The freight industry is one of many intricacies and complex inner workings. Think about it, in a world where we have various modes of transport, locations, and companies that provide shipping services, for shippers, there is no one option that anchors the industry. By design, it’s an industry filled with moving pieces, and these cogs in the machine are subject to change every year.
In fact, in the middle of the 20th century, the freight industry upped its complexity, creating the need for intermediaries. We saw the birth of freight brokers, freight advancers, and 3PLs (third-party logistics companies). Many of these middlemen strived to become the standard or one-stop-shop of the industry, but nothing of that sort happened.
Today, navigating the quagmire that is the freight industry can be overwhelming. Everyone claims to know the ‘best option’ or have the ‘most skillful and cost-efficient freighters’ and trying to find any sort of standard can be perplexing. From freight insurance, the type of shipping (LTL, PTL, TL, etc.), and intermediaries, there exists a massive range of options to choose from.
But alas, outside of government regulation, within the industry there do exist a few standards. One such is freight class, which is probably why you landed here today. If you’re wondering exactly what freight class means, then know the information provided below is the standard of the industry.
What does freight class mean?
Freight classes were designed to standardize different types of cargo across the industry. The NMFTA (National Motor Freight Traffic Association) created guidelines that help define freight’s specific class. The parameters set forth by the NMFTA are now considered to be the standard of the industry and all those who operate within the world use them.
In short: freight class means a type of cargo has been given certain characteristics that dictate how much it costs to transport them. An extremely durable and easy-to-handle material will have a freight class that differs from say, glass, which can be easily damaged in the transportation process.
The NMFC has a total of 18 classes that can be given to a certain cargo. These classes each have a wide range of characteristics that cover a wide range of different cargo, typically using an equation for assignment (we’ll touch more on this later). Furthermore, there’s usually a corresponding class given to freight that is traveling in less than truckload (LTL) shipments. Lastly, the class assigned to a freight will determine tariffs, ultimately solidifying the price of the entire shipment.
By using freight classes, carriers, shippers, freight brokers, freight forwarders, third-party logistics companies, and all intermediaries are able to gauge the cost of shipment. From class 500 being the most expensive, to class 50 being the least, these classes provide a standardized point of reference for shipping costs.
Is it important?
Freight class is certainly important. As we mentioned, first and foremost it provides a value for shipping. Secondly, especially when it comes to LTL, it also signifies to carriers how to handle the materials on board. An LTL carrier will typically expend their efforts to ensure that a truck is made up of the same freight class, or at least similar ones. You wouldn’t want your delicate glassware traveling in the same truck that’s hauling tons of bricks, would you?
Being that freight class is used to dictate pricing, if you’re unsure of what your class is, or if you claim the wrong one when your rectify your invoice, it’s likely you’ll see an adjustment in the total price—usually not in your favor. Understanding your freight class is to know the price of your shipment and how difficult or easy it is to transport.
A great attribute of having standardized weight classifications is that a shipper is able to maintain consistency in pricing. Being that the industry is multifaceted, having a ‘general’ understanding of your own shipping costs creates some order out of entropy.
How is it Calculated?
Before you choose a freight class in accordance with your cargo, it’s important to note how the National Motor Freight Traffic Association calculates their classifications. The calculation is typically based on four variables: physicality (weight, density, length, height, value), ease of handling, liability, and how easily it can be stored. We’ll explain.
Density, Value, Dimensions
When you look at class 50 (we’ll break these down), you see that the classification requires the freight to weigh 50 pounds per cubic foot. Classifications like 92.5 and 70 require the density to be one of 15, 10.5, or 5, and the pounds per cubic foot to be 1. A freight that has a density characteristic lower than 1 per cubic foot is classified as 500, and is the most expensive type of freight classification on the roster.
If you’re a shipper, then we probably don’t need to explain density to you. For those of you that don’t understand exactly what we’re saying, below is the equation used for density.
The Freight Class Density Equation
D = W/V
Your total volume is calculated by length X width X length/1728 (the reason it’s 1728 is that there are that many cubic inches in a cubic foot). Your total weight is calculated in pounds. By using this equation, your freight will then have a density value, and this characteristic will be one of the placing factors of the NMFTA classification.
Freight typically lives well in spaces that are completely open. You may roll your eyes at this, but think boats, trucks, and trains. However, with that being said, there are certain materials that cannot be transported alongside each other. There are also others that need special handling. What if the freight is too heavy? What if it’s open-topped, meaning you can’t stack it? What if it’s hazardous? Then it requires a different method of storing and handling. Thus, within a given NMFTA classification, how well a certain cargo stores in a space is a key component.
