In just 50 years, the world population doubled. The rapid globalization that has been unfolding ever since, has been a major catalyst for the international trades market that has developed at an accelerated pace. Global production has increased fourfold, and goods export has grown 9 times in the European Union alone. Consequently, the global exchange of merchandise containers through maritime pathways has increased exponentially as well.
However, the current portuary establishments aren’t fully aligned with the increased growth rates of globalization. The lack of properly digitalized procedures such as traceability, along with the poor connection between ports and important climate change issues, are just some of the challenges that the maritime industry is currently dealing with. Enhanced by the COVID health and economic crisis, the call for a reestructuracion of these systems has become more urgent than ever, and digitalizing the maritime sector is becoming a necessity.
The maritime industry: challenges and obstacles of becoming digitalized
A lack of proper traceability of containers at sea is currently one of the key challenges that the industry is facing and this is mainly due to a low level of digitalization. In the era of data as an asset, having access to efficient traceability tools that can help solve issues related to transparency and accountability, should no longer be a luxury. Poorly organized containers, the absence of real-time tracking, and the misconnection between ports, are important issues that are forcing the maritime industry into a necessary journey towards digital transformation.
Even before the gradual introduction of technologies into this sector had started, the connection between ports was already a complex process. Nowadays, although the systems that are used in ports seem to be self-sufficient, the misalignment between them still prevents a seamless integration from happening. This disconnection also comes at a high cost: the loss of containers on a daily basis without being able to establish the last point of contact, the time or cause.
Despite some advances, the industry hasn’t managed to reach an adequate level of intercommunication that can help solve efficiently frequent misunderstandings. Each part of the maritime commerce cycle has its very own data systems with independant metrics, numbers and pieces of information. The biggest challenge, therefore, lies in creating an integrated end-to-end model of communication that can unify every step of the traceability process.
Not all the challenges revolve around technological limitations though, there’s a social aspect to it also. Container shipping has been a huge part of the international economy since 1931 when the Autocarrier, owned by Southern Railway UK, was launched and made shipping by sea the latest commercial innovation. The culture and mentality of many involved in this industry tend to be associated with old conservative work habits and routines. Launching and establishing new digital strategies that include technology, productivity, sustainability and security is often met with reluctance, which represents another important challenge as well.
From ports to Smart Ports
Converting regular ports into smart ones isn’t only related to making traceability processes more fluid and dynamic, but it also adds value for customers and users alike, as well as for the port’s broader community. Incorporating artificial intelligence, Big Data, Internet of Things or blockchain technology, among other advanced technologies, could also improve the relationship between logistics facilities, terminals and operators. Unfortunately, the web services that currently govern maritime traceability transactions aren’t enough to digitalize the industry. Although they aim to provide information from the different terminals, the interconnections that are achieved aren’t as competent as needed.
On the contrary, the creation of an end-to-end system based on more advanced tech could guarantee higher levels of security by providing transparent and concrete references of the product’s origin, its production and distribution. The detection and control of possible fraudes then becomes a much simpler task, as the smart contracts incorporated in blockchains can automatically reject any mistaken or manipulated transaction. In fact, blockchain-based programs can provide real-time data that naturally facilitates the intervention of administration agents if needed.
The maritime industry is taking its time with its journey towards a digital transformation. The fact that advanced technologies aren’t fully embraced yet, is leading to serious problems such as little to no traceability of the containers, miscommunications between systems and no accountability among companies. Solutions such as DataPorts, a program that aims to develop and promote data exchange through an end-to-end platform, can help traceability processes at sea become more flexible, transparent and, consequently, efficient. Such solutions are digital upgrades that could lead the maritime industry into its 2.0 version.