Containerisation standardised the physical – digital standards must follow

The standardisation of the physical shipping container brought positive value by reducing the costs for transporting goods, end-to-end. The digital era parallel is the standardisation of message formats and service interfaces, write Mikael Lind (RISE), Hanane Becha (DCSA/UN CEFACT), André Simha (MSC), Francois Bottin (CMA CGM), and Steen Erik Larsen (Maersk).

Building upon the principle of standardisation in the physical world, standardisation and containerisation of the informational side of shipping can now produce efficiencies in information sharing and the effectiveness of decision making.

Empowered by digital standards, information about the location of a container (a ‘smart’ container), its contents, its carriers, and the expected and forthcoming operations on the container provides value to all concerned. To do this effectively requires open standardised communication channels between the different partners along the transport chain to keep each stage fully informed of the progress of shipment, and in particular when goods will reach their destination, as well as providing a foundation for efficient operations.

Using standard message formats and digital protocols for smart containerisation can be considered as an equally important parallel to the physical standardisation of the ISO container itself, and the digital interface for standardised messages can then be seen as a parallel to the physical handling of containers.

Real time tracking and monitoring of smart containers, eBills of Lading, and architectures for digital collaboration are among the many examples of contemporary initiatives aiming at improving the efficiency of the transport chain through access to data.

Key enablers for information transparency and situational awareness

Standardised messaging – Several message formats have recently been developed to enable the different actors in the transport chain to share data and work together. Examples are standards for port call messaging (e.g. S-211), standards for the status of the goods (e.g. EPCIS), smart containers, and reporting formalities (e.g. IMO/FAL aligning diverse standards through its referencing framework).

Standardised interfaces – Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are the ‘glue’ enabling the integration of different digital services. When standard APIs are available to the industry, stakeholders benefit from new capabilities for connecting and integrating data across the intermodal supply chain ecosystem.

Traditionally, APIs were developed from scratch for specific integrations and languages, but today APIs are increasingly used to integrate various turnkey services and data sources. Time and money does not have to be spent on building a specific format for data exchange, allowing better integration across many similar service providers and speeding up of innovation.

With APIs as the ‘glue’ between multiple turnkey services and data sources, adding business process capabilities can become agile, cost-efficient plug-and-play exercises. Diverse projects are pursing standardised APIs, such as the track-and-trace API provided by DCSA, and the issue is high on the agenda within several standardisation initiatives.

During the definition of APIs, use cases must be developed to ensure that all stakeholders’ information needs are identified, moving from data elements to API definitions that also include access rules to the data to be shared via the API. Those API’s then serve as the interfaces between the actors and information sharing communities.

Information transparency through connected communities – In order for organisations to share data, information services must be discoverable. To provide information transparency and situational awareness among a selected group of participants, information sharing communities empowered by data sharing platforms need to be established.

Today, diverse information sharing communities are surfacing in different forms, joining different stakeholders in a delimited setting. Examples include port community systems, supply-chain visibility platforms, and single-window data sharing environments for communication with authorities. These are information sharing communities for ‘one-to-many’ communication.

Most data sharing platforms come with ‘yellow pages’ listing the diverse information services provided to the community, which also serve to encourage new participants to join.

In a transport chain, data sharing is now often conducted in multiple local information sharing communities. These could be geographically delimited, such as in the implementation of the PortCDM concept, port community systems, national Single Window implementation, or a configuration of a set of actors sharing a common concern.

An example of the latter would be a forwarder, the shipping company, and relevant actors within ports. Another example is collaboration among shipping lines to exchange schedules and progress in movements, to allow for the exchange of time slots for port visits. A third example is the open collaboration needed for eBills of Lading, which has become a key differentiator during the COVID19 crisis.

The eBill of Lading is an example where not only the data standards, but also data management and security policies are required. Data messaging and standard interfaces are not substitutes, nor do they eliminate the need for data governance and information security.


Figure 1

Local information sharing communities constitute an important feed for horizontal information sharing by connecting communities (c.f. Figure 1), such as Tradelens.

Shared community data can be published in more than one place. Consequently, multiple parties can simultaneously reach a common situational awareness in almost real-time.

A connected maritime supply chain

Historically, information sharing has been focused on providing individual actors with information on a one-to-one basis. As a result, individual peer-to-peer arrangements have predominated, resulting in significant maintenance costs and frequent denial of relevant information to those who may have a supporting or contributing role.

This web of one-to-one relationships means a large shipping company might have more than 20,000 peer-to-peer EDI connections to various business partners. This is costly to maintain and error-prone, and requires investments of large amounts of money to manage the technical obsolescence of EDI platforms, which are unavoidable expenses with no business added value.

The industry needs to fully standardise the inter-modal supply chain using standardised data exchange and APIs. The various transport modes have reached different degrees of maturity in this regard.

Transport sectors need to reduce the burden of providing and accessing data to as low a level as possible to advance information transparency. Agreement on standards for messaging and interfacing among information sharing communities should be settled to ensure that maritime keeps pace with the digital innovation taking place in other sectors.

Containers standardised the physical movement of goods and reduced shipping costs to the point where they are a negligible factor in the cost of many goods. Standardised messages and APIs are the digital equivalent of the standardised container and offer similar revolutionary benefits.

Editor’s note: This article is an abridged version of a longer paper by the authors, which includes further details on the projects and use cases mentioned above, as well as a full list of references. The full paper can be downloaded here.

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About the Authors

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Mikael Lind is Associate Professor and Senior strategic research advisor at RISE, and the co-founder of Maritime Informatics. He also works at Chalmers University of Technology, for the World Economic Forum, Europe’s Digital Transport Logistic Forum (DTLF), and UN/CEFACT.

Hanane Becha is the IoT programme Project lead at DCSA and the Leader of the UN/CEFACT Smart Container Project, as well as the UN/CEFACT Cross Industry Supply Chain Track and Trace Project.

Andre Simha is the Chief Digital & Information Officer at MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company), and is also the chairman of the DCSA.

Francois Bottin is the Head of the Digital Factory, responsible for leading the digital transformation of CMA CGM Group and digital projects delivery.

Steen Erik Larsen is the Head of Technology M&A at A.P. Moller – Maersk, responsible for enterprise risk management pertaining to information technology in integration and partnering. He also represents Maersk within the DCSA.

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