Raw materials, parts, and products travel via multiple modes of transportation, from transnational cargo ships to urban couriers on e-bikes. Few supply chain managers can actually trace a cargo’s journey across geographies and delivery modes. Yet precise asset tracking is integral to effective supply chain management, as a mild delay can cause a domino effect of disruptions down the supply chain.
Challenges of the modern shipping process
Saying that global supply chains are complex is an understatement. To make an iPhone, Apple sources materials from suppliers in 43 countries across six continents and delivers these to different factories. Once iPhones are assembled, they are sent to global warehouses and prepared for further distribution.
Smaller companies may have a smaller supply footprint. Yet complexities often arise at the level of product distribution and fulfillment. Between resellers, direct e-commerce orders, and BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store), goods change hands a lot.
Yet small and large businesses have the same problem — not enough personnel to manage shipping processes. Many also lack tools for multiple carrier tracking, integrated courier and logistics tracking, and consolidated reporting.
How shipping and tracking APIs supercharge supply chain management
Application programming interfaces (APIs) are integrators that let you incorporate data and operational components from other products into your business systems. They allow your teams to instantly get the information they need from a single interface instead of switching back and forth between multiple carrier apps.
Sample API abstraction layer
In short, a shipping API integration can automatically collect, input, monitor, and disseminate shipping information — statuses, locations, scheduled arrival dates, etc. — to those who need this data: other branches, business partners, customers. An API integration can also schedule deliveries, print labels, and generate freight documents.
Crystal-clear data visibility is especially important for last-mile delivery — an element that makes or breaks your customer experience. When shipping takes ages, a B2C consumer feels mild frustration. But a B2B buyer may be frantically dialing your support because a shipping delay at your end may disrupt their supply chain and result in multi-million-dollar losses.
38% of B2B industrial buyers want their international orders to arrive in 2 business days. They especially value shipping solutions and experiences that reduce any cross-border complexity and that support problem-free customs entry.
Tracking and shipping APIs help to:
- Remove manual data entry workflows
- Minimize errors and inconsistencies
- Improve visibility of the shipping process
- Locate bottlenecks and minimize delays
- Optimize and manage transportation schedules and routes
- Batch orchestrate shipments to the same location
- Reduce the risk of package loss
- Obtain fine-grained reporting on shipping costs and times
- Ease the return process and implement reverse logistics
- Optimize per-item shipping costs for orders (when paired with analytics)
How do shipping APIs work?
Shipping tracking APIs let you integrate shipping data plus some shipment management functionality directly into your business systems, such as supply chain management (SCM) software or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.
After setting up an API integration with a shipping provider, you can generate shipping labels, schedule pick-ups, and manage deliveries from your system rather than from a carrier interface.
Most global carriers offer some variation of delivery tracking APIs for monitoring parcels, containers, trucks, and truckload movements during multi-modal journeys by air, sea, road, or rail.
From a technology standpoint, delivery tracking APIs rely on one of the following data exchange protocols:
- REST/RESTful. The most popular and up-to-date architectural standard. Uses multiple technologies such as HTTP, JSON, URL, and XML.
- SOAP. Simple Object Access Protocol is another data transfer standard that’s more suitable for transferring large files. Uses only HTTP and XML.
- EDI. A communication protocol that uses AS2, FTP, and SFTP, which are better suited for data transfers between on-premises systems.
EDI vs APIs: When do they work better?
Electronic data interchange (EDI) technology was originally designed to handle local data transfers. Unlike APIs, this protocol does not support real-time data exchanges. Instead, you are expected to regularly upload new entries in batches and then sync your records. EDI uploads are convenient when you need to schedule bulk data exchanges with a shipping provider, such as daily uploads of planned order dispatches.
API tracking integrations are more suited for dynamic data exchanges between connected cloud-based systems. While such connections have a lower throughput per second, API calls can be performed at a higher frequency.
