Lost At Sea: Shipping Container Contents Track And Trace Challenges

In early June 2018, cargo ship YM Efficiency encountered nine meter swells off the east coast of Australia and subsequently lost 81 shipping containers overboard. To date, only 2 containers have been physically sighted. According to the latest update on the sub-sea search from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority on August 1, a total of 37 probable broken and intact containers and associated debris has been recorded on the sea floor off the coast of Newcastle.

However, as many as 42 containers are still missing and significant amounts of mainly-plastic pollution continues to either drift at sea or wash up onshore. The CSIRO stated debris could still be washing up on beaches from Queensland, home of the Great Barrier Reef, to Tasmania in 6 months’ time. There is now a joint project between UNSW Canberra and the Jerusalem College of Technology to develop a simulation model to track YM Efficiency’s debris – and if successful could be applied to other incidents across the globe. You can watch a short video here.

From our readings on the internet, it seems such incidents are on the rise, broadly corresponding to increases in global shipping. As recently as March, 76 containers fell off the Maersk Shanghai in North Carolina. One of them contained 3 tons of sulphuric acid. In October 2015, 391 containers which included trucks and trailers were lost by the El Faro in the Bermuda Triangle. That same year, 12 containers were lost near San Francisco carrying styrofoam insulation and plastic crates. In 1997 a container incident led to millions of Lego pieces entering the ocean and washing up on English beaches. In 1992, a container of 29,000 rubber ducks and other plastic bath toys was lost in the Pacific. The toys have since washed up all across the globe. Tens of thousands of Nike shoes were lost overboard in 1990. The list goes on.

It is clear that the risks and costs of container losses at sea are significant – safety, navigational, financial, insurance, reputational, legal and non-compliance with local, national and international regulations. The accumulation of these slow-to-decay structures and associated debris year after year is also a grave threat to our environment. Despite this, there is still a lack of real-time insight into exactly how many containers are at sea, where they are, where they’ve been, where they’re going, what are their contents, how many are lost overboard each year – and what happens to them when they do. Digging deeper there may be a number of reasons contributing to this.

A Myriad Of Stakeholders

The shipping process often involves a myriad of stakeholders and third parties involving hundreds of communications. Maersk says that keeping track of it all can account for 20 percent of the cost of moving a container! There are the owners, manufacturers and producers that need something shipped, the transport companies moving the items, and many layers of logistics providers working across entire supply chains and more.

What’s In The Box?

Container contents track and trace would be simpler if one owner’s things were in one container owned by them. However, containers are often owned by shipping companies. Because of this, there is a multi-tenancy issue in container tracking. To complicate matters even more, not all ships own the containers that are loaded onto them.

Where Do You Put A Tracking Device?

Due to the container contents multi-tenancy issue, one of the challenges is determining where best to add a tracking device. Because containers are metal, wireless signals aren’t able to easily penetrate the box. An option might be to attach a tracking device, with a unique identifier, to a safe place on the exterior and associate it with individual tags on consignments, compartments or individual items in the interior.

What Sort Of Tag Do You Use?

Traditional tracking devices have communicated either through GPS or a short-range wireless system. GPS systems are accurate – however they require a clear view of the sky which is not always possible because of the way containers are stacked together. GPS is also expensive and power-hungry, so unless the goods are extremely high risk or high value, it can be difficult to justify. Some GPS tags now offer solar power to keep their devices powered for longer. Shorter-range and emerging IoT LPWAN systems could be engineered to capture positioning data and uploaded to portals when a cellular network is in range. The cost of tracking this way would be significantly less than GPS and the battery life is also far greater i.e. years vs. days or months. However cellular coverage is not always guaranteed at sea.

There are also a number of early-stage projects investigating blockchain for enabling container visibility across global supply chains. These include a joint venture between Maersk and IBM, Blockshipping’s Global Shared Container Platform, Ethereum and Shipchain.

However, even with today’s technology options, complications are likely to still arise when containers fall overboard. Typically, when unidentified container debris washes up on a beach, unless things are tagged or marked at an item-level, and the ID is still attached and intact, it is extraordinarily difficult identify the source. To address this, some organisations are looking at ways to combine traditional tracking concepts with underwater acoustic positioning systems.

In The End, It All Comes Down To Data

Tracking devices aside, in the end it is all about data and insight to automate actions and enhance decisions. In this context, the industry demands a standardised platform capable of tracking an almost-infinite number of unique items, all their relationships, as well as all the interactions between the different players – freight-forwarders, transportation companies, ports, consignees, customs, customers, ship-owners, logistics, insurers, and more.

Enterprise asset intelligence platforms, such as assetDNA, are purpose-built to address complex data challenges like the ones the shipping industry face. It can enable secure identification of vessels, containers and contents, down to whatever level of detail is important – pallet, case, compartment, item, component and more. It will also manage all of the data that exists about each item as it passes through the hands of multiple custodians and complex business processes. Having a system that has, at its core, an uncloneable ‘primary key’ is critical for enterprise-wide visibility and supply-chain traceability. These can then be encoded in the tracking tag(s), ensuring digital records remain associated with the asset wherever it travels in the world. Then, when this item serialisation data is shared electronically, it enables others to contribute and build a complete picture about location, history and current status. Other benefits include:

Real-time track and trace for containers and contents
• Electronic data-driven audit trails and secure chain-of-custody
• Breach detection and prevent unauthorised access
Environment alerts such as temperature, humidity, shock, and other sensor data
• Tamper and loss prevention and anti-theft
• Uncover new ways to drive asset utilisation and return on investment
Better customer service with improved communications and delivery times
• More efficient business processes and supply chain optimisation
Lower operating costs

Furthermore, in the case of container shipping, because all the asset attributes, events and relationship nodes are well-documented, organisations can better allocate responsibility, liability, and improve compliance.

Can We Help Your Business?

Due to its highly-fragmented nature, shipping container tracking is a complex issue – however there are huge opportunities to reduce costs and improve processes, visibility and traceability. At Relegen, we have helped many organisations gain enterprise-wide asset intelligence of their ‘things’ as they move through highly-complex lifecycles, chain-of-custody processes and global supply chains. If you’d like to learn more, please get in touch with us at sales@relegen.com or on +61 (0)2 9998 9000.