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FreightWaves: Future of Supply Chain 2024 – Highlights and Hot Takes

Author of article at FreightWaves: Future of Supply Chain 2024 Conference

Attending the FreightWaves: Future of Supply Chain 2024 conference in Atlanta was like Dorothy stepping into Oz.

Author: Patty Brehm

“Let’s make it a goal for 2024 that you go to a tradeshow,” my supervisor said, and that’s what led me to stepping onto a flight for my first business trip in 10+ years. Attending the FreightWaves: Future of Supply Chain 2024 conference in Atlanta was like Dorothy stepping into Oz.

As a marketer new to the logistics and transportation sector, the FreightWaves conference was a fantastic way to dive head-first into the intricacies of logistics and learn more about the Yellow Brick Road we call the “supply chain.”

Kicking Off with a Key Note

A key highlight for me was the keynote from Bill Seward, Supply Chain Solutions President, UPS. UPS has invested capital and resources into healthcare logistics with the goal, within several years, of becoming the market leader. It’s a big move that highlights strategic ventures from iconic logistics companies to master new verticals like the world of healthcare supply chains. Moving into healthcare logistics is a huge investment of time and resources, from carrying temperature-sensitive cargo to navigating strict regulations.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) – Your Summer Intern

This year, the range of topics was refreshing. Instead of AI stealing the spotlight in an overt way, as it has online, discussions spanned ocean, air, truck, and rail freight, providing a more complete picture of global logistics.

Those wild futuristic dreams of autonomous vehicles and humanless supply chains from five years ago? Still far from reality. The tech and regulatory hurdles are real.

AI still plays an active role, as illustrated by the panel “How Gen AI is Impacting Logistics on a Day-to-Day Basis.” Megan Orth, Senior Director, Commercial Connectivity at C.H. Robinson, compares “AI” as a new buzzword like how “APIs” were a buzzword about a decade ago. However, AI is not an all-encompassing technological tool; there will be specific uses, such as using AI to cut down on repetitive administrative tasks. To make it useful, employees must become used to feeding the AI answers/data so the output becomes more robust/better in the future. Therefore, employee education and buy-in when adopting AI workflows is pivotal.

Orth compares her organization’s AI to a summer intern. You can rely on the intern for work, but you must train it before it can take tasks/responsibilities off your plate. The goal for AI, from Orth’s point of view, is to positively impact service outcomes, including efficiency and timely responses.

When Angel (Investments) and Venture Capital Fall

If AI is the new buzzword on the block, so is the eagerness to invest in AI technology. Yet investors can take note of the history books, given the substantial number of logistics technology businesses that have shuttered in the last five years.

In a discussion entitled “Fireside Chat: The Next Wave of Freight Tech Startups,” Craig Fuller, FreightWaves CEO, sat down with Alan Gershenhorn, Former EVP & Chief Commercial Officer at UPS Logistics and Log-Tech Director and Advisor, to look at what’s next in freight technology and technology investments.

Gershenhorn explained that even when organizations fail, the act of innovation within the industry drives initiatives to make things more efficient for shippers, carriers, and brokers. The initial promise of digital brokerages and logistics-tech startups was to take an existing large network of carriers and keep the carriers active with fewer empty miles. Empty miles occur when a truck trailer has no load or cargo, so there is a waste of resources like fuel and driver time. In a nutshell, empty miles equal no revenue.

If digital brokerages could help carriers decrease their empty miles, carriers (in theory) may charge lower rates, so brokerages can charge shippers less, and increased efficiency would lead to increased revenue for brokers. The problem is this hasn’t happened. Accomplishing all this on a massive, nationwide scale and creating a 100% fully digital brokerage is difficult.

This was a recurring theme through several panels. It was a reminder that while fresh ideas are exciting, they often need the infrastructure and experience to really take off. The buzzword now is practical growth—fewer chasing dreams, more delivering real solutions.

Putting It All Together

I learned that compared to the other major FreightWaves event, F3: Future of Freight Festival, later this year in Chattanooga, TN, FreightWaves: Future of Supply Chain 2024 in Atlanta was a smaller affair. The smaller size provided a chance to have more personal conversations and attend a variety of panels to learn by immersion. I walked away with a sense that the industry is currently figuring out how to balance the idealism of innovative technology with the pragmatism that has been the solid foundation of success for many organizations in the world of freight. Do I know what the answer will be after attending my first freight conference? No, but I will have a positive KPI to report come performance review time.