Key features to look for in a shipping API
When you shop around for new software, it’s easy to get swayed by lavish marketing promises. Filter those out. Remember that the goal of an API shipping and tracking integration is to provide you with the functionality your business needs to:
- Automate repetitive workflows
- Achieve greater supply chain visibility
Also, remember that shipping APIs vary by coverage. For example, some shippers may only provide API integration for last-mile delivery, whereas others may go a tad further and supply intel on sea container movements or truck-based cold chain logistics.
Read more about improving the speed and efficiency of cold chain logistics
First, decide on your high-level tracking needs. Then move on to the granular level of features.
Must-have features for shipping APIs:
- Label generation and shipping manifest creation for every type of shipment. If you’re running cross-border operations, check if the API provider also offers functionality for pre-filling and synchronizing customs documentation.
- Shipping rate comparison. You definitely want to slice and dice shipping costs based on volume and/or weight, destination, transportation mode, timeline, etc.
- Multi-carrier integrations. Unless you have an exclusive agreement with one provider, consider API providers that aggregate shipping information from different logistics players, including freight forwarders and 3PLs.
- Real-time tracking information updates. Stay atop the goods movement internally and keep your customers informed.
- Cross-validation of shipping forms. Many solutions come with a database of correct shipping addresses. This feature helps standardize invalid or misspelled addresses and minimize corrections.
- Voids and returns processing. Both are inevitable. To minimize their costs, look for a package tracking API that helps streamline the returns process as well.
Technical considerations for selecting tracking APIs:
- Scalability. Most providers impose a daily threshold of requests per project and/or charge extra for all requests beyond a certain amount. Triple-check what’s included in each pricing tier and whether the carrier can instantly scale if you are experiencing a particularly busy day/week.
- Native SDKs. A software development kit (SDK) is an API customized for either a specific programming language (Java, Python, Ruby) or a specific function (such as address validation). SDKs help reduce the integration setup timeline since your team will not have to figure out best practices on their own.
- Sandbox environment. A sandbox is a testing account your developers can use to test the shipping API outside of the production environment. It’s a great opportunity to explore different API capabilities and test data integration routes without using real customer data.
- Speed. Verify how many requests per second the API can tolerate and if there are any caps in place. For example, DHL has a rate limit of five requests per second, whereas Shippo can process about eight requests per second. Some providers let you gain higher limits for an extra fee. Others don’t if their infrastructure is not set up for the challenge.
- Flexible deployment topology. If you plan a large-scale integration with other on-premises and/or cloud-based business systems, review the available API documentation to understand what types of architecture scenarios they support and whether these can be adapted to your needs.
Logistics software development
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Types of shipping integration APIs to consider
The booming API economy has attracted many diverse players. As you shop around, you’ll soon notice three types of API track and trace providers:
- Global carriers and logistics providers (DHL, FedEx, UPS)
- Multi-carrier shipping platforms (Shippo, Easyship, Shipstation)
- Shipping marketplaces (uShip, Flexport, ShipNext)
Which option is best for you? Let’s investigate together.
Direct API shipping integration with global carriers
Large carriers offer a mix of B2B and B2C API integration tracking capabilities covering:
- Parcel tracking APIs
- Signature tracking APIs
- Information on the latest shipping events and timestamps
- Duty and tax calculations for cross-border shipments
- Transportation management APIs
- Warehouse management interfaces and APIs
Larger players also provide separate APIs for tracking freight transportation over sea and air. Direct integration with one global carrier makes sense for companies with a smaller volume of shipments and exclusive partnerships.
- Wide range of features for B2C and B2B shipments
- Standardized implementations for different API types
- Homogenous and thus maintainable API portfolio
- Fast and easy QA and troubleshooting
- Tedious, complex development process
- Less competitive pricing options
- Some APIs only support SOAP, XML, EDI
- SDKs are often unavailable
Best for: Direct retailers, manufacturers, Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers
API integration with multi-carrier shipment platforms
Building a single secure API integration from the ground up is a complicated process requiring specific development expertise. Repeating the job numerous times is something not all companies can afford.
API integration platforms, offering a host of premade APIs and webhook functionality for linking popular business systems, emerged as a natural response. Instead of retaining a big development team in charge of internal API development, you can leverage well-maintained, multi-carrier shipping API solutions built by others.
