Container Shipment Tracking: Challenges, Solutions, and the Role of APIs

Container Shipment Tracking: Challenges, Solutions, and the Role of APIs

The largest container shipping companies operate over 4 million TEUs of capacity with hundreds of ships on several hundred trade lanes. Before solutions like APIs increased the ease and accessibility of container shipment tracking, many shippers, freight forwarders, and BCOs relied on manual tracking from ocean carriers for updates. Shipment tracking is one aspect of operations that shippers depend on for their supply chains to operate smoothly. Fortunately, technology has brought more support to the shipment tracking process, bringing with it the benefits of increased visibility.

This article discusses the history of tracking shipping containers, how to manage manual tracking and what information is needed, the benefits of shipment tracking, and how shipment tracking APIs are used to support visibility across the shipper’s network.

The History of Tracking Shipping Containers

Prior to the invention of the modern shipping container in 1956, loading cargo onto ships was done by hand, a huge expense in ocean freight transportation that was also time intensive. The shipping container brought standardization, and once the first container cranes were in use just a few years later, there was no turning back to the inefficiencies of other methods. Over the next 30 years, shipping containers became the building blocks for the ocean freight shipping industry we know today.

The first ship designed specifically for shipping containers had a capacity of 226 containers. In the early 1980s, the largest ships’ capacity had reached 3,000-4,000 TEUs, then 8,000 TEUs by the late 1990s—a steady increase but nothing compared to the last two decades. In the mid-2000s, capacity jumped to 15,000 TEUs, and in 2022, the largest ship exceeded 24,000 TEUs.

Shipping container tracking has always had its challenges since the first container ships were built, even with 100 times smaller capacity than the current largest ship. However, the industry experienced this problem differently then versus today, being well before the current technologies and increasing expectations for supply chain visibility. EDI (electronic data interchange) has been around since the 1960s, but as a system that requires establishing a connection between the carrier and shipper, it is not always an option for every shipper’s situation. While automated solutions are available today, more manual tracking methods were used in the past.

Manual Tracking of Container Shipments

For decades, many shippers relied on manual tracking and communication to inform them of their containers’ location and status. All documentation was done on paper, and data entry was done manually, for both the shippers’ operations and the carriers and ports. Naturally, this was a labor-intensive and error-prone process that also had a huge delay between an event occurring with the shipment and the update reaching the shipper.

Not only has the capacity of container ships increased drastically in the last couple of decades, putting a greater load on tracking efforts and, therefore, a greater need for a solution. Fortunately, tech solutions such as digital tracking technology emerged to make it easier to handle container shipment tracking.

The manual option now relies on shippers or forwarders visiting the carriers’ websites, searching for their shipments, checking for any updates, and entering this data into their internal systems. The information provided may be in a different format across different carriers and need standardization. Shippers must complete this manual process for every carrier they work with and every shipment and keep the information needed for their search terms in a reliable system.

Components of Container Shipment Tracking

Two things are needed to track a container shipment: a unique identifier for the shipment or container and access to a container tracking system.

Types of Unique Identifiers

 Any of the following three numbers can be used when searching for a shipment.

  • The container number is a four-letter and seven-number identifier assigned to every shipping container by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization).
  • The booking number from the carrier, found on receipts or invoices, identifies the reservation or booking of the service used.
  • The master bill of lading number identifies the legal agreement between the carrier and shipper when the shipment is accepted, and the carrier keeps track of each particular container with the bills of lading.

Types of Container Shipment Tracking Systems

As for the other component of tracking, the container tracking system, there is more than one option available. The most basic is using the carrier website, but this must be done manually, visiting the website at regular intervals or whenever an update is needed and then searching for each shipment with its identifier. 

The other option is a technology-enabled solution provided as a service to the shipper or freight forwarder. This solution can be integrated with their existing system, which enables them to automatically receive updates when new information is found from the carrier. For example, integration through VIZION API provides features including pushing data to different systems, standardization of milestones across other carriers’ data, and carrier ETAs. VIZION’s Exception Alert API identifies exceptions and their causes to support shippers’ and forwarders’ management by exception.

Enrichment Data Add-Ons to Container Shipment Tracking

Visibility data and features can be added to an API solution to augment container shipment tracking, such as: 

  • Enhanced location visibility
  • Enhanced terminal visibility
  • Vessel verification
  • U.S. customs data
  • Vessel tracking and live ETAs 

This data enrichment provides additional data from other sources, so shippers get a tailored solution for the level of detail they need from their shipment tracking.

Benefits of Tracking a Container Shipment

Container tracking brings a number of benefits for shippers and their operations. Essentially, it bridges the gap in supply chain visibility between when an order begins its journey and when the order arrives at its port of destination, where it will continue with inland transportation. Here are six benefits shippers get from this capability.

Save Time and Increase Operational Efficiency

Operations teams free up time by relying on automated processes instead of manual ones. Data can be pushed to their system, and they receive updates without spending time visiting carrier websites and entering information by hand. Instead, their time is better used by managing exceptions.

Mitigate Risk

Shippers receive updates faster with real-time data, allowing them to respond to delays and disruptions and, in the process, mitigate risk, making adjustments to lessen the impact on the rest of the supply chain.

Gain Actionable Insight

In addition to responding to emergent risks, shippers also gain information that helps them identify opportunities to be in a more favorable position, for example, by seeing shipping trends within the market or finding inefficiencies they can improve.

Improve Customer Service

By having more information, shippers can support a better experience for their customers, both in terms of the reliability of the service they provide and by extending visibility data to customers for their own knowledge.

Return on Investment (ROI)

Shippers can expect a high return on investment from shipment tracking by saving on labor costs, reducing the chance of lost inventory, creating a more efficient supply chain, having better container utilization, and improving customer satisfaction.

Role of Shipment Tracking APIs

APIs for tracking shipping containers play a crucial role in the digital transformation of supply chains. They take the benefits of shipment tracking and expand on them by bringing data and functionality to shippers in an easy-to-use solution. Creating a collaborative ecosystem through connections to different systems and data sources results in better end-to-end visibility with streamlining and standardization. Here are nine specific use cases for shipment tracking APIs. 

  1.  Handle data collection with automation resulting in fewer data touch points for a simpler and more reliable process.
     
  2. Manage exceptions with the benefits of easily accessible, standardized, and enriched data.
  1. Share information with stakeholders by injecting visibility directly into external systems.

  2. Develop new web applications for increasing operations and customer visibility.
  1. Monitor container status updates with daily or hourly reports.
  1. Improve shipping routes, container utilization, and carrier selection based on container tracking analytics. 
  1. Respond to changes in ETAs, as notified by real-time alerts.
  1. Identify opportunities to decrease detention and demurrage.
  1. Power robotic process automation (RPA) to boost operational productivity.

Connect with VIZION for an API-First Approach to Tracking Container Shipments

With the huge potential that APIs provide for shippers and freight forwarders to improve their operations, it’s through an API-first approach behind the scenes that they can get better adaptability for more types of uses and better data quality. VIZION API offers this approach as a provider of real-time shipment container tracking data, connecting customers to valuable data streams without a complicated or lengthy implementation process. To learn more about VIZION API, reach out to us today to book a demo.

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