2020 was a tumultuous year for the logistics industry, with its effects naturally rippling through multiple sectors. However, technological innovations have persisted, with digital technologies now spearheading COVID vaccine distribution. It is in this context that technology is changing the future of freight forwarders and the broader links of supply chains worldwide. The perfect technological storm of Blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotic process automation, and data science offers new frontiers.

A cargo ship moored at a port.
A cargo ship moored at a port.

Technology is changing the future of freight forwarders

Gauging the impact of COVID-19 on logistics the world over is no simple process, but data already offers fundamental outlines. The International Finance Corporation reported the following during the first quarter of 2020:

“Ocean freight: Total container volumes handled at Chinese ports dropped by 10.1 percent in the first months of 2020. Agility Logistics reports considerable constraints to ocean freight around the world, impacting both key exporters, like Brazil, China, India, and Mexico, as well as importers like the European Union. […]

Land freight: Unlike ocean and air transport, land transport has generally remained partially available globally as roads have remained in operation, except in countries under severe lockdowns [.]Trucking capacity is strained because of additional demand for their services—especially food and medical supply transportation—under lockdown, combined with reduced employee availability (due to COVID-19-related restrictions), leading to higher rates. […]

Air freight: Volumes fell by 19 percent in March 2020 due to a sharp reduction in passenger flights (which carry freight as belly cargo) and the drop in manufacturing in China. […] The overall reduction in capacity is greater than the net reduction in demand, which supports higher air freight rates.”

In this context, business relationships and technology offer leeway. Biju Kewalram, Chief Digital and Transformation Officer at Agility GIL, echoed this sentiment in July, stating that “it takes a crisis to realize that years spent in relationship building matter a lot.” Mark McCullough, CEO of Gebrüder Weiss USA, similarly attests to the need for flexibility, culture, and technology. As freight forwarders begin to cautiously adopt emerging technologies, the two factors overlap in shaping the industry’s future. 

Fleet management systems

Fleet Management Systems (FMS) have been an asset in recent years but are now a prime example of how technology is changing the future of freight forwarders. FMS software uses GPS, telematics, and other information technologies to drive fleet efficiency optimization. Through their essential features, FMS track valuable, actionable metrics and assist in crucial fleet management practices:
FMS software to help you manage your fleet is only becoming increasingly abundant as 2021 dawns and will continue to evolve to meet the industry’s demands. 

  • Route management
  • Asset tracking and management
  • Fuel management
  • Vehicle maintenance
  • Driver profile and behavior monitoring
  • Digital documentation


As Peter Buxbaum recently argued, “with automation comes increased cybersecurity risk”. In this regard, Blockchain technology is changing the future of freight forwarders by revolutionizing security.

Through an inherent resistance to modification of its data, as well as selective access protocols, Blockchain offers new security frontiers. Through it, freight forwarders can reduce previous safety costs within reason while increasing process efficiency. Integration with existing processes continues to improve, offering more transaction verification options to shippers throughout the supply chain. Accessibility of information will remain pivotal to this technology, as all parties can access consolidated ledgers to gauge authenticity and examine records.

As a further testament to Blockchain’s continued prominence, CMA CGM and MSC joined TradeLens this year, a blockchain-enabled digital shipping platform developed by Maersk and IBM. 

Internet of Things (IoT) and Cloud-based solutions

Cloud-based solutions have seen wide acceptance across industries, with such notable examples as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. While on-premise solutions remain an option, such cloud-based solutions offer a new frontier into IoT and digitization.

With smart ports already embracing such prospects, this innovative technology is changing the future of freight forwarders faced with the COVID economy. Through Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), a tried-and-tested technology across logistics, IoT offers effective shipment tracking across the supply chain. Similarly, mobile-friendly cloud-based solutions such as CRM lend themselves to new industry demands and enable further consolidation of information.  

Robotic process automation and advanced machine learning (AML)

Similarly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and AML lend themselves to robotic process automation. From autonomous forklifts and warehouse automation to inventory management and chatbots for improved customer service, smart ports across the globe embrace digitization to the benefit of freight forwarders.

Searates noted that Joyce Bliek, Director of Digital Business Solutions at the Port of Rotterdam, endorses smart port digitization as “a “digital twin” of a physical port, which enables such functions as predictive maintenance [and] birthing”. Such digitization of ports across the globe, from Rotterdam to Singapore, continues to pave the way for robotic process automation, where humans and technology cooperate to improve operations across the supply chain.

Simultaneously, AML offers freight forwarders a unique asset toward data analysis. Identifying patterns and forecasting continues to enhance resource utilization while tracking real-time performance provides actionable data to drive business decisions. 

Data science; Big Data consolidating international shipping services

As supply chains produce massive amounts of data, data science continues to boast demonstrable merit. Big Data is an expanding term in itself, of course, as data volumes to be processed increase. Nevertheless, it enables freight forwarders and other transportation professionals to effectively process data that humans cannot.

A digital mindset in itself can help freight forwarders achieve better results. Simultaneously, Big Data can enable massive data processing capabilities that can inform and drive other technologies such as the aforementioned. Connecting Big Data and maritime has already yielded promising results on this front.

Tech as an enabler, not a disruptor

Finally, it is noteworthy that technology will continue to be an enabler, not a disruptor. While Amazon continues to set the golden standard, innovative technology will continue to be embraced.

Stephan Haltmayer, chief executive of Quick Cargo Services, highlighted how technology is changing the future of freight forwarders and the transportation industry. He said of the future, “it will not be the big forwarders taking over the small forwarders in future, it will be the digitalised forwarders  attacking the market with customer-friendly platforms that gain the business.” In such unprecedented times as the post-COVID era, technology offers to enhance and optimize existing operations in gradual, non-intrusive ways.

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