Priya Rajagopalan - Chief Product OfficerPriya RajagopalanChief Product Officer, FourKites

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 necessarily address ocean freight tracking. 

But what are the right conversations to have? Ocean freight tracking is uniquely complex when you consider the vast number and types of delays that can happen, 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. The space has been seeing some dramatic innovation of late, and the landscape is changing in exciting ways. I’d like to set the stage by explaining what makes ocean tracking different from over-the-road tracking in an effort to shed some light on the sometimes-murky realm of ocean tracking. I’d also like to offer advice on how to cut through misinformation out there from vendors who would lead you to believe that ocean freight tracking is, well, a breeze. It’s anything but. 

What makes ocean different?

Ocean tracking poses unique challenges. First, it typically involves a dizzying number of parties: origin forwarders, steamship lines, dray providers, customs brokers, etc. All of those stakeholders are generating information and documents that must be synchronized across multiple organizations. 

What’s more, when it comes to tracking ocean freight, there is still a surprisingly high number of manual processes. Technology, where it does exist, is often outdated and/or proprietary, and the various systems are siloed and not talking to each other. In short, inefficiencies and challenges abound. The good news is there’s plenty of room for improvement with the right application of modern digital technologies.

With a complex situation like this, what is the modern transportation professional to do?

Focus on end-to-end connectivity, not mode or geo

First, let’s stipulate that a viable visibility solution should help you achieve door-to-door visibility. Otherwise, you are going to be back looking for additional pieces of the jigsaw puzzle soon after having invested in a solution that is not future-proof.

That means filling the knowledge gaps in ocean freight with data across the entire chain – e.g., satellite data, carrier and terminal data, data from every critical point along the route so that any given container can be located anywhere (including when it’s moved from the water to the road or the railways, or vice versa). Your visibility provider should be able to demonstrate a proven ability to fill in these gaps across your entire supply chain so that you can stop wondering where your containers are and when they will reach their destinations.

Actionable insights require accurate, real-time data

Don’t get hung up the various underlying technologies that might be employed to capture data. You need not understand the minutiae of API technologies (or any other). What matters is the accuracy and timeliness of the data. That’s the foundation for predictive ETAs and actionable insights.

And speaking of insights, all of this data from all of these different sources must then be analyzed by sophisticated machine learning algorithms, and presented via a multi-enterprise system that all parties can access. 

Once you land on the right platform that can provide access to all of your supply chain stakeholders to this single source of truth, here’s what you can expect: Timely event updates, exception-based alerts and sophisticated business intelligence capabilities to help you more efficiently manage your freight. You should be able to compare your carriers’ performance via a dynamic dashboard so that you can make better decisions for on-time delivery performance. You should be able to quickly view the performance of each of your routes, or get an in-depth analysis of detention and demurrage expenses so you can identify weak links or investigate questionable charges. Suddenly, you have more opportunities for optimization than you ever imagined possible.

Talk to the supply chain leaders who are doing it

While it’s no secret that ocean freight has earned a reputation for being conservative and slow to innovate, that is changing with industry leaders who are turning to digitization to modernize their supply chains. And visibility for ocean tracking is not an entirely new concept. It’s been around for close to 20 years, and there are shippers, carriers and technology providers who have real, extensive experience in solving the most complex freight tracking challenges on the planet. 

That’s why, in considering visibility providers, you should insist on detailed case studies of real-world implementations. Better yet, have conversations with actual customers who can tell you how good any solution truly is when you commit to it. There’s a lot at stake, from exorbitant detention and demurrage fees to the potentially devastating downstream impacts on, say, a manufacturer who might be holding up a vital production line because a critical piece of equipment is delayed in a port halfway around the world. 

It’s a complicated puzzle, but it’s solvable. At FourKites, we’ve spent years working collaboratively with the world’s leading shippers, carriers and partners to put the pieces together. So if you’re talking to a visibility provider who can’t get below the surface – who can’t talk about the nitty, gritty details of real-world implementations, and who can’t connect you with peers who’ve been through it – think carefully before diving in with them. 

If you’d like to go deeper in learning how to gain real-time, actionable visibility into ocean freight, we’d love to talk to you and connect you with our amazing community of supply chain leaders around the world.

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