Over the last five years, shippers have appreciated the rise of digital e-forwarders and numerous startup investments promoting visibility as a key differentiator, pushing the incumbents to accelerate their electronic customer services. Industry portals and marketplaces have increased their abilities to aggregate data from multiple sources, whether carriers, ports or AIS vessel-positioning providers.
However, the sheer volume of data required to provide the necessary granular track-and-trace detail is becoming a challenge to manage and decipher. Moreover, visibility to supply chain goes beyond shipment track and trace. Despite easier access to data, it may get more complex.
What should shippers expect? Shipment track and trace has been embraced and developed by carriers and portals over the last 15 years. Certainly, the electronic EDI 315 message remains one of the most popular in the industry. Most ocean carriers now achieve a 90 percent to 97 percent container event completeness on the maritime leg, whereas they are struggling with only a 60 percent to 85 percent event completeness on the land leg. Precise container intermodal traceability and final delivery ETAs are still on the agenda of carriers’ development in support of their strategy toward integrated door-to-door transport solutions.
Improving visibility is not just a question of getting information from trading partners and carriers but internal information as well. The trends for outsourcing manufacturing and logistics make it a complex network of many partners to collect data from, not just a linear point-to-point information flow. The notion of data visibility varies from orders, inventory and transport events, and it must be managed across different transport modes from ocean containers to truckers.
The latest technology developments allow us to believe we can achieve a higher degree of visibility, whereas we are just at the beginning.
New Technology. What does new technology bring to supply chain visibility? The fast-growing use of sensors and tracking devices — part of the Internet Of Things (IoT) — from pallets to containers, trucks and trailers open real perspective to real-time data on inventory. One can see it as the extension of established technologies such as telematics, RFID tags, remote monitoring and GPS tracking. In fact, IoT devices bring the ability to share and process much more data from multiple sources and make it visible to each other, as each IoT device has its own internet address.
Cool chain logistics is getting transformed thanks to this higher transparency from carriers. Shipping lines are investing significantly in the smart container technology enhancing their reefer container fleet with remote monitoring management and opening data to BCOs shippers can control from the raw material warehouse to the retail store. The proliferation of data sources increase visibility but also generate the big data problem in the supply chain, leading to the necessity of analytics and defining the meaning of data in context.
The blockchain promise is high in terms of immutable record of data and transaction traceability. All investment, proof-of-concept and initiatives made so far tend to demonstrate the use case of building trust. It is certainly the beginning as security and scalability concerns still remain.
Making use of newly visible granular data requires the identification of flawed data. “Data is dirty and fragmented. It comes in different formats and languages, out of sequence and missing facts,” says Adam Compain of ClearMetal, who emphasizes the prerequisite of data cleansing and harmonization.
Regarding a cloud B2B enterprise network, some may say there are enough data to improve supply chains. The question is how to access and exchange the data, making data visible to the right party at the right time. There is a need for inter-enterprise visibility across trading partners. In this perspective, another technology trend is toward IT architecture that enables collaboration and the ability to see and consume information from different systems. Visibility solutions are focusing on this cloud-based architecture that enables the many-to-many communications. Trading partners can interact based on the same data, whether their personnel are using PCs or mobile devices.
These solutions are working on unifying data, process and building analytical models. So shippers who need to build a visibility solution using current and future IoT data need an information platform with an integration layer that enables trading partners and systems to exchange data through this B2B trading partner network despite their different levels of digitization.
These promising technologies need to be aligned. How can it be put into practice without adding more data issues? There must be a call for standardization and basic data-sharing governance.
Sensors create a new range of data elements that need to be formatted, canonicalized and eligible to certification. IoT data cannot be disconnected and must be blended into existing data flows, whether shipment tracking, documentary or financial information. Making data visible also raises the question of who provides permission for data access. Data governance, compliance and ownership generate a lot of discussion with unanswered questions. Blockchain solutions can be as good as the quality of the data they record and the capability in controlling data access.
There is a need to establish rules around data ownership and liability. The sharing, exchange and aggregation of tracking data raises conﬁdentiality and security issues. A logistics operator’s shipment data can be easily redistributed, sold or used by third parties without their knowledge or consent. Beyond status events, visibility also can provide in-transit cargo integrity monitoring. Such visibility and transparency can lead to increased claims and disputes. In some cases, being aware of an event can make you liable if you are not acting on it.
Shipment data visibility is not only a technological challenge. It also opens debate on data accuracy, ownership, standards and certiﬁcation, which requires stakeholders to agree to common standards.
Philippe Salles is the head of e-business, transport and supply chains at Drewry Supply Chain Advisors. He may be contacted via email at email@example.com.