We live in a globally connected world. People and goods traverse the planet constantly via sea, rail, air and road. The shipping industry is immensely varied and highly developed. Because it is so diverse, it can be hard to get a real grasp of the different areas in the industry. Luckily, this guide is here to help. In this article, we run through some of the most important areas of the shipping industry, as well as some of the most significant terms used within it. No matter who you are or what you do, you will have been touched by the shipping industry. Enjoy this rather brief guide to this gargantuan subject. 

Courier Service 

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Couriers offer small scale point to point delivery – meaning that they carry goods directly to an end user or business instead of carrying goods to a depot or sales point. They typically use small vans or motorcycles to make deliveries. Courier services are not cheap due to the small scale of the vehicles used and are not an efficient way of carrying commercial goods and raw materials. Instead, they are used when a consumer directly purchases an item or when a business needs parts in an emergency. Couriers often make several stops along their route in order to take on new loads. Despite this, they are famed for being able to deliver items extremely quickly. Complex, highly automated logistics systems enable large courier businesses to deliver items to consumers from distribution centers the very next day after they have been ordered. 

Technology is changing courier work drastically. Parcels can be tracked using GPS by consumers and distributors. Couriers themselves often find loads using applications – allowing them to maintain a full van by picking up return loads and convenient extra loads along their journey. A number of very successful delivery and load finding apps have emerged in recent years. 

Haulage

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Haulage services usually operate as part of a larger logistical system – carrying big loads over long distances. Unlike couriers, they do not deviate and make stops along the way to pick up loads. They are employed to take one load to a single destination. Haulage companies vary hugely: they can be small, single truck operations carrying on a freelance basis; they can be large pallet logistics companies dealing with big modular loads carried on wooden pallets or metal cage; and they can be bulk haulage companies carrying liquids or loose materials in specially designed truck trailers. Roughly speaking, a haulage company is any business concerned with the transport of large loads via truck or rail. They work in conjunction with shipping brokers and freight forwarding experts in order to find drivers and plan efficient routes. The largest haulage companies employ hundreds of drivers and own thousands of trailers. Logistics, courier service and haulage giant FedEx is the biggest transportation company in the world. Their net income rose by 183 percent in 2021. Because they offer both haulage and courier services, they have been able to corner huge portions of the commercial transportation industry. 

Groupage

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Groupage is a way of shipping goods that are too large and numerous to be shipped via courier service, but too small in volume to warrant the hiring of a full-sized truck. In essence, this kind of shipping option allows a hauler to rent out a portion of their truck to multiple clients. Clients using this kind of solution ‘group’ their loads together in order to be more efficient. Think of it a bit like carpooling for commercial loads instead of people. 

Hot Shot

Hot shot trucking is a way for drivers to find shipping work on sites like Shiply without having to have a commercial driving license. Hot shot trucking is essentially a kind of small-scale haulage operation. Usually hired to haul farm equipment and machinery to remote locations on a local basis, hot shot truckers typically make use of heavy duty American pickup trucks. Heavy duty pickup trucks are immensely popular in the USA, with powerful models like the Ford F-450 selling in huge numbers. A pickup only needs minimal modification in order to act as a hot shot trucking tractor. Hot shot truckers usually use long wheelbase goose neck trailers in order to carry loads. These trailers can make a pickup a little less stable, which should be taken into consideration when hauling unusually shaped loads down country lanes on the way to a farm. 

The big draw towards hot shot trucking is the current lack of regulation. People carrying loads under 10,000lb do not need to get a heavy goods vehicle commercial license in order to start taking loads. For farmers, the low cost of hot shot trucking means that they can hire in a small shipment at a minimal cost compared to the prices paid for traditional haulage. 

Freight Forwarding

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Freight forwarding companies deal with some of the trickier aspects of a shipping order: usually when there is some form of import or export component to the order. Freight forwarding companies typically have extensive networks in all of the territories that they work in. They are also well versed in international customs laws and can plan out a shipping order while incorporating customs wait time and documentation delays. Freight forwarders are hired in order to make complex shipping operations pain free for manufacturers and retailers. Today’s market is truly global, which means that freight forwarders are more important than ever before. 

Forwarders are also responsible for organizing the transfer of goods from one method of hauling to another. They do not move goods or hire goods movers, but instead act as consulting and organizing experts in the logistics industry. They are architects of transport – often charging a pretty penny for the organization of long and complex logistical operations. Forwarders – also knowns as forwarding agents – increasingly make use of goods tracking applications to keep tabs on the movement of loads around the world. This allows them to plan out more efficient logistical chains. 

