Shipping overseas often means no continuous visibility beyond the port. If you ship overseas often, you’re probably familiar with the difficulty of tracking ocean shipments. Your containers become harder to trace once they leave a port, and if one of them doesn’t reach its intended destination, you usually have little more than a vague idea or delayed updates about where it went, and how.
With technologies like IoT, however, monitoring your cargo — even on the high seas — is no longer a daunting task. Using IoT-enabled tracking devices, you can track not only the vessel or the container, but also your shipment’s condition throughout its journey!
Imagine shipping tonnes of edibles in ocean containers that are on the move for a couple of months. The lines get blurry when tracking an ocean shipment, and you can be sure to expect some unpleasant surprises along the way.
You could limit, or sometimes even outright eliminate those uncertainties by simply setting up an end-to-end tracking system that ensures you never lose track of your ocean shipment.
The ocean shipping industry has made significant progress on that front over the years, with tried and tested options like GPS container trackers, smart containers, and several integrated business intelligence systems in play.
But is that enough?
The total world container volume saw a 4% leap between 2017 and 2018. Ports worldwide handled a total of over 785 million TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) containers in 2018 as per the estimates of the World Shipping Council. Only a small number of those shipping containers were tracked.
It’s a bad idea to not keep continuous track of shipments once they’re out at sea, especially considering the number of containers that get rerouted or held up due to congestion. With produce and other perishable goods being shipped using conventional or reefer shipping containers, it has become even more important to monitor containers from departure to arrival, and at every point in between.
Shipping Container Tracking — Picking the Perfect Option
Although there are several container tracking solutions to choose from, when it comes to tracking your cargo on the ocean, the solution you bet on should be able to:
- Track a container from the first mile through to the last mile
- Track the container when it's on the ocean
- Monitor and report the condition of the goods inside
- Alert you in case anything’s amiss early enough to take corrective actions
When you’re evaluating the available options to track ocean containers, weigh their pros and cons, and finally settle on one that works equally well on rail, road, ocean, or intermodal transport; always remember — your best bet is the container tracking solution that best covers these four bases.
Option 1: Depending on Data Aggregators
The Oldest Trick in the Book
Companies like Ocean Insights, Transvoyant, and FourKites aggregate and analyze ocean container visibility data well from multiple data streams. But, is tracing a container using data streams enough? Ocean container monitoring data still falls short when it comes to:
- First and last mile visibility — so that you know where your container is at all times, all the way from the first mile & through the last mile, without any blind spots on the way.
- Port-level visibility — so that you know for sure whether your shipment departed on the ship it was supposed to be on, and if not, then how it was rerouted, and why. What reflects on the port’s EDI system and where your container actually is in the port process could be different.
- Condition monitoring — so that you know if the goods you’re shipping are travelling in the condition they’re supposed to.
Shedding light on these would help you stay on top of events and exceptions along the way, letting you know if your container is late or on time, if the processes on the way (like customs checks, port transfers, etc.) are timely, or if the shipment has been compromised.
Option 2: Smart Containers
Do They Really Solve the Problem?
Using a smart container — a regular container with built-in sensors and communication equipment — you can track shipments in real-time. The sensor package is literally inside the container as it travels, and it can tell you much more than the location of the container — details on handling, movements within ports or facilities, temperature and conditions both inside and outside the container.
The good thing about smart containers is that they’re easy to use and have reliable sensors.
Solution providers like Traxens are doing a good job with their smart container solutions, and shipping companies like MAERSK and CMA are rolling out the service to their respective routes as well. MSC has also recently partnered with Traxens for smart container solutions.
The only trouble with these smart containers is that they tether you to the service provider that owns the containers, and those providers may not service all the routes that you operate in. If you want the smart container option, you cannot switch to other, more economical routes or shippers.
Moreover, not all smart containers can provide item-level condition monitoring.
Using smart containers aren’t always ideal for open loops either, especially when you’re paying top dollar to rent them and need to pay extra for retrieval, and the inevitable delays.
Option 3: GPS Container Trackers
Do Devices Strapped to Your Containers Work?
Ocean containers can also be tracked using external container tracking devices that are fixed to the container wall or door to get reliable first-mile and last-mile visibility. A quick Google search will throw up companies like Wilus, Orbcomm, Stesalit, and many more low-cost devices on Alibaba.
