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Multimodal Distribution: Trends and Changes Reshaping Supply Chains

Every segment of the supply chain is evolving at a breathtaking pace, from logistics to distribution to retail. However, at the heart of this change is multimodal distribution. The essence of multimodal distribution is cleverly combining different ways of moving goods — think of trucks driving through city streets, trains chugging along vast landscapes, ships navigating through choppy seas and planes soaring across skies. It’s an approach to transport that goes beyond simply counting the miles — it’s a transformative trend connecting businesses and customers across the globe, reshaping logistics as we know it.

Evolution of Multimodal Distribution in 2023-2024

Multimodal distribution is transforming right before our eyes, largely due to technological advancements and changing market dynamics. These trends will surely continue in 2024 and beyond, further shaping the transportation and management of goods across various modes of distribution.

Integration of AI, Robotics and Automation

Estimates show that AI will increase productivity in logistics by over 40% by 2035. However, a closer look at integrating AI, robotics and automation in multimodal distribution shows potential for significant enhancements in operational efficiency in three key areas:

Smart Matching in Multimodal Distribution

At the same time, smart matching in multimodal distribution represents a significant technological leap. This transformative logistics approach utilizes advanced algorithms and intelligent management systems to optimize distribution routes with fewer vehicles and the shortest total length. By enabling real-time information and resource sharing between customers and merchants, it reduces costs and facilitates more scientific-driven management decisions.

Adapting to Market Changes

Companies are also increasingly focusing on developing responsive supply chain models to adapt to market changes and unexpected events. The emphasis is on flexibility and adaptability, facilitated by advanced technologies like generative AI, data analytics and IoT. 

  • Integration of Generative AI (GenAI): GenAI, a sophisticated subset of AI, is revolutionizing supply chain management by processing extensive data sets and analyzing complex variables. This technology continually enhances its understanding and adaptability to a company’s supply chain ecosystem.
  • Development of Smart Supply Chains: Advanced supply chains are emerging, characterized by quick response to daily demands, proactive problem-solving capabilities and reduced errors and inefficiencies. These smart supply chains also provide greater visibility, transparency and traceability.
  • Enhanced Resilience to Supply Chain Disruptions: By adopting these cutting-edge technologies, organizations are fortifying themselves against potential future supply chain shocks, ensuring continuous operation and reliability.
  • Adaptation to Market Fluctuations: In 2024, supply chains face a unique set of challenges, including rising fuel costs, decreasing freight rates and expanding container capacities. These factors are particularly impactful on maritime transportation costs, presenting complex challenges for shipping companies.
  • Need for Climate Resilience: Given the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, there is an urgent need for supply chains to be more climate-resilient. In 2023, the U.S. experienced 4x the average of natural disasters than in the 1980s, with billion-dollar damage events occurring every two weeks.

Addressing the Challenges in Last Mile Delivery

One of the main challenges in multimodal distribution lies in the effective management of last mile delivery, where inventory management and demand forecasting play a vital role. However, tackling these challenges through strategic approaches and technological innovations is possible.

Managing Inventory and Demand

Effective inventory management and demand forecasting are pivotal to confronting the complexities of modern supply chains. Here are five key strategies to enhance these processes in the face of unpredictable market dynamics:

  1. Leverage Advanced Analytics: Utilize AI and machine learning tools for real-time insights and predictive analytics. This technology helps in accurately anticipating demand shifts and identifying hidden patterns.
  2. Diversify Suppliers and Inventory: Create a buffer against disruptions by diversifying suppliers and decentralizing inventory storage. This approach mitigates risks associated with localized supply chain issues.
  3. Implement Just-In-Time (JIT) Inventory: Adopt a JIT approach to reduce excess stock and storage costs. It requires a highly efficient supply chain but can significantly streamline inventory management.
  4. Maintain Continuous Collaboration: Foster regular communication with suppliers and distributors. A transparent and collaborative supply chain is more responsive and adaptable to sudden changes.
  5. Invest in Workforce Training: Enhance the skills and capabilities of employees. A knowledgeable and skilled workforce is crucial in managing complex supply chain scenarios and improving demand forecasting accuracy.

Technological Solutions and Digital Transformation

The digital transformation of supply chains, particularly through automated solutions, also significantly enhances inventory visibility and collaboration. IoT, RFID and cloud computing enable real-time inventory tracking, ensuring optimal stock levels and swift responses to market changes. Simultaneously, cloud-based platforms promote seamless data sharing among all supply chain participants, leading to more coordinated efforts. It’s a type of integration that streamlines inventory management and strengthens the supply chain’s resilience and adaptability to unforeseen challenges. The end goal benefits everyone: a transparent, responsive and interconnected supply ecosystem.

Impact of Economic and Market Trends on Distribution

Multimodal distribution also faces pivotal market challenges and opportunities. Persistently high inflation, labor shortages, and a significant shift toward direct-to-customer (DTC) channels and e-commerce drive the need for strategic adaptations and technological innovations.

Navigating High Inflation and Labor Shortages

High inflation and persistent labor shortages significantly reshape the logistics sector’s multimodal distribution strategies and operational costs. In 2023, inflation hit 5.7%, and while estimates show it could decrease slightly to 4.16% in 2024, that’s still a stubbornly high figure. This economic pressure escalates logistics costs, primarily due to surging energy prices, leading to capacity constraints, increased rates and prices and unreliable supply chains.

