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Commentary: Ocean freight data, automation the next big thing

Enhanced ocean freight visibility has multiple potential benefits

The Port of Los Angeles’ Port Optimizer is designed to improve visibility and efficiency. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

At American Shipper’s Global Trade Tech Summit on Sept. 16, keynote speaker Gene Seroka, Port of Los Angeles executive director, spoke of the need for digital transformation in the industry, specifically equating this to “visibility, reliability and efficiency” in ocean freight. Seroka detailed the Port of LA’s Port Optimizer, a platform co-created with GE Transportation in 2016 for receiving data from participating carriers and federal agencies and providing terminal and container updates to the port community. By nature, such a platform is most valuable when there is widespread adoption by the logistics companies, carriers and beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) of the port. It was created to make more informed members of the entire supply chain that uses ocean freight.

The potential benefits to developing ocean freight visibility are numerous. Better analytics and planning mean increased efficiency, the ability to make adjustments faster due to monitoring, less detention and demurrage costs, better throughput, improved delivery performance, and better reliability, which are in turn offered to the customers of the logistics companies. Increased visibility also cultivates robustness in unforeseen circumstances (for example in the market volatility of 2020) as the structure of analytics is already in place for companies to adapt quickly.

Ocean freight is the mode of transportation within the global economy with by far the most volume, and it is doing well considering the downturn in the global economy. It has been able to withstand volatility better than airfreight, whose rates are currently affected by the decrease in capacity from canceled commercial flights. As the global retail trade is growing, demand for low-cost shipping is bringing growth to the ocean freight industry.

In recent years, several logistics software providers in the freight visibility space have been working to expand their portfolios to ocean visibility, and their customers are among the most informed in the industry. In 2017, the technology giant Trimble acquired 10-4 Systems, which focused on real-time visibility across all modes of transportation for shippers, carriers and logistics companies, and the system became Trimble’s visibility solutions available today. FourKites, which has made a name for itself for its logistics technology since the company’s beginning in 2014, partnered in 2019 with Ocean Insights for their advanced tracking capabilities, creating a solution for end-to-end visibility. With a handful of notable awards, project44’s Advanced Visibility Platform (TM) is a leading solution in visibility as a whole, including ocean, port and terminal.

These companies mentioned previously are only the start of filling the technology needs of the ocean freight sector, with several new companies coming to market just recently. For logistics companies and freight forwarders looking to leverage application programming interfaces (APIs) for their ocean freight data, there is a new breed of technology provider, solely focused on ocean freight visibility and execution tools.

Vizion API offers just an elegantly designed API, enabling developers to create any solution they can dream up as it relates to ocean freight tracking. Starting with container tracking, and with bill-of-lading tracking coming in the near future, Vizion is making an “Easypost for Oceanfreight” that will enable the logistics and e-commerce companies it serves to access hundreds of thousands of data points through a single, restful API.  

RPA Labs (robotic process automation) has designed software bots for use in commonly bottlenecked processes, such as email inquiries and data extraction from documents. While responding to an ocean freight quote inquiry could ordinarily take more than a business day, RPA Labs’ automated solution is capable of using data and intelligence to respond within a minute. Leveraging APIs, machine learning and artificial intelligence, RPA is filling in the crucial gaps in knowledge and information while automating processes for many of the world’s largest freight forwarders.

FreightFlows provides data through their platform that allows customers to source, synthesize and analyze current market data to better understand the pricing and market conditions for bulk maritime transport markets. Traders of commodities routinely have their margins eroded by the volatility in the bulk shipping markets. FreightFlows helps them better understand the supply and demand conditions globally, helping them make better buying and selling decisions, with complete predictability and transparency into the global bulk shipping landscape. “Now more than ever, participants in the global supply chain have felt the pressure of digitalization, transparency and coordination throughout the value chain. What is lacking is a method for companies to take advantage of the promise of greater efficiency and opportunity that doesn’t threaten their competitiveness. FreightFlows has built a platform to leverage the best of your own data with the present and predicted market conditions in your trade,” said Matt Morgan, CEO and founder of FreightFlows.

OpenTrack is growing as a solution in ocean data visibility to automate track-and-trace processes with exceptional accuracy and export the data as any form needed for integration with other systems. Asked what spurred CEO Kevin Valsi and CTO Martin Hendlemen to co-found OpenTrack, it came down to execution. “We knew from our time at Cargomatic that operators in logistics had a very hard job. There were so many systems, the ops team was usually swiveling between multiple systems and screens. We knew we needed to be API first to meet the customers where they are and we needed to build in execution, from the get go,” Valsi said. OpenTrack boasts being able to detect rolled cargo alerts faster than any other technology provider in the world. “We figured out quickly that our customers wanted to know when their freight was bumped and we started building our company by automating that critical alert.”

Where we’re seeing the need for ocean freight-related ingenuity, logistics tech companies are beginning to fill the space, but we are far from seeing the full potential realized. As the world expects goods to be delivered as quickly as Uber and Amazon can fulfill, we will see a shift toward e-commerce companies becoming 3PLs, and possibly 3PLs becoming e-commerce companies. One thing is certain however: Retailers and brands are no longer tracking their product after import once it arrives in the U.S. The Amazon effect and the warehouse pull-through it creates put more emphasis on overall cycle times, and more and more sellers are taking orders of inventory as soon as it ships at the port of origin. That makes ocean containers the warehouses of today and tomorrow, bringing ocean freight visibility to the forefront of supply chain professionals’ and consumers’ minds.

Disclosure: The author is an investor in Vizion API.

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Charley Dehoney

Charley Dehoney is a growth-focused executive, consultant, advisor and investor, with more than 15 years of experience at the intersection of transportation technology. He's helped create revenue systems that have supported hundreds of millions of dollars in growth for the businesses he's helped build. Dehoney is currently serving as CEO of Manning's Truck Brokerage, a 50-year-old, private equity-backed logistics company. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his beautiful wife and three strapping young sons.