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C.H. Robinson-WGA partnership increasingly using technology for logistics

In 2007, when Western Growers Association and C.H. Robinson Worldwide inked a deal on their innovative transportation partnership, the expectation was that it would be more than just a way to fulfill the daily transportation needs of shippers.

Shannon Leigh, C.H. Robinson's customer group representative for the western United States, based in Monterey, CA, said that expectation has been met and the services being provided are evolving every day.

In the beginning, she said CHR representatives had a clear directive to look beyond the everyday needs of the shipper community and come up with multi-modal solutions that both fulfilled current needs and anticipated future needs.

Leigh said that in the past 15 years, CHR has invested $1 billion in technology upgrades, which has led to the development of its proprietary Navisphere platform and allowed shippers in the CHR-WGA program to access state-of-the-art technology, literally at their fingertips.

Matthew McInerney, executive vice president at WGA, told The Produce News that this "maturing alliance" between the two organizations "has helped shippers find immediate supply chain solutions while also allowing them to adopt additional service offerings at their own pace."

He said individual shippers can be advanced as they want to be, including tracking each truck every mile of its journey and having real time access to the temperature of that truck's reefer. Shippers can order a truck for today by phone the old fashioned way, or through technology, plot their needs via computer as far in advance as they can accurately forecast.

"In the beginning, the WG board saw the vulnerability of shippers to the transportation part of the shipment," said McInerney. "They wanted to devise a system that would help influence the cost, availability and type of service they could achieve. Most important, they wanted a shipper-based program that looked at the problem from the shipper point of view."

Of course, one of the linchpins to the programs was the idea that Western Growers Association members could aggregate their freight to getter better rates and service. But McInerney said shippers did not want to have to make mandatory volume commitments nor pay a fee. Through various meeting and negotiations, the program with CHR was developed and launched in 2007.

The WGA executive said C.H. Robinson has come through in flying colors providing an increasing array of transportation tools to shippers, who can adopt and manage those tools at their own pace. As the program evolved, other shipper associations representing produce suppliers throughout the country signed on giving CHR more options, more loads and more lanes to travel to create an efficient network of movement going in all directions.

"To date, we have moved more than 40,000 loads of produce and we have more than 450 grower-shippers utilizing the service," Leigh said.

This has allowed the program to achieve its core goal of providing improved service and better rates. But just as important, it has allowed CHR to take the movement of fresh produce to the next level.

Navisphere is available to shippers in the program free of charge and allows them to access many services, including the aforementioned real time tracking of shipments and temperature. Leigh said, in effect, that shippers can now outsource their logistics department at no cost and have access to a very sophisticated program.

She added that there is flexibility built into the program that gives each individual shipper the ability to customize the program to fit their own needs.

Leigh readily admitted that some of the 450 shippers use CHR as an old-fashioned truck broker. They have a load, they need a truck and they give them a call. Some automate the process a bit, and order that truck via computer.

Leigh said each extra technology step the shipper takes gives them more visibility of their load, enhanced service and more automation.

"With each step they take, shippers get a bigger view" of their logistics situation, she said.

And even if a shipper isn't looking at the real-time temperature of the load, CHR representatives are. Leigh said that CHR staffs its offices on a 24/7 basis and the appropriate alert is sounded when a load deviates from its set temperature. The trucker and shipper are alerted so that problems can be avoided before they materialize.

Some users plot their production and sales and schedule pickups well in advance, taking advantage of inherent efficiencies and cost savings in advanced ordering and booking. CHR is very happy to analyze a shipper's transportation needs and the lanes where it ships, and devise a strategy that can optimize the logistics piece. Just as the produce itself typically costs less on a contracted basis, so does the transportation element.

And she said the Navisphere program can also be used for deep-in-the-woods analyses and reports. Shippers can keep track of their loads and the cost per mile on many different levels, from commodity-specific to destination-specific. They can look at wait times at origin or destination on an historical basis and better schedule the trucks' departures and arrivals. After all, excessive wait times are inefficient and costly. The amount of information available as all the technology is utilized is almost limitless.

The bottom line, according to McInerney and WGA, is that at the end of the day freight is freight, and everything that can be done to minimize the impact that is has on the business of buying and selling fresh produce is worth the effort.

To Leigh and CHR, providing solutions to the ever-changing logistics element of the shipments, and everything they can do to minimize the shippers' attention to that element, is their passion.