Geesche Laksola 23.04.2021 27 min read

Best Practices for Ocean Shipment Tracking

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In our previous blog article, Why and How to Keep Track of Your Container Shipments, we elaborated on what we think is the most efficient way to follow your ocean shipment: directly from your main operational system, be it an ERP, TMS, or other supply chain management system.

This article will summarize the different data sources for retrieving relevant tracking information, discuss their pros and cons, and make suggestions regarding how to get better data coverage.

Whatever the source of information, and whatever the method of getting the data is, the information should be shared proactively with key stakeholders, especially when anomalies and exceptions occur. Configurable notifications provide the value needed to shippers, freight forwarders, BCOs, etc. Reaching a B2C user experience is key.

Ocean Carrier Websites

The major carriers provide standard tracking information on their websites.

  • All top-10 Ocean carriers (Maersk, MSC, COSCO, CMA-CGM, Hapag-Lloyd, ONE, Evergreen, HMM, Yang Ming, ZIM), have a public (non-login) tracking widget, directly on their start page, or one click away.
  • Most of the top-10 carriers offer three main search parameters (container number, booking number, bill of lading number), some only two, others only one.

Fun fact: Yang Ming also seems to offer search by "P.O. no." (and Telex tracking).

Ocean Carrier Integration Interfaces

All the top carriers offer different types of direct integration interfaces.

  • Even though most carriers are using EDIFACT/ANSI X12, each carrier interface has its own nuances.
    - E.g., the standard "loaded on vessel" status event in a standard IFTSTA (EDIFACT status message) message will be "STS+1+IIT::22'", "STS+1+AE" or "STS+1+48::2" depending on which carrier you integrate with.
    - That means, if you use more than one carrier, you (your IT) must do mapping and status code & name harmonization work when implementing the integration, i.e., build the mapping logic in-house. Also, as specifications can change and you might want to onboard new carriers, this is continuous updating and maintenance work lasting forever.
  • APIs are starting to replace EDIFACT interfaces, which are still the standard. The nine carrier members of the DCSA (Digital Container Shipping Association), which are the above-mentioned top-10 carriers, except for COSCO, have committed themselves to offering API integrations in the newly established DCSA formats when a customer requests them. The industry grapevine is that several such implementations have been completed even though there is hardly any public information such as API descriptions in DCSA format on the Carriers websites available covering track & trace messaging—at the time of publication of this post.

Ocean Tracking (AIS-based) Webpages

Many websites offer free visualized ocean vessel tracking information based on AIS (Automatic Identification System) data. Probably the leading of these sites is Marine Traffic which proclaims to be "The #1 marine-related website" with over 6.5 million unique visitors and 80 million page views per month on average. You can find an overview of the top-8 of such websites here.

Many of the millions of visitors on these sites are non-commercial (think individuals with sailing boats, maritime hobbyists etc.). However, the fact that Martine Traffic and its peers have launched APIs and related services indicates they are well aware of the usefulness of their data for global trade and supply chain management.

Major Ocean Tracking Platforms

Carrier agnostic platform(s)

The prime and most established global Carrier-agnostic ocean booking and tracking platform is the 20-year old Inttra. Inttra, nowadays fully owned by global supply chain software house E2Open, claims to handle over 25% of global container order volume. In an insightful blog post from 2018, following the E2Open acquisition, Lars Jensen, a leading expert in the ocean shipping industry, poignantly analyzes how Inttra's role has evolved (from being carrier-owned to 100% owned by e2Open) and how the longstanding ocean carrier collaboration is ending.

Besides a graphical user interface web portal, Inttra also offers integrations interfaces, mostly traditional EDIFACT and XML based, but more recently also APIs. Probably due to its background, as the no . 1 shipping platform endorsed by the top carriers, Inttra's services are broadly integrated into TMS and similar software suits and are still affordable. Besides the shippers, it seems that carriers also have to pay for providing the service through Inttra. Further industry grapevine is that Inttra’s track and trace is restricted mainly to the basic events the carriers provide.

Carrier-owned Platforms

TradeLens

TradeLens, "an open and neutral supply chain platform underpinned by blockchain technology", a joint venture between Maersk and IBM, is actively onboarding other players from the industry, i.e., officially aiming at becoming carrier-agnostic. E.g. in October 2020, TradeLens announced that CMA-CGM and MCS have completed TradeLens integration and are joining the platforms as foundation carriers.

