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Oceans cover about three-quarters of our planet, and sea-borne trade accounts for about 90% of all trade around the world. So, just about any meaningful conversation about real-time supply chain visibility must address shipping container tracking.

But what are the right conversations to have? International tracking is uniquely complex when you consider the vast number and types of delays that can happen, such as rolled cargo, lengthy stops and complicated regulatory terrain. What’s more, the reality is that for decades, ocean freight visibility has been hampered by antiquated technology.

That makes it all the more critical to ask the right questions when evaluating real-time visibility solutions. While the landscape of digital tools is improving, be wary of anyone who would lead you to believe that tracking sea cargo is, well, a breeze. It’s anything but.

The Challenges of Tracking Ocean Shipments

Data silos & multimodal disconnects

Simply having a visibility solution does not mean that it will provide the necessary qualities to make it valuable. For example, some only offer tracking for one mode or don’t provide connections for the multimodal journey. And with precise inventory management being more important than ever, teams need to have comprehensive, end-to-end solutions that provide visibility down to the order and SKU level — granular insights to know exactly what inventory is making it to the destination on time and what is not.

Unusable data

Similarly, having more data does not necessarily put you in a better position. Digitization is a journey for most organizations. However, once the data is digital, it still might be incomplete, inaccurate, or just plain stale, making it difficult to use in an actionable way. That’s why your visibility solution needs to offer comprehensive, configurable analytics by the provider, region, route, product, division and more.

With these insights, you can begin improving carrier performance, supplier performance, and, ultimately, the supply chain network’s performance. Such analysis is critical because as you begin to look deep, you will see interesting anomalies such as Carrier A, which performs well on route one but is the least good on route five. After all, some carriers have more expertise running certain lanes and ports than others. Similarly, forwarders have variability in their performance, which can cause delight or a problem depending on whether your needs match their strengths or weak spots.

Visibility at the port, terminal and beyond

Terminals are typically a black hole of data for shippers, obfuscating when cargo makes it to the next leg of its journey. Advanced visibility solutions with terminal intelligence can give shippers deeper visibility into global terminals, connecting each leg of the journey for a complete picture of international freight. Some solutions retrieve data from a single source, such as ocean carriers’ websites. This is a fine start, but it won’t paint a complete picture. More advanced solutions use many sources of information, including the port terminals directly. With this added visibility, shippers, BCOs and freight forwarders will reduce dwell, missed transshipment ports and fines and fees.

Handoffs can also create a black hole of data — which is especially concerning given that these handoffs often are where delays or bottlenecks occur. Since shippers typically use more than one mode to transport goods, an advanced ocean visibility solution that connects each leg of the supply chain journey in a single platform is a must-have — whether you use rail, truckload, or drayage. End-to-end multimodal visibility makes it easier to mitigate issues before those problems work their way upstream or downstream in your supply chain.

What to Look for in an International Freight Tracking Solution

To overcome these challenges and drive better supply chain outcomes, leading organizations are investing in next-generation ocean visibility solutions. But not all solutions are created equal — here are some of the key capabilities to look for:

Door-to-Door Visibility: A viable ocean freight visibility system should provide visibility from the supplier’s door, across the ocean, to the destination warehouse or store. Look for solutions that combine data from multiple, layered sources: satellites, carriers, terminals, and more to provide a complete picture.

AI-Driven Insights: With the massive volume of shipment, order, and SKU data flowing through global supply chains, artificial intelligence is a must to turn that data into actionable insights. AI can help identify risks, optimize routes, and drive process efficiencies.

Self-Service & Collaboration: An effective visibility solution democratizes data, providing shipment, order and SKU details to stakeholders across the organization in an intuitive, self-service manner. It should also facilitate easy, secure collaboration with external partners.

Real-Time, Accurate Data: Minimal information latency and high accuracy are critical to ensure all stakeholders are working off the same information. Real-time data enables faster identification of potential delays or disruptions.

The Real-World Impact of Ocean Visibility

Consider Barilla, the world’s largest pasta producer. With 30 production sites and over 2,000 weekly ocean and road shipments spanning 120 countries, Barilla faced significant challenges tracking goods and providing customers with accurate arrival times. By implementing FourKites’ real-time visibility platform, Barilla now has insight into 80% of its shipments, enabling them to identify disruptions early, streamline communication with carriers, and keep customers informed.

“FourKites breaks down silos between systems and teams,” says Davide Busato, Barilla’s Logistic Competence Center Innovation Project Manager. “We can generate insights, manage exceptions proactively, and improve the customer experience.”

The proof is in the pasta —  since using FourKites, Barilla has reduced time spent tracking shipments, cut transportation costs and fines, and strengthened partner relationships.

A Guide to Using Ocean Visibility

With the right ocean visibility capabilities in place, organizations can drive value in three key areas:

1. Pre-Shipment Management

International shipping is not a one-person job, or even a one-organization job. Most of the activity is executed outside the enterprise by an ever-changing cast of providers.

Successful management requires access to a variety of relevant information and an exception management process that ensures an order seamlessly blends with a shipment while moving through a series of locations and processes. Any latency in realizing network changes (like vessel delays) or collaborating with execution partners can jeopardize material availability.

Multiple external parties need timely, accurate information to ensure delays and dwell in the process are minimized. Every shipment starts with an order and most of the organization talks with an order and SKU vocabulary. Investing order details and monitoring the order lifecycle is critical to a successful start.

Expedited shipping costs can cripple profit margins. A detailed understanding of the execution lifecycle can enable better risk/cost expedite decisions.

2. Execution Monitoring

Accurate vessel location tracking and early ETA risk identification are only part of the end-to-end lifecycle. The job is not done until the material is at its final destination, ready to be consumed by the enterprise or sold to a customer.

Organizations that are dependent on timely material arrival for manufacturing operations or sales promotions benefit from consistently receiving accurate information, including ETA risk alerts. Granular, real-time transit monitoring enables vessel and port supply chain events to trigger financial transactions, saving hours or even days of delay.

Monitoring the entire door-to-door journey through the port minimizes poor handoffs and dwell time, freeing up working capital from being tied up in transit.

3. Performance Analytics

Anyone can successfully execute an international shipment once. Doing so consistently and efficiently, and ensuring that the organization understands the constraints of international material movements, requires detailed performance analytics.

If a dashboard is not receiving real-time updates from multiple network sources, then it is simply a “report”. True operational dashboards enable rapid decision-making and are the lifeblood of operations orchestration.

Understanding averages between endpoints is only a starting point. Understanding statistical variability, how much of a journey is dwell vs. movement, and identifying consistent network and partner bottlenecks help drive out costs.

The Visibility You Need

In summary, to gain a true competitive advantage from your international shipping operations, look for an ocean visibility solution that provides:

  • Complete order and shipment end-to-end lifecycle management, not just port-to-port tracking
  • AI-driven ETA projections and minimal transactional latency for real-time insights
  • Relevant information that frontline teams can use to minimize manual communication while facilitating collaboration

With these capabilities, your organization can more effectively navigate the complexities of ocean shipping to reduce costs, improve on-time delivery performance, and enhance the customer experience through pre-shipment management, execution and performance review.

Want to learn more? Schedule a demo today.

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