Multimodal Shipping: How to Make Your Next Project a Success

Project Freight Being Loaded Onto Multi-Axle Trailer for Highway Transport In some cases, a shipping project means loading components onto a truck, driving them to their destination and unloading them into your customer’s hands. But oftentimes, multimodal project logistics are much more complex.

In situations where you’re shipping so many pieces that trucking alone can't handle all of your loads, or when highway transport isn’t feasible because the dimensions of your components are beyond the capabilities of a single mode, you may need to opt for multimodal shipping.

Leveraging multiple modes of transportation can sometimes be the fastest or most affordable method. But, as you can imagine, multimodal shipping and logistics can quickly become cumbersome to manage.

To help you make sense of the process and so you can ensure all bases are covered the next time you ship multimodal, we're giving you a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into a successful multimodal project.

Specifically, we’ll dive into what the strategy and planning stages of a wind energy multimodal shipping project entail. As far as multimodal project logistics go, this example may be among the most complex.

Route Reviews and Quoting

The first step in a multimodal shipping project is generally the RFQ process, which may also require route reviews and/or an analysis of clearances (for over-dimensional freight) to help you and your shipping partner evaluate the best method(s) for shipping your project cargo.

At this stage, your shipping partner will take the time to learn more about your project and map out the project logistics. They’ll need to know, for example, how many components you’re shipping, where you’re sourcing them from, where they need to be delivered, dimensions and specifications of the item(s) in your shipment, your timeline and, of course, any other distinct requirements that will help to protect your project cargo and deliver it safely.

The shipping partner will compare modes of transportation and determine what makes the most sense from a feasibility, capacity and cost perspective. For example, if a customer requires more specialized equipment to haul their components than a shipping partner has available, it may make sense to leverage a barge or railroad for a portion of the journey. Alternatively, if component sizes exceed rail clearance limits, trucking may be deemed the only feasible option. Each project comes with its own unique circumstances, and cost shouldn't be the only deciding factor when selecting the mode(s) of transportation — feasibility and available capacity both also play significant roles.

Once all options have been thoroughly evaluated, your shipping partner should be able to provide you with a firm project proposal based on the transportation modes you’ll require. It's important to have a shipping partner that accurately anticipates their costs and plans ahead, so you don’t encounter unforeseen budget impacts once the project is underway. Choosing a partner experienced in project logistics will help you mitigate this risk.

In some cases, customers will manage the multiple modes of shipping directly. For instance, a customer may work directly with a railroad to get their components as close to the project site as possible, but may also require a carrier to move items from the manufacturing facility to the railroad distribution center (DC), or from the railroad DC to the project site. The project can still be executed seamlessly in this manner with a collaborative effort by all shipping partners.

Route Planning

For oversize, superload or otherwise complex movements, at least 30 to 60 days from the start of your project, your shipping partner should begin securing routing and permits from the states and municipalities your shipments will be traveling through. This can be more complicated than it sounds, which is why it's extremely valuable to use a shipping partner that has dedicated in-house teams that provide these services. This alone can save you time and money and facilitate efficient, proactive and constant communication throughout the planning and execution stages of your project.

Once a routing plan is developed, a route survey will typically be performed, according to the requirements of each state or the standard operating procedures of your shipping partner. Route surveys are critical in identifying potential obstacles or challenges, such as construction sites and detours, and making any necessary adjustments before the actual movement of your shipments.

The most critical piece of the project is delivering cargo to its final destination, and that’s where one of the most important players comes in: the Driver. Find a shipping partner that understands the importance of the Driver’s role on the team and takes the extra effort to bring the Driver(s) into the process at the beginning. Doing so will set the frontline delivery team and your project up for success.

A key element to frontline engagement is compiling a report for each Driver based on the permitted route of travel and survey details that will help them plan and prepare for their journey. The report should include every possible detail Drivers will need to safely and efficiently deliver your shipment — such as bridge height measurements, where to begin preparing for turns and places to park along the route. If required by the states and municipalities, or as a standard procedure of your shipping partner, one or more pilot cars may accompany the shipment throughout transit to warn traffic of the load's presence and, sometimes, to help control traffic. The Driver and pilot cars work together as a unified team to ensure safe transport. The report should also be provided to the pilot cars, so that they're on the same page as the Driver and both parties can operate effectively.

Multimodal shipping may also require the need to add or remove transport fixtures (that are either directly affixed to the cargo or the equipment) for each individual mode of travel. For example, components traveling by ocean carrier may have transport fixtures that need to be removed before they’re placed onto a railcar or truck. For safe travel and delivery, your shipping partner should use their technical expertise to help you ensure that the appropriate transport fixtures are identified for different modes and related costs are accounted for, if needed.

Finally, and most importantly, your carrier should double (and triple) check that all schedules align to help mitigate issues when transferring items from one mode of transportation to another. This is where choosing a shipping partner that specializes in project logistics can pay for itself. In the midst of project execution, time is money. Any deadline missed on any leg of the journey can add up in a hurry.

Shipping Support

Once your components are safely loaded and begin the journey to their destination, your shipping partner will keep you informed. A good partner will dedicate a project manager to oversee each and every detail of your project and be your single point of contact. An excellent partner will physically deploy literal “boots on the ground,” or site supervisors, to the different locations where freight is being transferred or dropped off. The supervisors will act as the primary points-of-contact for Drivers, constantly coordinating and communicating to guarantee the project manager is always in the know and all the project logistics remain on track.

The best shipping partners leverage technology and GPS tracking to monitor Driver progress and provide real-time reporting that shows exactly where Drivers are and estimated arrival times. This way, you can track your shipment from anywhere at any time and never have to question where your shipment is at. Selecting a shipping partner that has innovative technology is essential. It ensures you'll always have access to the current information that you need (i.e., tracking, bills of lading [BOLs], invoices, pricing history, etc.).

If something should go awry, your shipping partner will do whatever they can to keep things moving without impacting your project schedule. For example, suppose production delays impact scheduling and shipment transfer plans (as has been common during the COVID-19 pandemic). In that case, they’ll respond immediately with realistic yet creative solutions to minimize the impact on your project.

Although some circumstances are beyond our control, an ideal partner will have the flexibility to navigate challenges and ensure the most streamlined experience possible. They'll also have the network resources required to adapt quickly and keep your multimodal projects moving.

How to Choose the Right Multimodal Shipping Partner

If you have a project that may require multiple modes of transportation, it’s critical you choose a provider that can:

  • Demonstrate intricate planning capabilities
  • Communicate consistently
  • React and recover from unexpected challenges quickly
  • Offer experience and a history of top-quality service
  • Provide their own assets for better control (when possible)
  • Demonstrate robust safety performance, processes, systems and culture

ATS has more than six decades of experience managing complicated shipping projects, and successfully ships nearly 50 of these complex projects (equalling approximately 14,000 loads) every year. We’ve experienced nearly every obstacle you can imagine, and we know how to course-correct to keep our customers’ projects on track. Multimodal shipping and logistics isn’t easy, but our in-house team has all the expertise to ensure your project will be a success. If you're looking for multimodal shipping expertise or have questions, we're here to help.

Tags: ATS Highway, Multimodal Shipping, Project Logistics

Cassandra Olsen

Written by Cassandra Olsen

Cassandra is a pricing analyst supervisor with ATS, where she manages corporate and project pricing — specifically completing bids and securing projects within the wind industry. She also helps build pricing tools and systems to help with other departments’ proposals and requests for quotes. Cassandra joined ATS in 2008 and has served in various roles, including permits coordinator, pricing assistant, documentation specialist and project manager.

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