Companies like Shippo, Easyship, and Shipstation provide a single API that grants you access to built-for-you shipping infrastructure featuring:
- Access to shipping data from multiple carriers, 3PLs, and freight forwarders
- Premade webhooks and SDKs for setting up integrations fast
- Access to normalized carrier information so you don’t have to worry about individual requirements
- Premade integrations with other business systems such as warehouse management software and inventory management software
- Ability to integrate real-time shipping rates at the point of sale for your customers
- Value-added functionality such as order packing optimization, tax and duty calculators, and multi-item bin packing
Using a shipping API platform makes sense when you want to set up integrations with multiple carriers yet don’t want to get bogged down with development.
- Faster time to market for new integrations
- More competitive shipping rates and provider-specific discounts
- Higher API calling speeds
- Doesn’t require strong development expertise
- Stellar documentation and support
- Single point of failure — if the integration is down, there’s no backup
- Extra monthly/annual fees on top of carrier rates
- APIs from third parties may not expose all available functionality from the carrier
Best for: Online marketplaces, international e-commerce platforms, fulfillment centers, retailers
Integration with shipping marketplaces
If you’re looking for freight transportation and full truckload shipping solutions rather than last-mile parcel delivery options, so-called shipping marketplaces can provide you with rate comparison tools for air, sea, and truck transportation from different freight forwarders and 3PLs.
Similar to shipping and tracking API platforms, such solutions grant access to an array of providers and have value-added features in tow such as:
- Real-time container shipping track and trace
- Comparison of rates from different providers
- Estimated arrival times
- Gate-in and gate-out updates
- Customs brokerage and assistance
- Cargo insurance options
- Hot-key access to a variety of freight forwarders and cargo companies
- Real-time track and trace data
- Improved supply chain visibility
- Competitive pricing
- Provide visibility into shipments dispatched through their portal only
- Many extra features not available via APIs
- Cover only part of the shipping process
Best for: Logistics providers, transportation companies, Tier 2-3 suppliers
How to approach shipping API integration
API integrations are intricate, since you need to ensure that the external data and interface fit well into your existing architecture. Likewise, APIs assume two-way communication. If there’s a bottleneck at either end, the setup won’t work. Finally, legacy systems may require additional customizations if they don’t currently support data exchanges in API-friendly formats.
When deciding on the optimal shipping API integration strategy, you have two core tasks:
- Assess your infrastructure. Map how internal data exchanges currently happen and which data storage/exchange formats you’re using. Then try to identify the missing elements — the information and functionality you need to manage your operations from one system, rather than many. Based on the above, decide on the scope of required features and start shopping around.
- Assess the scope of required customization. Off-the-shelf shipping APIs cater to a wide range of players, from logistics companies to DTC retailers. Their API functionality is thus tailored towards the primary group of users. But you may not need all of the features offered in the bundle. It’s always worth checking if a vendor allows you to “unbundle” their offering — for example, to only retrieve container tracking data but not use their shipment manifest generator.
Receive assistance with API technology selection and adoption
Ideally, at the end of the prep stage, you should know the following information:
- Resources — The type of data the API provides
- Communication methods — How the API accesses and creates new records
- Endpoints — How the API connects with other systems
- API calls — Caps on the number of requests per second/minute/day
- Sample request and response objects — How the API identifies inputs and outputs
Then assess each contender from the perspective of perceived gains. Will this type of integration improve staff efficiency? Decrease operational costs? What types of indirect gains can you obtain — for example, launching a new customer-facing offering?
At the end of the day, shipping and tracking APIs are meant to help your business improve your sourcing agility and visibility. If your choice doesn’t contribute to these two aims, consider the next best alternative.
Nearly every industry is pressed with shorter production and delivery cycles. Tracking APIs help you gain a better understanding of how goods move through different stages of the supply chain and what happens at each stage. By augmenting your supply chain management with more data, you can make better estimates and predictions around shipping times and costs. Plus, you can progressively modernize your IT stack without investing in long-term development of new system functionality from scratch.
Contact Intellias to learn more about selecting shipping API products and different approaches to adoption.