Simultaneously, labor shortages, especially in transportation and warehousing, are driving wages to increase four times faster than pre-pandemic levels. About 62% of manufacturers and distributors report struggles in hiring skilled workers, causing issues with retention, increased absenteeism and supply chain disruptions. The 3.5% increase in 2023 transborder freight between the United States, Canada and Mexico — alongside a 20% to 30% surge in freight rates due to higher fuel prices — further prompts companies to reevaluate and adjust their supply chain operations.

DTC Shift and E-commerce

The recent shift toward DTC channels and the burgeoning e-commerce sector necessitate a strategic rethink for distributors. DTC sales now make up about one-seventh of global e-commerce dollars, significantly disrupting the consumer packaged goods and consumer technology and durables industries. Key to success in DTC are elements like after-sales support, knowledgeable staff and detailed product information. Brands are attracting customers with strategies like best-price guarantees and loyalty discounts linked to subscription commerce, along with the lure of early product access before retail availability.

E-commerce growth is also relentless, projected to constitute over 21.5% of total retail sales in 2024, reaching $6.15 trillion — a rise of 11% from 2022. In response, distributors focus on developing digital transformation capabilities, prioritizing automation, machine learning, AI and predictive analytics to enhance speed, agility, and decision-making to improve profit margins and adapt to the evolving market and consumer behavior trends.

Future Outlook and Strategic Adaptations

Finally, as we look toward the future of multimodal distribution and last mile delivery, the sector is clearly facing significant transformations. Driven by evolving market demands, technological advancements and a heightened focus on sustainability, these changes are not just necessary, but inevitable.

Embracing Sustainable Practices

The trend toward green logistics and sustainable practices is rapidly gaining momentum in the distribution sector. This shift is not merely about complying with regulatory standards or keeping up with industry trends; it’s about acknowledging and actively contributing to a more sustainable future and customer demands. Here’s how the sector is evolving:

  • Renewable Energy Usage: In 2023, renewable electricity capacity additions reached an estimated 507 GW, almost 50% higher than in 20221. More and more distribution centers are turning to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. This shift not only reduces the carbon footprint but also leads to long-term cost savings.
  • Eco-Friendly Packaging: The use of biodegradable, recyclable, or reusable packaging materials is on the rise, with the Green Packaging Market potentially surging from $282.75 billion in 2024 to $411.81 billion by 2029. This move toward sustainable packaging solutions reflects a growing consumer demand for environmentally responsible products and services.
  • Efficiency in Logistics: Companies optimize routes to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Advanced software exists to plan and execute more efficient delivery routes, minimizing the environmental impact.
  • Circular Economy Models: Logistics are increasingly adopting circular economy models. The concept of a circular economy involves designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. For example, Europe’s ambitious circular economy policies could cut material use by up to 11%, successfully decoupling growth from raw material consumption within ten years.
  • Sustainable Transportation Solutions: The sector is increasingly adopting electric and hybrid vehicles for transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and align with global efforts to transition to cleaner, more sustainable modes of transport.

Leveraging AI for Business Transformation

Lastly, let’s reevaluate AI and its increasing role as a cornerstone of multimodal distribution. Here are a few ways it will make its mark in the future:

  • Diverse Data Processing: Multimodal AI models are good at handling various data types such as text, images, video and audio. This ability allows for a more comprehensive analysis of distribution-related data, leading to better-informed decisions and strategies​​​​.
  • Enhanced Forecasting and Planning: By integrating data from multiple sources, these AI models can offer improved accuracy in predicting market trends and customer demands. This capability will enable companies to optimize their planning and forecasting in distribution operations​​​​.
  • Efficient Warehouse Automation: AI-driven multimodal models will further automate warehouse operations, including inventory management, sorting and packing. This automation will increase efficiency and reduce the likelihood of errors, leading to smoother operation flows​​​​.
  • Personalized Customer Experiences in Last-Mile Delivery: The future of last mile delivery will be more personalized, thanks to multimodal AI. From dynamic delivery scheduling to real-time tracking updates, AI will enhance the end-customer experience.
  • Predictive Maintenance and Smart Decision-Making: AI’s ability to predict maintenance needs for equipment and vehicles will minimize downtime and extend asset lifespan. Additionally, the real-time data analysis provided by AI will empower decision-makers to make more strategic, informed choices, thus enhancing overall operational efficiency​​​​.

OneRail’s Place in the Future of Multimodal Distribution and Last Mile Delivery

Multimodal distribution and last mile logistics go hand in hand with how they’re evolving. Driven by technological advancements and changing market dynamics, the name of the game is enhancing operational efficiency and building more adaptable, resilient, responsive and sustainable supply chain models. That’s why staying ahead of these technological and market trends is key to succeeding in such a dynamic environment.

OneRail is innovating with these trends top of mind. Our courier network provides access to 12 million drivers, 650 carrier/courier companies, 65+ logistics companies (3PLs) and 350 major U.S. cities. Our OmniPoint™ Platform offers automated rate shopping, smart matching and real-time visibility for efficient deliveries, while our Exceptions Assist™ team and elastic capacity ensure on-time deliveries.

To explore how OneRail can transform your delivery operations and help you stay ahead in the fast-evolving world of distribution and delivery, schedule a demo today.

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