Contrary to Inttra, TradeLens is based on the newer technology as all its resources and endpoints are based on modern API technology. TradeLens' future success will likely depend on how well they succeed with their goals of becoming fully carrier-neutral and gaining substantial market share to become the primary platform of choice for global players.

CargoSmart

CargoSmart, is another major carrier-owned ocean shipping platform originally part of Orient Overseas International Ltd. (OOIL), the parent company of OOCL, which COSCO now owns. Being known for being OOCL's/COSCO's global shipping platform solution (supply chain visibility, execution, and compliance), they have over the years also built connectivity with, according to their own statement, 40 carriers, i.e., also CargoSmart is aiming at being a carrier-agnostic player despite its ownership. CargoSmart, in cooperation with major ocean shipping industry players (CMA-CGM, Hapag-Lloyd, Hutchison Ports, Port of Qingdao, PSA International and Shanghai International Port Group and naturally, COSCO group companies) has initiated the Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN), aiming to "accelerate the digital transformation of the shipping industry". Like TradeLens, the GSBN initiative is based on blockchain technology, but it has a non-for-profit Joint Venture structure contrary to its peer.

Supply Chain Visibility/ Real-Time Transportation Visibility solutions

Surprisingly, Gartner's definition of the Supply chain visibility field is difficult to find, e.g., in their glossaries or other resources outside of their paywalls. They have, however, written several pieces on the topic. Gartner's definition of the related Real-time transportation visibility platforms: “Real-time transportation visibility platforms (RTTVPs) provide commercial customers and consumers with real-time insights into their orders and shipments once they have left the brand owner's, supplier's or service provider's warehouse. Such platforms, owned and managed by third-party software vendors, represent a part of the end-to-end supply chain visibility market, predominantly — but not solely — addressing the domestic road transportation mode. RTTVPs obtain data through integration (for example, API or EDI) with carrier systems, direct feeds from telematics (for example, in-cab or trailer devices) or other devices (for example, mobile or smartphone).”

"Real-time supply chain visibility is the first true collaborative transportation solution".
Gartner, 2019

Even though this definition of RTTVP focuses on the domestic road transport mode, the overall definition also applies to intermodal supply chain visibility.

Many solution providers cover both supply chain execution and supply chain visibility with the same software suites, whereas others focus on the visibility part.

Examples of global supply chain visibility solutions (with a primary focus on visibility) include:

  • Project44/Ocean Insights
  • Infor Nexus
  • FourKites
  • Shippeo
  • Kuebix
  • Blume Global

For an overview of the TMS, and partly also the Supply Chain Execution and Visibility field, please refer to our previous blog posts: What is a Transportation Management System (TMS), and why do you need it? and Transportation Management Systems (TMS), their Connectivity Strategies and Effect of Industry Consolidation. As we describe in the latter of the blog posts, the TMS and supply chain execution software solutions also focus on providing track and trace information, many also aiming at doing that globally i.e., also covering ocean container shipment tracking information. Many players do so by integrating into the different data sources described above. Especially Inttra can pride itself on a wide range of ready-built TMS integrations.

Port Community Systems (PCS)

In addition to the many different commercial software solutions, also the so-called Port Community Systems are constantly gaining importance in the Ocean shipping sphere. According to the International Port Community Systems Association (IPCSA) “A PCS is an electronic platform which connects the multiple systems operated by a variety of organisations that make up a seaport or airport community. It is shared in the sense that it is set up, organised and used by firms in the same sector – in this case, a port community. PCSs are set up to share information among the players of one or several ports, optimize their processes and eventually increase the community’s competitive position. Providing track and trace information to its stakeholders is one of the key services PCSs offers. Examples of PCCs include Dutch Portbase and UK MCP.

PCSs also work in close cooperation with governmentally mandated operators and initiatives such as Regional or National Single Windows or e.g. LOGINK, China's National Public Information Platform for Transportation & Logistics, which also focus on sharing logistics information amongst its stakeholders.

