True supply chain visibility remains "the impossible dream" for shippers. That's because the complexity and global nature of today's supply chains make it difficult to obtain complete, accurate, and timely shipment data. An initiative launched by INTTRA, an e-commerce platform for managing ocean shipping transactions, could help resolve the problem by improving the quality of the information ocean carriers provide to their customers.
The company's information quality initiative includes several elements: data quality measurements; a shipment-data tracking and analysis system for shippers; consulting services to help ocean carriers improve their data quality; and a collaboration with the international data standards organization GS1 US.
INTTRA says it is well-positioned to improve supply chain data quality. The company, which counts more than 50 ocean carriers and consolidators as members, has visibility into bookings, documentation, and shipping transactions for about 35 percent of the world's container traffic. That translates into approximately 1.5 million messages a day, according to Chief Marketing Officer Sandra Moran.
DATA FOR SHIPPERS, CARRIERS
The first element of the information quality initiative establishes measurements for the completeness, accuracy, and timeliness of shipment information—something that previously did not exist, Moran said in an interview. That required defining a standard set of messages marking key milestones for every container shipment. Initially, there are six: gate in, container load, vessel depart, vessel arrive, container unload, and gate out. If a carrier provides all six data points through INTTRA, the container shipment information is then considered "complete." (More events, such as transshipments and intermodal moves, may eventually be added.)
INTTRA measures accuracy by comparing the six container lifecycle events against the transportation booking. Timeliness is measured by assessing whether data about the six container events are submitted in the correct chronological order. In the future, the program may also measure how quickly carriers provide information following a milestone, said Kristin Celecki, director of product marketing, visibility solutions.
Participating carriers receive a monthly scorecard that shows how well they've performed on all three counts and measures them against their own previous performance and that of all carriers in the program. Since the program was launched in September 2013, the number of "complete" shipments for all participating carriers has improved by 12 percent, according to INTTRA.
Another element of the initiative, the cloud-based Insights Platform for Visibility, lets INTTRA customers access, analyze, and respond to container event data. This makes shipment information available to shippers of all sizes, not just big companies with sophisticated tracking systems, Moran said.
A third element identifies which event data are missing, and from where. INTTRA drills down not just by carrier but also by country, port, and even individual container terminals to help identify the source of a data problem, Moran said. The company can use that information to help participating carriers improve their data quality.
"For example, when we look at vessel departures ... if we see one carrier with significantly higher data quality that is operating from the same terminal as a carrier with bad quality, we can help assess where the problem lies," Moran said. "It could be that the carrier's system isn't able to match information to the shipment properly."
If INTTRA's database is representative of overall information quality throughout the container shipping industry, then an estimated 17 million shipments per year lack complete tracking information, Moran said.
Equally disturbing is INTTRA's finding that two of the world's most important trading partners—the United States and China—are among the worst in providing complete shipment data.
In March, INTTRA released a list of the countries scoring the best and worst in information quality, measured by completeness of container milestone data. The five best (in descending order) were: Hong Kong, Chile, Thailand, Canada, and Australia. The worst were China, Turkey, the United States, South Korea, and India. Overall, INTTRA said, the five best-scoring countries for information quality represent 5 percent of total incomplete shipments measured under its information quality program, while the five worst countries represent 47 percent of the volume of total incomplete shipments the technology firm reviewed.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
Why is it so hard for shippers to get seemingly basic information—complete, accurate, and in chronological order—from ocean carriers? One reason is that the information is created and shared in a wide range of formats and methods, including manually. Another reason, Moran said, is that the carriers aren't generating most of the event data; rather, they receive information—often out of sequence—from ports, terminal operators, and other sources around the world and pass it on to customers, often via a third party. "Many carriers don't have a single system for gathering and delivering that data, which itself comes from many systems," she said.
Providing better-quality ocean shipment information could help companies more accurately assess supply chain performance, understand total landed costs, drive logistical improvements, and take excess inventory out of their supply chains, Moran said. But, she added, "You can't do all that until the data is there ... it has to be available faster and more predictably."
Achieving that lofty goal requires consistency in when and how information is shared. On that count, INTTRA is collaborating with the international data standards organization GS1 US to develop and implement guidelines for the automated formatting and exchanging of containerized shipping data. The GS1 US Logistics Workgroup, which INTTRA recently joined, will develop automated processes, a standard set of container delivery events, and targets for data transmission timeliness. The group will also work on further definition of the shipment data to be exchanged and on best practices documentation.
Electronic data interchange (EDI) messages that describe a shipment's status do exist, but they don't meet shippers' information needs, Moran said. "EDI is a data standard, but it doesn't have business process guidelines. ... Our collaboration with GS1 is about the circumstances around getting that data—when that data should be exchanged and when after an actual event companies should receive related data."