The shipping industry is one with unique intricacies and complexities. Every day, trailers are loaded with tons of shipments – a combination of delicate items next to bulkier ones. These shipments often belong to small business owners who do not need full truckloads but only a portion of the space. In such cases, relying on guesstimates becomes risky as several questions are left unanswered – what is the exact shipping cost for a shipment? Will a shipment with glass items be safe against a pallet of bricks? Which shipments contain liable substances and need special care? Standardizing shipments through freight class is the only way to bring uniformity to the fragmented shipping landscape.

What is a Freight Class?

As established by the National Motor Freight Traffic Association (NMFTA) , freight class refers to the system of identifying the "transportability" of commodities within the shipping industry. This grouping system also helps in standardizing Less-Than-(truck)Load (LTL) shipments to ensure shippers get an unbiased price. Less than truckload or less than load shipping pertains to small quantities of freight, generally between 150 pounds (individual parcels) and 15,000 pounds (full truckloads). The NMFTA categorizes freight into 18 classes (coded 50 to 500) based on density, handling, liability and stability. The general rule of thumb for calculating shipping costs is the lower the freight class, the lower the price and vice-versa. For instance – steel rods and pipes have a lower freight class classification compared to glass (which requires special care to avoid damage).

What is the Purpose of Freight Class?

On its surface, freight class communicates how easy or challenging it is to ship a commodity safely from its origin to its destination. From a bird's eye view, the shipping industry is made of constantly moving pieces through different modes of transport, companies, and locations. The cogs in the machine are subject to change as the industry speedily evolves, now dissected into intermediaries such as freight advancers, brokers, third-party logistics companies (3PLs). etc. Navigating such a morass can be overwhelming without shipping standards to refer to. The freight class grouping system acts as a junction where all the variable elements of the shipping industry meet. No two shipments are identical, even those packed in a standardized pallet. For instance – a pallet of bricks will be considerably heavier than a pallet of pillows. Then there are the size, danger, and liability factors to consider – shipments are smaller or larger than others, and some need special care to avoid damage, while are at risk of being stolen along the way. The freight class system makes room for each factor to ensure every shipment receives the care it needs to reach the destination safely. Every shipment passes through various parties before reaching the end consumer. These include warehouse staff, over-the-road carriers, freight forwarders, etc. With the help of the freight class system, each party knows exactly how to price their puzzle piece. This eliminates confusion. Finally, the party shipping the freight gets an accurate shipping cost estimate. To avoid reclassing hassles, getting the shipment's freight class correct is crucial.

How is Freight Class Calculated?

In general, there are two ways to calculate freight class – the manual and the automatic method. The manual process involves four steps – Step 1 The first step is to weigh the shipment correctly. A National Type Evaluation Program (NTEP)-certified weight machine or forklift generally offers the most accurate results. It is essential that the weight be accurate as it is later used to determine shipment density.

Step 2 This step involves measuring the shipment’s dimensions. For shipments sitting on a pallet, the extremes are measured (length and width). Accurate results are only achieved when the commodities do not overhang from the pallet. Overhanging freight not only leads to price adjustments in the future but also is less secure during transit. Step 3 Density is a vital component of freight classification. However, the cubic feet is determined first after dividing the product of shipment dimensions (LxBxH) by 1,728 (since a cubic foot contains 1,728 inches). Density is then calculated by dividing the parcel’s weight by the cubic feet.

Step 4 Though density alone gives a nearly clear picture of the shipment's freight class, the only way to be sure is to refer to the NMFTA's list. This is because other factors (besides density) are also considered, such as ease of handling, stowability, value, and liability. For instance – a shipment with higher density will still receive a high freight class if it is challenging to handle or highly liable.

In the case of an online automatic calculator, the process becomes simpler – Step 1 – Check the website for a LTL freight classification tool or calculator. Step 2 – Choose the shipment category– building sheet metal, automotive parts, furniture, apparel, etc. Step 3 – Enter the shipment’s weight (in pounds) and dimensions (length, breadth, height). A standard pallet measures 48 inches length-wise and 40 inches width-wise. Step 4 – The tool automatically displays the respective freight class number the shipment belongs to.

How is Freight Class Determined?

In general, four main factors help determine the freight class to which each commodity belongs. These include –

  • Density of the Shipment Though not all commodities' freight class depends upon density, some are exclusively density-based. This factor is calculated by dividing the total cubic feet of the shipment by its total weight (in pounds). The density is determined in pounds per cubic foot. Typically, the higher the shipment's density, the lower its freight class and shipping cost. Though this may seem counterproductive on the surface, the logic follows the fact that low-density shipments (despite heavy weight) take up less space. This allows carriers to accommodate a greater number of shipments into the same truck, ultimately reducing the cost for individual shipments.

  • Stowability of the Shipment The next factor is the ease with which a shipment may be transported or stowed with related items. Some items have a uniform shape and can easily fit along with other items in the freight. Others have non-uniform dimensions or protrusions that make it challenging to arrange shipment around them. Moreover, shipments must have uniform surfaces for easy load-bearing and freight stacking. Similarly, some shipments contain hazardous substances that cannot be shipped along with non-hazardous items. The thumb rule here is that the greater the stowability of the shipment, the lower its freight class, and shipping cost.

