Summer 2023

The age of AI in freight has already begun

Lionel van der Walt, chief growth officer at Raft, an AI-driven start-up that automates operations for freight forwarding

A fragmented landscape of essential service providers means access to one central control tower that integrates and synthesises all of these is an essential component for informed decision making and future success, says Raft’s Lionel van der Walt

Technology is bringing the human back into air freight forwarding and proving to be a catalyst for change management, forcing us to radically rethink the nature of work. And yet many in the industry are still failing to benefit from the opportunities driven by digital transformation, which go beyond simply adopting smart automation.
This can be for a number of reasons, including a fear that technology, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in particular, will replace roles, whether by eliminating specific jobs, or by stepping into the airfreight forwarder’s space.
The tech is only the beginning of a change process, which can enable our industry to go beyond transactional workflows and concentrate instead on the value adds that only humans can bring – expertise, relationship building, nuance, and creativity. This human know-how is augmented by the technology and especially AI applications, which automate time-consuming tasks across the entire shipment lifecycle.

Revolutionary impact
Artificial intelligence is having a revolutionary impact on air freight forwarding by completely transforming how forwarders work. It’s helping air freight forwarders in various ways, such as:

Streamlined workflows and processes: AI automates a lot of cumbersome workflows and manual work that forwarders do, from manual data entry and document compliance to invoice processing and reconciliation. This frees up teams to refocus their time on more meaningful work like customer value-add activities or strategic initiatives. By automating manual work, forwarders have the ability to scale efficiently without increasing overhead costs.

Improved logistics planning: AI is helping forwarders to optimise their logistics planning by analysing data on shipping routes, transportation modes, and delivery schedules. This analysis can help to identify the most efficient and cost-effective logistics solutions for their clients.

Actionable visibility and analytics: AI can help to improve visibility across the supply chain, enabling air freight forwarders to track shipments in real time and provide up-to-date information to their clients. This can help to increase customer satisfaction and reduce the risk of delays or disruptions. Accessibility to real-time information has the additional benefit of ensuring better collaboration and transparent communications between teams – guaranteed to make life easier for forwarders.

Risk and performance management: AI can help to identify potential risks and hazards along shipping routes, such as adverse weather conditions, geopolitical events, or airport congestion. This allows freight forwarders to plan alternative routes and avoid delays. AI can also help to analyse team and client performance, to identify operational bottlenecks so forwarders can resolve issues faster and act as a strategic lever for their businesses, working to improve things like cash flow or comply with shifting regulatory requirements, for example. In this way, AI is a crucial cost and efficiency lever that facilitates revenue growth.

The role of tech providers
Ultimately, AI is ushering in a new wave of smart logistics by helping air freight forwarders to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve customer satisfaction.
Back in 2017, our co-founders created Raft, a company that was ‘AI-first’ in supply chain. They felt like they’d caught the first wave. A new way of tackling an age-old problem with tools – machine learning – still in their infancy. Machine learning (often interchangeable with ‘AI’) back then was for innovations like self-driving cars, but it wasn’t really applied to traditional industries like supply chain management or freight forwarding.

Even in the rare cases that AI and supply chain were mentioned in the same breath, the value of AI was always discussed from a top-down point of view, like modelling complex supply chains using big data, instead of looking at operations from the ground-up. One of the main reasons for this oversight was simple: companies with operational know-how didn’t have machine learning engineers, and vice versa. Put another way, the venn diagram of companies with access to both profiles looked like a figure of eight.

Unlocking AI’s potential in forwarding
Raft’s founders saw an opportunity to empower freight forwarders with a smarter way to manage and control their shipments and finally break free from the shackles of tedious manual processes and workflows and focus on delivering unprecedented value to their shippers. Its platform extends beyond streamlining internal operations, however. Its integration partner ecosystem provides forwarders with the ability to gain a centralised view of all their operations, and the ability to automate processes across the entire lifecycle of a shipment, from payments to carbon emissions reporting, making it the ultimate supply chain control tower.

Powered by AI, Raft is able to offer a sharper, smarter, and more efficient way for forwarders to communicate, operate, and serve their shippers. Freight forwarder customers ultimately benefit as forwarders have more time to create the experience that shippers have grown to demand and expect.

AI has the potential to transform the freight forwarding industry by improving efficiency, visibility, and customer service, and reducing costs. The full potential of AI for the industry has not yet fully been realised. And with a constantly expanding and fragmented landscape of essential service providers, access to one central control tower that integrates and synthesises all of these together is an essential component for informed decision making and future success.

Lionel van der Walt is chief growth officer at Raft, an AI-driven start-up that automates operations for freight forwarding