On the surface, a chassis is a simple device – a steel frame with wheels for transporting ocean containers over the road.
However, since the ocean carriers and their terminal operations divested themselves of this equipment several years ago, efficient chassis availability has remained a challenge for many American shippers, even though there are an estimated 500,000 in circulation.
While large commercial chassis pools have evolved throughout the country, a relatively new, smaller entrant is offering shippers a different level of chassis service.
American Intermodal Management (AIM) was formed in 2016 in response to strong industry demand desiring alternatives for chassis provisioning and asset management across the United States.
“Since the financial crisis, there has been limited investment in chassis, yet the average age of the fleet is estimated to be somewhere between 15-20 years old,” explained Nathaniel Seeds, AIM’s CEO.
“Given the agitated state of the market, the age of the fleet in aggregate, we opined an opportunity, and with the relatively limited number of chassis providers, we figured there was enough room for a new chassis provider to bring high quality, technology-enabled, well-managed chassis to the market,” he said.
AIM views the chassis as a subtle, but integral part of the intermodal infrastructure in the United States. The company was founded by a small group of former APL executives and staff who spent their time at the ocean carrier devising the most efficient means to move containers from the ships, on and off the piers, and into the nation’s commerce. Chassis provisioning was always a major component to that.
In 2016, Ronald Widdows, former head of APL, gathered a team together to form AIM and take on the chassis service challenges. Widdows now serves as the AIM’s executive chairman.
AIM’s executives know firsthand that when a ship or train arrives at a marine terminal and there is not enough chassis to receive the containers that that’s a big problem for numerous stakeholders – the conveyance operator, facility operator, motor carrier and the cargo interests.
“So many stakeholders are impacted,” Seeds said. “Utlimately, service to the customer is greatly impacted by the quality and availability of chassis. AIM seeks to populate its organization with individuals who inherently understand the nature and diversity of these impacts.”
“The chassis should be the last thing you worry about,” Widdows told attendees at the Nov. 15, 2017 Apparel Importers Trade and Transportation Conference in New York. “A chassis should be the last thing you worry about.”
AIM started with a technology-driven business model and has acquired a fleet of newly built chassis.
“It was easy to think about how technology could extend the value proposition of the chassis from simply a trailer, which moves containers from A to B, to a supply chain data-gathering platform,” Seeds said. “Our business model really is about high-quality chassis with upgraded components like radial tires, LED lights, and anti-lock brakes, enabled with technology to extend the functionality of the chassis to include supply chain visibility, all managed with the mindset of a service-oriented network solutions provider.”
He added that this service appeals to an array of customers. “For some, that the chassis is new with good tires is enough. For others, it’s all about the data and the insight that can be gained. Still, others like to have certainty around availability and quality,” he said, “We strive to offer a compelling product to a wide range of customers each with their own priorities.”
Widdows attributed this innate understanding of customer dynamics surrounding chassis management to AIM’s “APL DNA.” He added that AIM “works around the barriers that have been developed, largely the outcome of the carriers exit from chassis provisioning.”
However, the highly concentrated chassis provisioning industry meant that AIM had to work extra hard to carve out its place in the business.
First, the company required space to house its chassis near a major a port complex. It chose the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to get its start.
“AIM knew early on that because we operate outside the pool of pools and, therefore, cannot easily keep inventory at the marine terminals, we needed to somehow still be close to the action,” Seeds said. “We use only a small parcel, starting with only 1.5 acres. The ports generally have small plots of land available here and there that may be available for short-term use. We happened to find a spot right in the middle of the port (next to Yusen Terminals at the Port of Los Angeles) and it’s worked out very well for us.”
By the end of 2017, AIM had more than 4,000 chassis deployed in its fleet. This year, it plans to double its chassis fleet and spread those assets to several new port locations in the South Atlantic, Texas and the Northeast.
AIM acquires its chassis from several manufacturers. These companies build these chassis based on subtle design changes presented by AIM, such as placement of lights and slight structural modifications to make the chassis hold up better to the constant wear and tear that they endure during use.
However, it’s the technology that AIM believes is the clear differentiator of its service. “We rely on it as the asset manager to improve the efficiency of our pool management,” Seeds said.
“With GPS, we actually have a digital odometer for each chassis, so we can leverage that information to be proactive on maintenance and inspection programs, instead of reactively responding to equipment failure,” he said. “We’ve only scratched the surface of the value of the data, and more importantly the insight, derived from the chassis-based event data. For example, for a single customer today, we can compare container dwell times across all warehouses they use served by AIM chassis. We can also compare terminal velocity across multiple terminals and even different ports, essentially at the click of a mouse.”
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