Supply chain service providerJ.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. is launching a trailer pool service that could build leverage for the company's digital freight matching platform, one more sign that money is continuing to flow into the transportation sector to wring inefficiencies out of the prosaic process of matching power unit tractors with loaded trailers.
Lowell, Ark.-based J.B. Hunt said its new trailer pool and drop-and-hook service, called J.B. Hunt 360box, could improve the efficiency of freight operations for both businesses and carriers when it launches later this summer.
The company launched its digital freight matching tool, J.B. Hunt 360, in 2017, saying the system could use real-time data and artificial intelligence to match freight with capacity and connect shippers with carriers.
Today's announcement also follows the 2018 launch by Uber Freight—which offers a competing digital freight matching service—of its own trailer pool mode, known as Powerloop. Other recent large investments in the "freight tech" space have included multi-million-dollar venture capital funding for newcomers like Convoy and Transfix.
Established brokers are not standing still, however, but are rapidly spinning out their own digital tools and creative offerings. According to J.B. Hunt, complementing its digital freight matching platform with a real-world trailer pool could create a more efficient transportation network all across North America. When it launches, 360box will introduce a pool of 500 trailers, each 53 feet long and equipped with track and trace tools, with plans to add more units as market demand grows. Businesses can reserve each one for drop-trailer purposes, and carriers will make offers to transport the trailers using Carrier 360, the carrier-facing segment of the J.B. Hunt 360 platform.
"360box adds capacity to a customer's supply chain while moving more freight in a way that's efficient for both the customer and the carrier," John Roberts, president and CEO of J.B. Hunt, said in a release. "Usually only large carriers with available resources can provide this type of drop-trailer service. By using our trailers, however, shippers with consistent freight can now connect with the power of small carriers and owner operators, which together represent 83 percent of all drivers."
According to J.B. Hunt, 360box will prevent the loss in productivity that can occur during a live delivery—such as dock door wait and detention—by eliminating the immediate need to load and unload trailers. Instead, drivers simply drop the trailer in a designated area and go on to their next load, increasing driver productivity while eliminating the operational cost of maintaining trailers.
The service will also benefit shippers, offering them flexibility with freight management, adding capacity to their supply chain, and providing access to J.B. Hunt's tractors, which comprise one of the industry's largest power-only carrier bases, according to the company.
The concept could potentially allow shippers to tap into the owner-operator market more deeply, but only if the trailer pool price is "reasonable," one industry expert said. Many large carriers already provide trailer pools for their high-volume shippers, but they charge a cost for the service and require the shipper to use their drivers, said Tony Wayda, supply chain practice senior director and principal at Boulder, Colo.-based consulting firm SCApath LLC.
To make this service profitable, J.B. Hunt will have to find a balance between the price it charges shippers to reserve these pool trailers and the margins it makes through its digital freight matching service, he said. Trailer owners incur costs when they tie up those assets for customer reservations, since they still have to pay the trailer lease and track its location.
But the timing may be right, he said. While the U.S. freight capacity market has been easing in recent months, it is still far tighter than long-range averages. That means shippers are still looking for ways to cut their transportation costs and owner-operators are looking for ways to become more efficient and to cut down on loading/unloading and detention/wait times, Wayda said. A new trailer pool could offer an attractive option for both players.