Visibility of inventory as it navigates its way through the supply chain is a common objective and challenge across organizations, regardless of industry. In a perfect world, visibility extends through the supply network (raw material) to the point of consumer consumption (finished goods) and everything in between (WIP/sub-assemblies) to provide an accurate portrayal of the health of the organization relative to inventory. Clear line of sight of all inventory in a supply chain network as well as the velocity, variability, and other related data, goes a long way in supporting supply chain optimization efforts. However, robust visibility in the supply chain is not a reality for many organizations leading to excess inventory in the network driving sub-optimal supply chain performance. One area of significant delinquency in improving inventory visibility is seaborne container shipping.
Historically, the tracking of a shipping container is done through the use of a carrier's website and tells you the location of a shipment, the upcoming ports, and the anticipated arrival at the final port of call for your shipment. While this is all great information, it does not provide much detailed information that can be leveraged to provide additional value to the supply chain. When you consider that seaborne shipping is the primary means of transporting global trade, and that it represents a market in the trillions of dollars each year, it would seem rather obvious that innovators would seek out opportunities to capitalize on the size and spend of this market and find ways to improve the shipping experience.
Improvements in mobile technology are creating a new market for Smart Containers, capable of providing a more granular level of information to the shipper and ultimately creating a market for big data in the field of cargo shipping. In the past, such improvements were done largely in an effort to boost security and reduce the risk of contamination of the contents of a container. Innovative companies are now emerging with solutions designed specifically for container intelligence to provide the shipper a greater level of insight relative to their materials and giving carriers the competitive advantage of positioning their services beyond just transportation. Common elements that would be tracked in such a manner include:
- Real Time GPS Positioning: Ok, not something revolutionary but obviously a must for container insight
- Security: Providing monitoring and reporting of entry into a container to prevent theft, contamination, and terror related risks
- Environmental Conditions: Capturing and reporting on temperature and other environmental conditions such as airborne substances and vibrations
Seaborne shipping is not the most exciting of subjects, but I believe that the possibility of what greater insight into the performance of shipping can do is very exciting. Imagine the capability to conduct data analytics against the probability of damage to materials in-transit based on a regressive relationship between carrier, port stops, temperature, and vibrations to be able to foresee an inventory related issue before the arrival of your shipment. As this technology evolves and becomes more cost effective, I anticipate that this sort of theory will become reality. Such visibility into material in-transit will eventually lead to improved methods for optimizing inventory enabling supply chain managers to look even deeper into the supply chain to find opportunities to drive improvement. Furthermore, the potential is there for connecting RFID tags with a shipping container and will eventually lead to a linkage between individual pallets and the container in which they are shipped. Such alignment will lead to a very granular view of in-transit inventory that will eventually enable true end-to-end visibility of inventory in the supply chain.