Chemicals supply chain can learn from Expedia, Amazon on sharing information

Many ports, terminals and carriers have implemented information-sharing programs, but now a federal advisory committee has concluded more visibility is needed to improve the efficiency and flow of cargo in U.S. supply chains.

The supply-chain community can learn from the likes of Expedia (Image credit: Expedia)

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The 45-person Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness (ACSCC), published a set of data elements which it recommended stakeholders share as standard best practice. The committee, which includes representatives from major shippers – among them Amazon, Walmart, and The Dow Chemical Company – suggested its guidelines be used to remedy cases where efficiency issues have been shown to exist. No recommendations were made on port productivity, which is being examined by a separate federal advisory group.

Guidelines were published for import and export cargo, both pre- and post-arrival at the port. Several data elements appeared in both the import and export columns, including: vessel name and voyage number; arriving terminal and port; estimated time of departure or arrival; and cargo identification number (i.e. container number / barge ID).

Calling for new technology

Jim Cooper, Vice President, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and a member of the advisory committee, told Petrochemical Update that these sorts of practices will help shippers benchmark real time versus scheduled time, which in turn will lead to greater efficiencies.

Noting the committee’s recommendation of a move toward electronic submissions, Cooper said he did not expect any significant additional burdens. “I don’t want to say it’s no burden whatsoever,” he said. “There’s going to be extra reporting and we’re hopeful that the multiple stakeholders are going to see the value in that additional burden – that they’ll say that the benefit is going to outweigh the additional cost for doing these types of reporting.” 

The federal advisory committee's recommendations cover imports and exports (Source: ACSCC)

Another committee member, Ricky Kunz, Chief Commercial Officer at the Port of Houston Authority, said his organization already meets most of the recommendations. He said work was continuing on system and IT improvements to better serve the shipping community.

Some stakeholders, such as David Kobe, Director – Global Logistics at Albemarle, believe the supply chain is behind the times on the technological front. Speaking to Petrochemical Update for a recent white paper, Kobe noted that Amazon allows its customers to track deliveries, but no such service exists in the petrochemicals industry.

“My parents, who live in Chicago, can send a box of cookies to my children here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and my kids can go online and track that shipment all the way through the time it delivers,” he said.

“As a petrochemical producer, once I ship that truck or that railcar – my visibility, my traceability of that shipment is minimal. I call it dialing for diesels: you call up the carrier, you call up the railroad and you try to find out where your shipment is. Our customers do that; we do it as a shipper. There’s no technology in this space, and I think the key challenge for us and everyone in that industry is to get that visibility and to get that granularity in the data.”

Providing solutions

Commercial considerations are the primary reason stakeholders choose not to share information, according to Mike Mayhew, Senior Business Development Manager of Advent Intermodal Solutions. Advent operates eModal, a single-window portal that aggregates data feeds from more than 30 container terminals in North America. Mayhew compared this to the way Expedia aggregates data from airlines and hotel providers.

“Certain operators for commercial or competitive reasons don’t want to expose their data. There are concerns that that would be compromising any sort of competitive edge or driving their terminal users away from their brand,” he said.

Some shippers may be concerned about the quality of the data they receive at their end, Mayhew said, countering this by explaining that Advent’s portal transmits data directly from the terminals’ host systems.

eModal allows shippers, cargo owners, trucking companies and other stakeholders to access information on a shipment with either a container or booking number. This has led many marine terminals to bring in appointment systems for trucks, he said, helping to “avoid any sort of trouble, to make sure that the cargo is available, to satisfy fees, to really expedite the visit to the terminal and hopefully provide a better experience for the terminal user.”

Figures published by the Harbor Trucking Association, which represents trucking companies that service the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, show progress is being made: between November 2014 and July 2016, average truck-visit time declined from 112 minutes to 86 minutes.

The eModal solution has existed for about 15 years and was acquired by Advent in 2012. Mayhew believes more terminals now understand the benefit of information sharing, and he used Los Angeles-Long Beach to demonstrate.

“You have 13 different terminals with about nine different operators, and to provide a different system landscape for each operator quite honestly makes the life of the trucking community and the shipping community hell,” he said.

“I think they’ve come a long way in understanding the benefit of aggregating all this information into one portal, and on top of that the operational benefits that come along with pre-arrival and pre-qualifying transactions prior to the visit to the terminal.”

By Nadav Shemer