Air Freight

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Moving freight by air is not exactly cheap, but it is quick. Air freight was pioneered during the Second World War, when the vast armies of the Allies needed to quickly move equipment and food into the areas of conflict. Today, Air freight is big business, with companies like DHL carrying huge quantities of goods in specially designed adaptations of common aircraft. Not all air freight planes are adaptations of standard models. Some are completely original designs built for unusual loads. The AN-225 Mriya was the largest freight aircraft in the world. With a maximum take-off weight of 640 tons, it was also the heaviest plane ever built. Created during the 1980s to carry Soviet rocket parts, the plane was put into commercial use by the airfreight division of the Ukrainian company Antonov. Unfortunately, the aircraft was destroyed during the battle for Antonov Airport during the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. 

Speed is the only true advantage of air freight. Air freight is typically used by tech companies that want to ensure next day component delivery. Thoroughly impractical for low value goods, air freight is reserved for components and goods with a high resell value or urgent need. Air freight is famously used to deliver food and equipment during times of disaster. The most famous emergency air freight operation was the Berlin Airlift. The Berlin Airlift was made necessary by a DDR blockade of Western Berlin during the cold war. At the height of the operation a plane landed every 45 seconds at Berlin Tempelhof Airport delivering food, coal and other supplies. Today, air freight is commonly used to deliver food and supplies to people who have been subjected to famine, war and natural disaster. 

Marine Freight

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Roughly 80 percent of all international freight is carried by sea. The United Nations estimates that this percentage is even higher in developing countries with poor air freight infrastructure. Seaborne conveyance has been the most important method of moving goods for thousands of years. Before the introduction of the railway, marine freight was even the most important method of moving goods domestically. 

In recent years, marine freight has become far more efficient thanks to the introduction of the shipping container. Shipping containers are rectangular metal crates that can be stacked in a modular fashion. They can be loaded and unloaded onto and off specialized container ships very quickly in the thousands using semi-automated systems. They can be transferred from ship to rail or truck transport without the need for stevedores. There are currently over 50 thousand dedicated container ships traversing the world or sitting in ports – making them one of the most numerous of all ship types globally. In 2017 1.83 billion metric tons of goods were shipped in containers. The first container ship was built in 1931 for Southern Railways in the United Kingdom. Dubbed the ‘Autocarrier’ it changed the world of freight radically. After World War Two, adoption of this new modular system rapidly increased. Containerization has touched every area of logistics around the world. It has given rise to container ports – highly automated ports capable of transferring containers to and from modes of transport very swiftly. Although this has made global logistics more efficient, it has also destroyed traditional dock working communities. Container ships are vast, but their size is restricted by the width of the Panama and Suez canals – through which trade vessels cross into adjacent oceans without having to traverse entire continents. 

Rail Freight

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Rail freight is far more efficient than road freight when it comes to moving bulk items across long distances over land. In terms of both carrying capacity and spatial performance, rail beats road. A single rail line has more than double the daily capacity of an entire four line highway. Economies of scale play a big part in the efficiency of rail, as does the decreased surface area of rail wheels in comparison to road wheels and the lack of control variables on a well-organized rail network. 

Trains are, of course, less flexible than road going trucks. They can reach fewer places and require huge initial investment – usually from massive rail companies or government agencies. The United States of America was brought together by rail, but it still has a comparatively poor-quality passenger rail network compared to other developed nations. The USA does, however, have a very good rail freight network. American freight rail networks have increased their capacity by 81 percent since 1980 despite cutting costs by over 40 percent in the same window of time. Trucks are still necessary in a logistics chain in order to move goods from rail freight depots to final destinations, but companies will often opt to move goods via rail for as much of their journey as possible. Despite the slow overall speed of American freight trains, their efficiency makes them absolutely essential for moving goods across the huge country. 

Freight trains have been embedded into American popular culture for many years. An absolutely vast quantity of music and literature has been written about lonely freight routes, train hopping and the coming of the railway. Perhaps the best song ever written about rail freight is ‘Freight Train’ written by the late guitarist (and former maid of musicologist Mike Seeger) Elizabeth Cotton. The lonesome pining rhythm of the song is the ultimate evocation of the train rolling through bleak and battered country. Hobo culture is a significant American nomadic tradition centered around drifting workers that rode the rails starting in the great depression. Although rail riding culture does still exist in the USA, it is more common in Central America. Migrants seeking a better life often use freight trains to travel huge distances in very difficult and dangerous conditions. The most famous of these freight trains is known as ‘the beast’ and travels through Mexico and into the USA.  It is a famously dangerous way to travel, and every year many impoverished people seeking a new life are maimed or killed on the journey. 

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