s no doubt that visibility technologies have great potential for enabling more informed decisions that ensure efficiency and productivity. But as these solutions gain acceptance in food and beverage industry transportation operations, companies can be left dealing with the potential for data overload.

However, advanced visibility platform solutions can provide customized and simplified views by presenting consolidated data in one easy to use format that’s also easily shareable. Using customized dashboards, food and beverage transportation operations can see the information they need—how and when they need it.

Freight visibility platforms also keep detailed records of temperatures and transit times over the course of shipments, so threshold breaches can be cross-referenced with audit histories and historical information. That data can be used by food and beverage transportation companies to make proactive decisions that optimize operations and reduce costs, as well as ensure food safety compliance.

Another use of visibility technology is in the ability to integrate the data it collects into enterprise-level information systems. By aggregating the data with information in transportation management, enterprise planning and warehouse management systems, you can enable more effective exception management, shipment notifications, and real-time proactive customer communication.

Streamlining Operations with Visibility Solutions

A visibility solution can result in other benefits as well, including streamlining internal business operations. Using customized integrations, these solutions can automatically send shipment information from sales and order entry systems, and location information from on-board systems, directly into a single user interface. 

Employee experience and satisfaction can also improve when freight visibility technology is in place. Without it, sales personnel, account managers, dispatchers and customer service representatives are tied to computers and phones for load tracking updates and in many cases have to search for that information, or make phone calls to get updates back to customers. With visibility tools, load status information is pushed proactively based on established, user-defined parameters.

Not many years ago, it was unrealistic to expect total visibility into load locations and status across a food and beverage supply chain. But the way the market views freight visibility has changed, and today’s visibility tools and technologies are readily available to meet that need.

Making Freight Visibility a Competitive Advantage

Freight visibility capabilities can also be a competitive advantage. For example, if a potential customer asks a carrier or broker what differentiates their service from the competition, a visibility platform that is integrated with enterprise and transportation management systems is one way to provide added value. That higher-level of service not only helps win business, it also sets the tone for a long-term relationship based on transparency and open communication.

Survey data reveals that more than 20% of food and beverage leaders report that traceability is the biggest opportunity for improvement in their supply chains. That’s why carriers, brokers and 3PLs are embracing freight visibility solutions in a large way, indicating that they believe it is now a core service offering, and that shippers are using visibility capabilities as a metric when choosing food and beverage transportation service providers.

Driven by regulations and consumer trends, the ability to track food and beverage products throughout the supply chain is an emerging opportunity. The ability to meet a growing number of freight visibility requirements can mean the difference between securing business or losing out on freight hauling opportunities.

Supply chain visibility in food and beverage markets can help address complex challenges and keep operations compliant. Industry leaders have also begun adopting new supply chain traceability technology to improve the efficiency and productivity of their operations, attract new customers, and improve profitability.        

Zack Gibbs is a Product Manager specializing in visibility for Trimble Transportation.

Image credit: alphaspirit/