Managing them is an uphill task though, you need to affix them to the container, change them or recharge them if they can’t survive the whole journey, and manage their retrieval if you’re shipping internationally. That’s quite a tall ask, especially if you’re dealing with a multimodal or intermodal shipment where you may not have direct control over these processes, relying instead on your shipper or 3PL to manage operations.
These devices lack continuous visibility in such cases. There are also some other caveats to consider, things like:
- They may not be easy to integrate with your business intelligence systems — in an age where RPA + AI + IoT is already automating everything, this a big drawback.
- They can't tell if your goods were handled well — in transit or during loading, unloading, or customs checks.
- They can’t tell you which port your cargo is at definitively — whether it has crossed some stage in the process or still stuck at somewhere like customs, or a loading queue, etc.
- They lack predictive insights — which is the most important input you could have to handle disruptions and delays in the shipment.
- They can’t guarantee if someone opens the containers — in order to inspect them and then can’t put them back properly before they start traveling again.
The Option You Really Need
Independent Real, Real-time, & Relevant Data Throughout the Journey
There are means to keep track of the conditions of goods in transit, but not all those are reliable, easily available, and relevant when it comes to providing actionable information.
What you need is a system that’s easy to set up, use, and manage, something that newer, more agile IoT-based container and shipment tracking platforms excel in.
Taking clues from what’s amiss in all the existing cargo tracking solutions, Roambee developed a solution that meets the crucial need for end-to-end tracking, accuracy, and actionability in ocean freight tracking. The sensor technology folds in everything — real-time data about your shipment, plug-and-play ease of use, on-demand devices, and even tracker retrieval once a shipment is complete. These IoT devices automatically collect data even when containers are on the ocean, making sure you never miss an update about your shipments.
Using these devices — some which even lock onto your container to detect inspections or theft — you can keep track of your shipping container and its goods without spending precious hours keeping track of them by coordinating with others, while still not being sure if they’re doing the job well.
The best thing about using IoT tracking devices with ocean-liner data streams and an on-demand usage model is that you get:
- End-to-end visibility — you know where your cargo is not just in the first, last mile, or port-level, but throughout its journey.
- A single unified view — of all your containers without missing even the smallest piece of information.
- Timely inspection, tamper, and idling alerts — so you can take timely action to deal with anomalies.
- Predictive ETAs — so that you don’t need to grapple with last-moment second-hand information when it comes to sharing an ETA with the customer.
- Dependable condition monitoring — know about things like container rain, physical shock, or temperature spikes in transit, making it easier to know when any delay or damage happens and what you can do about it.
- Other essential information — like route changes, inspections en-route, delays, or detention.
- Easy reusable tracker recovery — which is the best thing about the portable plug-and-play IoT container tracking devices; you can just mail the devices back after use.
IOT + AI + RPA Helps
Because Integrated, Transparent Visibility is the Key!
Cutting edge container tracking systems can give you a dot on the map; what really matters is:
- Is that dot on the map trustworthy?
- Is that dot on the map helping your shipment?
Your tracking system should be able to validate events based on your cargo portal, but without needing to integrate with it. Imagine you used multiple ocean liners; not all of them will have APIs to integrate with Roambee’s sensor analytics platform.
You can bring in automation in your container shipment tracking system by using the intelligent sequence of IoT + AI + RPA.
IoT (Internet of Things)
So that your shipments themselves can tell you where they are at any point in time.
AI (Artificial Intelligence)
The brain of the system; system intelligence that tells you what to do with the information you get.
RPA (Robotic Process Automation)
System assistance where possible to take the right action at the right time, with the help of AI.
When the three of these work in sync, you don’t just have information about your cargo, you know what to do with that information; you know that the information is real to begin with, that it’s available in real-time, and it is relevant to you in context of your shipping operations – the kind of information to take timely action with trust.
Tracking your container shipment is all about clearing up the blurred lines and making timely adjustments to cope with any anomalies along the way. You don't just need to learn about your shipment’s location and condition, you need to act upon it while it matters, and that's exactly what an IoT-backed container tracking system can do for you when combined with AI & RPA.