  • Ease of Handling Generally, every shipment must travel through various distribution units and checkpoints before reaching its destination. Robotic arms and other machines can load and unload shipments in most cases. However, some can be challenging to handle owing to strange dimensions, heavy weight, hazards, etc. Such shipments require special care, right from loading to unloading and delivery. Carriers generally categorize them under a high freight class, increasing the overall shipping cost.

  • Liability of the Shipment Shipment liability refers to the likelihood or probability of a shipment being damaged or stolen. Even shipments that pose a potential threat to other packages in their proximity are considered to be liable. Such shipments are also difficult to transport and need special care. Perishable items and inflammable or combustible shipments are highly liable and categorized as a high freight class. Shipping them will naturally increase the overall charges.

What Are Freight Classes Categorized?

In total, the NMFTA categorizes freight into 18 different classes, ranging from code 50 to 500. Each freight class includes commodities based on density, stowability, ease of handling, and liability. Freight costs increase with each freight class. Class Name Commodities Included Weight Per Cubic Foot (Range)

What is a True Density-Based Class?

For shipments that are easy to stow, pose no major handling issues, and are sparingly liable, the freight class is exclusively determined via density – the weight of the shipment relative to its size. Density-based shipments are becoming popular because shipping capacity is decreasing as demand increases. Freight carriers look for shipments that occupy less space or those with higher densities. Common items that are assigned their freight class based on density include auto parts, brick pallets, and crated machinery, among others. Accurately calculate shipment density to get the best possible quote.

  • The first step is to identify whether or not the shipment falls under a true density-based freight class. The manufacturer of goods may help determine the shipment class, or you can check the NMFC code corresponding to the shipment.
  • Next, measure the shipment's weight and size. Shippers can experiment with different packaging containers to ensure the shipment is packed as tightly as possible without risking damage. The measurements of the outer packaging (box) are taken into account.
  • Then measure density. The same is calculated by multiplying shipment measurements (LxWxH) and dividing the answer by 1,728 (cubic inches per foot). This gives the cubic feet of the shipment. Finally, the shipment’s weight is divided by its cubic feet to derive density.
  • The accurate density obtained can be used while quoting to get the best shipping price.

How Freight Class Impacts Shipping Costs

Based on the “Fantastic Four” determinants of freight class, it is clear that carriers can offer better shipping rates for shipments – With higher density That are easy to stow That are easy to handle That are not liable Commodities that meet this criteria are given a low freight class classification and attract low shipping costs per pound. Shipments with low density that are challenging to arrange and handle, while being susceptible to damage are assigned a higher freight class. They also attract higher shipping costs. For instance – a pallet that is 5x5 in size will occupy the same space, whether its contents weigh 500 pounds or 50 pounds. In each case, the pallet will be assigned the same freight class (other factors remaining neutral). So, the freight cost will be the same in each case.

How 3PLs Use Freight Class to Reduce Shipping Costs

Also known as third-party logistics services, 3PLs take care of specific and, sometimes, all aspects of shipping operations. Through retail order automation, 3PLs enable ecommerce merchants to apply creative ways of reducing shipping costs. One such technique is making the most of the shipment’s freight class. The innovative solutions 3PLs offer may vary on a case-to-case basis. Freight costs decrease with higher density. If a shipment offers room for inflating density so that its density bumps up to the next lowest class, 3PLs will take advantage. The density or space occupied by the shipment can be manipulated through additional fillers and stuffing, thereby lowering shipping costs. Another innovative solution 3PLs offer to make the most of freight class classifications is to rethink packaging. Even shipments that are challenging to handle and prone to damage can become easy to handle and stow with the right packaging. For instance – breaking down large shipments into smaller units, using pallets for heavy items, and packing in flat-surface containers that are easily stackable. This can lower freight class, thereby shipping rates.

NMFC Code vs. Freight Class: What’s the Difference?

Every commodity or shipment comes with its NMFC code and freight class. Though it is tempting to treat both as one and the same, there is a key difference. While NMFC code refers to different categories within the 18 freight classes, freight class in itself represents a specific bracket or category of commodities. For instance – steel sheets have an NMFC code of 36080 while the same for brick pallets is 32370. Though both commodities have the same freight class 50, their NMFC codes differ. Freight class offers carriers a general idea of a shipment’s transportability. It is the NMFC code number that reveals the exact nature of the shipment, thereby facilitating a more accurate quote. The NMFTA database provides every commodity’s NMFC codes and additional details.

What Happens if I Provide the Incorrect Freight Class?

LTL shipping carriers are extremely strict when it comes to determining the accurate freight class of shipments. Inaccurate freight class can either result from choosing the wrong NMFC code or mistakes in calculating the shipment's weight and density. While it may seem like no big deal, even a few pounds here and there can affect shipping costs and pose a risk for accidents. If trucks are overloaded and an accident occurs as a result, a shipper with inaccurate freight class or underreported weight may receive a reduced claim amount. If a shipment's weight, size, or freight class is incorrectly represented early on, carriers reweigh the shipment to re-class it correctly. This is a costly ordeal that the shipper must ultimately bear.

Ways to Determine Freight Class Accurately

Additional inspection can be avoided simply by calculating freight class accurately. It starts with weighing and measuring the shipment carefully. Extremities must be considered, and values close to the nearest inch must be calculated. Calculating density should not pose a problem as long as the other values are correct. Finally, class determination must occur by considering the category that the shipment most closely matches. For instance – furniture and not lumber. Re-classification in case of misrepresentation is often costlier than the original shipment price. This makes careful calculation mandatory.