How easy is it to move around the pieces of your cargo? Does the carrier require additional machinery or experts trained in moving hazardous products? Are the contents fragile enough that additional help, packaging, and attention are needed to guarantee their safety during transit? By assessing and identifying the degree of difficulty in which it takes to handle a given cargo, this too is factored into the classification. It shouldn’t be a surprise that bricks garner a less expensive classification than say, televisions.
What is the probability that a given freight is damaged or stolen along the way? Is the cargo perishable (think fruit and produce)? How about explosive? These are questions that factor into the liability portion of the freight classification calculation. By identifying the liability of a given cargo (always added with density), then it further goes to dictate how difficult it’s going to be for a freight carrier to transport it.
These are the four different components factored into the freight classification calculation. By evaluating each one, the cargo is assigned one of the 18 classifications. But what exactly are those classifications?
If you want to see exactly where these classifications came from, head over to the National Motor Freight Traffic Association’s website. They’re listed there, as well as additional information on the process. However, we’ve compiled an overview and summary of each classification. If you’re currently trying to understand your own cargo’s classification, hopefully, this summary points you in the right direction.
This classification is known as ‘clean freight’ and is the most inexpensive type of freight to transport.
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 50 pounds
- This type of freight usually fits on the standard 48”x48” pallet and is extremely durable.
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 35-50 pounds
- Some common examples from 55 are bricks, hardwood flooring, hardwood, cement, and mortar
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 30-35 pounds
- For class 60, think car parts and accessories
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 22.5-30 pounds
- This again covers car parts and accessories, however, due to the density, also covers bottle beverages, books in boxes, and other freight of this sort
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 15-22.5 pounds
- Class 70 sees a lot of engines, car parts, car accessories, and food items (produce)
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 13.5 to 15 pounds
- This freight class has common examples like tires, bathroom materials, and bathroom fixtures
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 12-13.5 pounds
- Think most ‘economical’ machinery and kitchen pieces
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 10.5-12 pounds
- In Class 92.5 we see computers, appliances, and monitors. This is where the expensiveness of the class begins to become more apparent, as many of these items can be quite fragile.
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 9-10.5 pounds
- Here we see caskets, cases (often wine), canvas, boat and car covers, towels, etc.
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 8-9 pounds
- Class 110 usually hosts construction tools, cabinets, frames, and artwork
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 7-8 pounds
- Usually, this class is composed primarily of home appliances
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 6-7 pounds
- As you could imagine from the weight value, now we’re moving towards bigger materials. Sheet metal, large auto parts, and bookcases are covered by Class 150
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 5-6 pounds
- In Class 175 we see couches, large pieces of furniture, and massive clothing racks
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 4-5 pounds
- Sheet metal, aircraft parts, extremely large pieces of aluminum, bed frames and mattresses are all included in Class 200
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 3-4 pounds
- Again, mattresses and box springs, bamboo furniture, highly fragile TVs and monitors
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 2-3 pounds
- Here we see cabinetry, all sorts of furniture (tables, chairs, coffee tables)
Weight Per Cubic Foot: 1-2 pounds
- Think items like deer antlers, which take up massive amounts of space but don’t fill it out
Weight Per Cubic Foot: Less than 1 pound
- This is the most expensive freight class, with items like ping pong balls being part of its category
Deciphering Freight Class
Now that you know what freight class means and have an overview of the different classifications, you may find yourself wondering: do I calculate my own? The answer here is yes, as it’s up to the shipper to assign their cargo with a certain freight classification. With that being said, that’s why it’s paramount that shippers understand the full range of freight classifications, how the NMFTA calculates them, and how they apply to the type of cargo they want to be shipped.
There is nothing worse than assigning your freight a certain classification when in reality it’s something different. In one scenario, the shipper is going to have to spend more money once the corrections have been made to the invoice. In another scenario, the shipper paid too much for the transport, which becomes hard to rectify once the payments have been made (shippers can use a certain class for a long period of time, only ever discovering that they were making a mistake once countless shipments have gone out).
When it comes to freight class, there exists a host of tools—even software—that makes calculating and classifying your cargo simple. Still, it’s imperative that you consult your carrier, freight broker, freight forwarder, or whoever you’re working with, and ask them to look over your freight classification to ensure that it’s the correct one. There are times where a freight can find itself in limbo between two classifications and sometimes it takes an expert, or someone experienced to place it.
Lastly, freight classifications are something to be respected within the industry, as they create order out of what otherwise would be company-specific evaluations. By using them as a focal point, you’re always going to have an idea of what you should be paying for shipping, and what it takes to move your product from point A to point B.