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May 8, 2017 3:00 AM, EDT

J.B. Hunt Plans to Invest $500 Million in ‘Disruptive’ Supply Chain Tech

J.B. Hunt 360

This story appears in the May 8 print edition of Transport Topics.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. announced it will spend $500 million over the next five years to enhance its operating systems, develop cloud infrastructure and create what it said would be “innovative and disruptive technologies” for use in its supply chain.

To achieve that, J.B. Hunt has doubled its engineering and technology staff to 1,000.

The announcement was made at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in April, where it also unveiled Marketplace, a feature that connects shippers and carriers using data to match freight with capacity, on J.B. Hunt 360 — its real-time e-commerce platform.

“Over the next five years, tech- nology that enables greater transparency of business transactions will disrupt our industry, especially in the brokerage and spot market arenas,” Tracy Black, senior vice president of information systems at J.B. Hunt, told Transport Topics.

For example, she pointed to the emergence of blockchain, a secure, distributed digital ledger, the use of which is growing in the industry.

J.B. Hunt is exploring blockchain processes with sev?eral customers because of the technology’s ability to provide real-time, multiparty visi- bility throughout the life cycle of a purchase order and inventory flow, she said. With blockchain, time stamps and records of the transfer of goods are available to prove ownership throughout the process.

“Additionally, we are exploring blockchain for smart contracts, which reduce disputes and improves cash flow,” Black said.

In addition, more artificial intelligence is coming, and it will prove invaluable, she said.

“More than 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years. Think about that. The volume of data is growing at a pace humans can no longer maintain without the help of artificial intelligence,” she said.

J.B. Hunt already provides load recommendations using data science and machine learning based on criteria including a carrier’s predicted location, historical lane data and service levels, she said.

But with artificial intelligence, “Carriers will no longer have to search through a load board to find freight, they’ll automatically receive the most relevant lane recommendation. In addition, AI will be used to predict disruptions throughout the supply chain. Recommendations will then be offered to address the disruption, based on data and learnings from previous disruptions and past contingency plans,” Black explained.

Also, artificial intelligence will provide every employee with personalized digital assistance that goes far beyond the voice interaction and analytics tools currently available. “Decision-making processes will increasingly rely on the intelligence gathered by technology platforms,” she said.

But humans knowledgeable in the ways of software are needed more than ever, too.

J.B. Hunt doubled its technology and engineering staff by recruiting through a greater number of colleges. It also is using nontraditional diversity programs, including information services provider UST Global’s Step It Up America program, which works with women and veterans with non-STEM degrees to give them the skills to become Java developers, Black said.

“We have also successfully recruited experienced data scientists, Six Sigma Black Belts, and system architects and software developers who have worked in other industries and can now bring their talents to transportation and logistics,” Black said.

Shareholders at the meeting viewed the spending plan as a positive strategy, Black said, and were excited to see how J.B. Hunt is investing in its growth.

However, the company declined to comment on how much its logistics operation may change over the next five years.

J.B. Hunt ranks No. 4 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

It also ranks No. 2 on TT’s Top 50 list of the largest logistics companies in North America.