Have you noticed large metal containers moving around on all different types of transport?
Of course, but what you might not know about intermodal transport is it's been around
longer than you might think.
The idea for intermodal trucking goes back to the circus in 1872, when circus wagons got piggybacked onto trains to save time, money and effort.
The process has changed a lot since then, but the principles remain. If you’re wondering how intermodal trucking works, keep reading. Here’s our guide to the benefits, disadvantages and a quick explainer of how it all works.
What is intermodal trucking?
The steel container that we see everywhere is at the centre of intermodal transport. Standardising these containers has made transporting goods more efficient around the world. The large steel crates are easier to move from one mode of transport to the next.
Intermodal transport involves a container that moves from a truck to a ship or a train. Most international shipments travel in 40-foot containers, though some are 20 feet long. The 53-foot-long box that moves on many trucks is for domestic use.
For large manufacturers, the benefits of intermodal transport are plentiful. Filled containers can travel by any means necessary. So, a shipper can get their product anywhere in the world by air, sea, or across the country.
Yet, one of the most significant benefits of intermodal transport is cost savings. For example, a shipment travels by rail for over 800 kilometres for the cost of four litres of fuel. As a result, businesses can extend those savings to the customer.
How does intermodal trucking work?
Over the last several decades, the logistics industry changed to make shipping consistent, meaning similar sized containers can move better through the intermodal transport system. The process begins, of course, at the trucking stage.
Think of what the wooden pallet did for organizing a warehouse. Now, those pallets are often loaded to fill shipping containers. Then, the intermodal container starts by truck to the next mode of transport.
For example, a shipment moving by train gets brought by intermodal trucking to a ramp at the rail yard. The container moves up the ramp from the truck chassis to fit on a rail car for the next part of the journey. The industry calls this process drayage.
The reverse action occurs when the train of containers reach their destination. So, the intermodal trucking acts as a middleman in the shipping process. And all modes of intermodal transport get designed today to carry the containers.
What are the benefits?
While the growing need for shipping around the world demands a standard approach, there will always be specific products that require custom transport. However, most goods can get moved in multimodal containers.
As a result, shipments move through the supply chain without getting repacked. A container that gets packed full and secured prevents damage to the cargo. Weight is also evenly distributed inside to ensure safe transport.
Similar sized containers fit better on ships with increased capacities, which makes for fewer trips. The result is a smoother movement of goods while efficiently using resources.
One of the most significant benefits of intermodal transport is in tracking each shipment. The shipping container has coded information for freight forwarders to follow every step. All parties can enjoy complete visibility into every part of the shipment's journey. The Transport Management Software tracking technology also helps companies with their inventory management.
As an example, a product gets scanned before it leaves the warehouse. Then, when it's packed on a pallet, the whole shipment gets a tracking number again. Finally, an entire shipment gets loaded, and another code tracks everything inside.
Companies enjoy cost savings from intermodal transport. For example, less handling of the material inside a packed container needs less labour. It also prevents damage to the product.
Truck drivers are less likely to haul long distances. Instead, the carrier drives from a dock to the next phase of intermodal transport. Then, the shipment continues on its journey in a more efficient mode of transport.
Owner-operators of intermodal trucking equipment will save on wear and tear on their vehicles. Fewer miles between locations also add up to less fuel costs for the carrier. In addition, drivers get to spend more time closer to home.
There are pros and cons to intermodal transport
A company that relies on regular shipments arriving on schedule will get a lot of value from this service. The benefits of intermodal transport allow the business to plan their supply chain. Continuous movement helps ensure customer satisfaction at the other end.
Of course, there are always compromises with any system. For example, intermodal transport relies on volume for the supply chain to work efficiently, and there are times when that chain can get backed up.
Recent experiences with pandemic-related delays have created learning opportunities for logistics experts. Intermodal transport professionals are also adjusting to environmental challenges.
Ship sizes have become massive, and they move a lot of freight at once. But the industry is also dependent on the smooth movement of those carriers. As such, for the shipper, it’s important to have logistics partners in place.
Freight forwarders have constant contact with the supply chain. The shipper is supported to communicate effectively. And the manufacturer always knows exactly where their shipments are.
Intermodal technology is growing
At every stage of the supply chain process, contact with shipments is crucial. Customers demand more control of their products' whereabouts. And shippers are continually reaching a broader customer base.
So, intermodal trucking only gets more important. When the system moves with each phase of intermodal transport, the result is a leaner and more efficient method for getting products to market.