APIs, love them or hate them, are here to stay. Even in logistics, a realm heavily committed to Electronic Data Interchanges, there is room for these tricky animals. So in an effort to bring our readers up to speed, let’s talk about what APIs are, who has them, whether you should consider, and what to do next.
What is an API?
Before we can speak more directly about Freight API’s, let’s talk about API’s in general (experts feel free to skip to the next section).
API stands for Application Programming Interface, a definition that doesn’t help explain its purpose at all. In simple terms, an API allows someone building software with an easy way to access another company’s services.
Let’s walk through a quick example.
Assume you wanted to create an application for your company that allows any employee to search airline prices and charge the cost to the company. One way you could do that would be to write code that connects to every airline’s website and pulls back the prices for a given flight request. That would be a lot of code.
Alternatively, let’s assume you decided to use a flight price API. Now instead of connecting to every website, you only connect once to the API and tell it “hey give me the price of a flight from San Diego to New York for all airlines” – and the API goes out and does all the heavy lifting of looking at each site, compiling the results, and then sends you a single response with all the data you need. Your code just got much simpler.
So the power of an API is allowing you to outsource programming tasks to other companies so that you can build applications faster.
Great – so what is a Freight API?
A freight API, therefore, is a way to allow you to hook into multiple shipping company’s freight rates quickly and easily. Currently, when you send freight requests out to bid, you likely do this manually (or hopefully are using a service like Boxton). With an API, you could build an application that works just like our airline example, where a user submits a request, and then the API goes out and searches different companies for the best rate.
So which Freight API’s should I be using?
So here’s some bad news – Freight APIs are still very much up and coming in the Supply Chain world, and as a result, there are a lot of fantastic companies that don’t currently have APIs. For those do-it-yourselfers, you are likely going to need to do a lot of digging before you find a solution that fits your needs, and as mentioned will likely need to consider both tech and non-tech starting points.
If you end goal, however is to build an application that could leverage a freight API, then start with a 4PL who can help you navigate the terrain. 4PLs, if you weren’t already aware, help companies implement new shipping relationships through technology and services across multiple companies. They are a necessary part of any company’s logistics setup, and you should be aware of them regardless of what your ultimate goal is.
Is it difficult to connect to a Freight API and what should I be worried about?
APIs are taking off in popularity because, in general, they are super easy to connect into. Anyone with minimal IT support can connect into any decent API without a massive amount of new code (that, after all, is the whole point of having an API). Having said that, before you jump in, you should be asking a few questions:
- What documentation do you have for your API – documentation is critical to these integrations, as companies often don’t have a ton of service support for issues, so make sure you have good resources to start from.
- What is your uptime? This is to say, are there many times where I can’t connect to your API. If you run time critical shipments, then ensuring you have reliable connectivity to the API is obviously important.
- What costs are associated? Many APIs are free, because the companies providing them make money by the services you are accessing, however not all operate in this method. Be sure you understand the fees up front, and think through what could happen if your use goes up significantly.
- How good is your customer service? You will hit issues, and you may find bugs from the API that are not your own fault. You should be aware of what support you’re getting. Disclaimer – don’t have super high expectations for API support, but also make sure you have some remedy for potential issues.
This sounds complicated!
It’s not, I swear, but you wouldn’t be crazy to be a bit overwhelmed by this topic. Here at Boxton, we work with APIs, forwarders, shippers, and all parties in between. We’d love to hear more about your goals and see if we can recommend the right solutions, even if it’s outside what we can offer.