Knowing how to adapt business plans to new technologies while also fending off disruptive market entrants is no easy thing.

3D printing, automation and robotics are transforming the global manufacturing industry and the trade flows it generates. Online retailers such as Amazon and Alibaba have used new platforms to rip up retail models as they were once understood, and now look set to do the same to the transport and logistics sector. The battle to ‘Uberize’ trucking has already been joined. The ‘Internet Of Things’ has the ability to transform all aspects of supply chain management. And self-driving vehicles promise huge environmental and cost benefits but also threaten many jobs and companies. The list goes on.

There is no niche in the transport and logistics business which does not face new challenges due to rapid technological change and the emergence of ‘disruptors’.

The adaptation challenges faced by traditional forwarders were laid bare by recent visits by your correspondent to two forwarders on different sides of the globe. In Liverpool the freight desk of one medium-sized forwarder was a blare of noise. Deals were made by phone, paperwork was everywhere and a fax machine – long since obsolete in most offices – was still in use. “I try and catch up with my best clients for a beer after work as often as possible, it always helps,” said one freight desk manager.

A week later in the Philippines, the equivalent Manila office was far less engaging (and less fun) but also strikingly modern. Rows of desks hummed with young operators simultaneously juggling laptops and mobile phones. “Everything is online now including almost all paperwork. Essentially this is an e-office.” said the CEO.

The contrast could not have been more stark.

Personal relationships with customers will be required in future, especially when things go wrong, as they invariably do. Paperwork is also unlikely to be fully consigned to the bin for some time to come. But many forwarding companies need to adapt – and quickly too – or risk being left behind as rivals and customers modernise business processes.

Take, for example, digitisation. A staggering array of e-business ocean shipping companies have recently come to the fore promoting a range of new digital services designed to take costs and inconveniences out of shipper supply chains. Some market themselves as cloud-based e-forwarders and brokers or online sales platforms, others manage rates and data and sell information.

Technology providers such as BluJay (previously Kewill and LeanLogistics), OTMS and Quintiq now offer full transport and logistics management suites incorporating many traditional forwarder functions to shippers. Leading container shipping lines such as Maersk are seeking to cut out their own piece of the e-transaction pie, while the world’s largest 3PLs are also now setting up their own digital sales products.

All claim they can help meet the needs of the ‘on-demand economy’ and cross-border e-commerce more efficiently than systems which rely on lots of paperwork and manual transactions. Time will tell which ones can and which cannot.

But it is worth noting that many of the new entrants are in fact providing services aimed at forwarders, rather than in competition to them. Centrolene’s network uses technology to link mid-sized forwarders from around the globe to enable them to strike up partnerships and sell clients full supply chain visibility, and Worldwide Independent Network (WIN) now claims to link over 6,000 forwarding and logistics specialists across 72 countries. Many other products are aimed at helping forwarders transition from manual to electronic systems at relatively little expense.

Perhaps the most interesting ‘new entrant’ is Inttra, not least because it is not new at all. Set up over 15 years ago by a consortium of container lines, Inttra claims its digital services are now used at some stage during some 27% of all global physical container movements despite only around half of ocean freight sector transactions currently being conducted digitally. The scope for Inttra to grow as stakeholders seek to move from manual to electronic processes is clear.

But interestingly, Inttra claims its portfolio is aimed at both lines and forwarders. The company insists it is not interested in taking custody of cargo and is simply a neutral electronic transaction platform and information provider whose services help customers reduce their reliance on phone and fax and cut down on manual input errors. “Inttra is an IT company,” one executive told your correspondent. “Forwarders are valued customers and some of the biggest use Inttra. We are complementary. We eliminate the additional costs of doing business.”

Are the new market entrants bearing shiny technological gifts a threat to established forwarders? Yes, there is no doubt that many are. But others offer products that, if deployed correctly, can supplement and enhance the best of traditional practices.

The biggest danger to many forwarders is being left behind.

Jonny Rotten and the Sex Pistols caused uproar in late 1970s Britain with songs such as Anarchy in the UK and God Save the Queen as they raged against the establishment. Elvis had earlier scandalized America with his gyrating hips. More recently, members of Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot were imprisoned for, amongst other things, accusing President Putin of being a dictator.

Music is much like technology – what was once viewed as ‘dangerous’ is often later subsumed into the ‘establishment’.

Back in 19th century Britain, the Luddites destroyed weaving machinery to protect their jobs. But they failed to prevent the march of technology – eventually even the deployment of machines could not prevent the textile industry migrating to cheaper climes. The Roman Catholic Church initially resisted the spread of the printing press and, in the modern age, press barons have sought to protect newspaper fiefdoms from online rivals – if you are reading this in digital format then you already know who won that anti-progress battle.

Even Jonny Rotten, the stage name used by John Lydon, has become part of the furniture and is best known to UK millennials as an aged reality TV star.

The digitisation of the forwarding industry is coming just as surely as new technologies are already transforming the manufacturing and retail sectors the transport industry serves.

As Bob Dylan might have written about our industry…

‘For the loser now will be later to win
Cause the times they are a-changing’