Comparison of Different Solutions

Probably by now, you are curious to hear which is the best of the different options presented above? As always, that depends on several different criteria such as:

  • your overall use case, e.g., do you mostly need Track & Trace data to get a general overview of your shipment flows, or do you need it for actual operational usage such as deviation handling (think Suez channel blockage)?
  • your shipment volumes,
  • the number of carriers you use
  • etc.


Taking into account these criteria, the below table provides you with a summary of each data source's pros and cons.

 

Track & Trace Data Source Pros Cons Conclusions

Ocean Carrier websites It's free If you have several carriers, you have to consult several websites Good solution for small volumes and especially if you only use one or a few carriers
Ocean Carrier integration interfaces Efficiency through automation Especially if your volumes are smaller, the carriers might not want to engage in direct EDI Good solution for larger volumes, especially if you only use one or a few carriers
Ocean tracking (AIS-based) webpages It's free If you have a lot of shipments, it's a pretty manual job Good solution for small volumes or as an API to integrate into
Major ocean tracking platforms
Carrier-agnostic
Carrier-owned
It's an efficient solution when using several different carriers and with higher volumes.

APIs are handy

These platforms require you to adapt to their standard API, no mapping services available


The carrier-owned tracking platforms are more and more aiming at becoming carrier-agnostic, but they are not yet there

TradeLens and GSBN aiming to fill the space that the "20-year old ocean shipping institution" Inttra might be starting to leave due to its commercialization and carriers decreasing commitment. We recommend asking them all for a quote and comparing.
Supply-chain visibility platforms Handy if you are looking for a new GUI that your team can use They depend on other data sources (see above), and this is costly. Their data processing capabilities can be limited due to the “one fits all” idea Good solutions for tracking. Check they can easily integrate into your own system to avoid yet another GUI.
PCSs (Cost-)Efficient to get T&T for one or several specific ports Limited location coverage Constantly evolving new platforms starting to also inter-connect to increate coverage

 

The below chart is by no means based on systematic research. It is merely depicting results from a quick ad-hoc LinkedIn survey among randomly selected global forwarding and supply chain professionals asking them about what solutions they use to track their ocean shipments. Given the small sample size, we don't dare draw any other conclusions from the poll than that all main options for tracking ocean shipments covered in this post seem to be used. One could speculate the reason for direct EDI having received the least "votes" is due to it being typically only reasonable (or available) for players with large volumes and direct contractual relationships with carriers.

 

What type of solution do you use to track your ocean shipments

N=33, Source: ad-hoc poll on author's LinkedIn profile (13 answers), and LinkedIn group "Supply Chain Management Group (SCM)" (20 answers).

 

Data Coverage and Completeness

A recent blog post on the quality of ocean visibility data by San Francisco-based start-up Vizion reports the results of a study con the completeness of track & trace data of the major ocean carriers. The study, based on a substantial and representative set of data, shows that the coverage of different events varies greatly across different carriers and throughout the shipment journey. Interestingly, it is the top-3 carriers who do not provide basic vessel-specific status information such as "vessel departed". Also, the only 3-year old ONE is the carrier with the best data coverage.

These findings based on track & trace data from the carrier websites (and thus all solutions based on web scraping, which we refrain from as we consider it to be an unreliable/unstable data sourcing method) are congruent with our findings regarding direct EDI. Based on the input we get from different players looking for alternatives to or integrating several of the most common solutions for ocean tracking (listed above), we conclude that typically available information is not enough. Many stakeholders interested in or even dependent on ocean tracking information still lack vital information regarding more deep and operationally crucial information such as cut-off times and updated ETAs.

To have more data or broader data coverage, e.g., vessel-specific information, one has to include alternative data sources in one's ocean tracking solution. Alternative data sources can be AIS (Automatic Identification System) data, data from other maritime shipping players such as terminal operators, port community systems, etc.

Regardless of what the best sources for Track & Trace data are for your use case, the best practice is to consume it directly from your own system (TMS, ERP etc.). As there is no single point of truth for all Ocean container tracking information, a winning formula is to go for several data sources and finding a partner that integrates all these interfaces before feeding the harmonized data into your system.

If you would like to further discuss this topic or have any other data integration challenges, please book a free 60 min timeslot to talk with one of our experienced integration architects.

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Geesche Laksola

Head of Business Development, Youredi

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