Urgency and ambition surrounds the automation of maritime transport, one of the hottest topics in the logistics sector.
The new digital freight forwarders come with the mission of transforming the complex and immense international transport industry, but these attempts of ‘disruption’ raise doubts in the sector, especially as far as their impact is concerned.
Several studies, such as those published by Barclays and more recently by Transport Intelligence, have observed a lack of impact in these ‘disruptions’ proclaimed by freight forwarders of the new digital era.
The opportunities are there. The industry has huge amounts of data still unexploited and the new technologies, like the blockchain, could pave the way to the digitalization of maritime transport.
But this is not something that will happen overnight, at least not according to iContainers, a pioneer among the digital freight forwarders.
A change of such magnitude can only be undertaken from within the industry. The automation of maritime transport requires experience, strategy and technology, a combination difficult to find in both traditional freight forwarders and the new digital players.
Since its inception, iContainers has focused its efforts on introducing and implementing this change.
“The key is to be ambitious, but in a strategic way. Instead of trying to transform the industry as a whole and at once, we have opted to automate progressively, part by part,” explains Ivan Tintore, CEO and co-founder of iContainers.
For the freight forwarder, one of the main factors that explains the complexity of automating the industry is the high number of players involved. A simple operation of maritime transport involves the different figures: supplier, warehouse, transporters, shipping companies, freight forwarders, customs brokers, buyer, etc. All of them interact in different sections of the flow and need to communicate through different stages of the process.
“Each of these players has different ways of doing things. If we also think about the number of different processes and systems that come into play, the number grows exponentially, “says Tintore.
“Trying to unify and standardize all these processes to automate them in one go is an almost impossible task.”
The Transport intelligence report points out that the entry of digital freight forwarders has pushed the large freight forwarders to improve their technological capacity and the functionalities they offer to shippers. But even considering this, the impact generated is far from being considered a true “disruption”.
“I hear about the disruption of the industry continuously, but in my opinion these comments are very misleading,” says Lars Jensen, CEO of Seaintelligence Consulting and author of the book Liner Shipping 2025, during a visit to iContainers at the beginning of the year. .
“I do not believe in the premise of arriving with a new solution and suddenly transforming the entire industry, as if in one or two years it could be a completely different industry. The change will happen, but it will be a gradual evolution, not a revolution. “
For Tintore, the idea of вЂ‹вЂ‹a new player acting on his own and causing a disruption in one of the oldest and largest industries in the world is not realistic either. However, he believes that under the right approach the change is possible.
“The first thing that we automated in iContainers were the quotation and reservation systems, the two most basic and vital aspects of all digital freight forwarders, in my opinion. Once we had consolidated them, we began to consider the automation of more complex operations, “says Tintore.
“Today our FCL export processes are fully automated. The operations and communications behind the process are automatic and with that we reduce unnecessary risks such as manual errors. Automation allows us to guarantee speed, efficiency and precision. “
Compared with other industries, such as the airline industry, maritime transport is still far behind in terms of automation and digitalization. Adapting to technology and betting on the advantages it brings have taken too long to arrive.
And although progress has been made in this direction, it is not an easy road. The industry and its protagonists are stubborn in their usual ways of doing things and, taking into account the size and age of the industry, it is easy to see why.
But the light of automation begins to shine with more intensity and its benefits become clearer, especially for those who bet first on it. The key lies in continuing on this path.
“It will be a slow transition,” says Jensen. “If you look at what iContainers is doing, how they are gradually facilitating the way marine transport is managed, that is exactly the way it should be done. Changing everything from night to morning is not possible, but taking steps and gradually introducing changes is what really going to work.”
“In 2025 everything will be digitized. But it will not be because an isolated player has done something fantastic. The change will come slowly and it will be thanks to those who manage to integrate the technology moving in a rhythmic way with the whole industry. “