With supply chain woes center stage around the globe, freight and logistics companies are turning to information technology to improve operations as part of long-term digital transformation.
Chattanooga, Tenn.-based US Xpress is one such freight carrier in the midst of overhauling its digital architecture to a flexible multicloud platform in an effort to expand its routes, speed up deliveries, and attract more truckers.
The carrier’s IT team has developed and finetuned three driver route applications on Amazon Web Services and is in the process of migrating its legacy back-office system to Oracle Cloud Fusion E-Business Suite, which should be finished by late 2022 or early 2023, says interim CIO Bryan Johnson.
In addition to transitioning to the cloud, US Xpress is injecting AI and robotic process automation (RPA) into its operation, all of which brings additional complexity and operational challenges but the payoff in attracting more drivers, forecasting freight loads and routes more efficiently, and generating a data mine is well worth the effort, Johnson says.
“In 2022, we plan to continue the modernization of our tech stack with a cloud-first strategy. This brings process standardization, data quality, analytics for data-driven decision-making, highly available cloud environment and scalability, as we aim to double our revenue in the next four years,” he says.
Johnson, who also serves as chief of staff, assumed the interim CIO role in September 2021 when former CIO Robert Pischke, who initiated several aspects of the company’s digital transformation left the company.
“From a customer standpoint, it makes us really more nimble. There is change management that comes along with it, but really from an enterprise standpoint, standard procedures give us much better scalability than what we have with legacy systems,” Johnson says of the transformation, which garnered US Xpress a 2021 CIO 100 Award. “And above all things, the quality of data totally changes where we are today to how we can harness the power of data in the future world.”
Improving the trucking experience
It’s no surprise that supply-chain woes resulting from the pandemic have led to a dearth of — and massive demand for — truck drivers. US Xpress cites figures provided by the American Trucking Association projecting that the industry will be down 100,000 professional drivers by the end of 2022.
As such, attracting and retaining truckers is a significant challenge these days. US Xpress sees its triad of front-end applications on AWS as key factors in its ability to support and enlist more drivers, and to be more flexible and full-service for its customers, a sizable roster that includes Walmart, Target, Dollar Store, Home Depot, and Lowe’s.
The three-pronged program includes enhanced tools and compensation for truckers who provide the company’s core service, delivering goods via US Xpress’ red trucks on dedicated daily or weekly schedules; a second program, Variant, designed for long-haul truckers who are often on the road from two to six weeks at a time; and a digital brokerage service, which matches independent truckers who often use their own trucks to deliver freight loads managed by US Xpress.
“All three of those areas are interdependent and operate in concert with one another in support of our goal of scaling really, really fast,” Johnson says, “and we know that the technology is going to be at the center of that and is at the center of that within all three of those divisions.”
Bringing RPA, AI on board
The carrier is also expanding its investments in RPA, having signed an agreement last year with RPA giant UiPath to automate back-end processes, such as HR, payroll, and finances.
“RPA is great for those repetitive, high-touch, high-volume, low-error type activities that need to be done 100 times,” says Corey Goux, director of IT at US Xpress, who implemented several models last year.
One such UiPath model was used to create a high-end driver onboarding automation system. Models and algorithms developed with UiPath also enable the company to better predict trucker turnover, giving management an opportunity to address problems and retain valuable employees, a business-critical function for US Xpress, Goux says.
“We’ve used AI ML to predict drivers that would quit 30 days ahead, so that helps our business folks pay attention to who we’re predicting to quit, figure out the real reason they might quit, and have conversations with them. It affects attrition,” he says.
Next up for US Xpress’ RPA strategy is a citizen development program that will enable employees, from finance, to business analysts, to maintenance staff, to write RPA bots that automate manual processes, Goux and Johnson say.
The company has also worked with UiPath to develop machine learning (ML) algorithms to make the business more efficient for drivers and customers. Load forecasting is one area in particular that US Xpress has worked to improve, Johnson says.
“We have that three- to seven-day forecast ahead of time, so we know what loads are coming, where trucks can and should be, and plan better from an execution standpoint, which ultimately improves our service to customers,” he says.
Top-notch tablets for truckers
US Xpress has also started ripping out in-cab communications systems in trucks, replacing them with an integrated tablet and data system from Platform Science that allows for better communications, adaptive navigation, enhanced weather reporting, mandated log-ins, proof of delivery software, mechanical checks, and alerts to open parking spaces at rest stops.
“Our drivers had an old legacy driver tech unit that allowed them to interact with the back-office applications as well as fill out their mandated driver logs and all of that,” says Goux. “Upgrading to a newer technology on Platform Science did provide a lot of that same functionality that they were used to, but we were able to enrich it by moving to an Android tablet.”
That enrichment includes the ability to digitize more paperwork for seamless transmission to the back office, and enabling drivers to interact with customers’ security guards and warehouse personnel in touch-less fashion, vital during a pandemic.
“Any type of paperwork that traditionally would have had to have a signature,” Goux says, “we’re in a position now to where we can leverage that [data] and transport that information back and forth without having someone physically touch it.”
US Xpress plans to have the entire fleet equipped with tablets by year’s end. To date, more than 3,300 have been installed.
The seamless interaction between front-end driver apps and back-end systems, as well as the AI and RPA models that automate many of the company’s business processes, will enable US Xpress to collect petabytes of data that can be mined and analyzed to advance its delivery capabilities, laying the groundwork for US Xpress’ next move.
“We’re working on a data strategy to turn data into our biggest asset,” Johnson says of the carrier’s next destination on its digital journey. “This involves ensuring we have singular and consistent definitions for data elements across the enterprise, increased data literacy, data cataloging for easy discoverability and explainability of data, maintaining single source of truth for master data, data governance to maintain the quality, security, access of data, and data democratization.”