UN/CEFACT Smart Container Project – Achievements and Next Steps

The UN/CEFACT Smart Container project is an important part of the development of international multi-modal standards to support the future of global trade. The project has employed a step-by-step methodology to reach a common understanding and to deliver a data model by defining the data elements, the code lists, and the messaging standards that can be used in future development of APIs for communication with smart containers.

Smart Container solutions empower supply chain stakeholders to enhance their operations, using reliable physical data to provide door-to-door visibility and support AI-based predictive services, as well as offering insight into the status and environmental condition of the container and its goods at any point along its route.

A ‘smart container’ is a marine shipping container fitted with a permanently installed smart monitoring device. However, for other modes of transport, such as air or road, a Unit Load Device (ULD) is also considered a container, which may be fitted with an attached monitoring device that would convert it into a smart container.

The ‘smart device’ has a set of sensors embedded within the container, enabling it to measure real-time information such as location, door opening and closing, vibrations, temperature, humidity, and any measured physical parameters of the surrounding environment of the asset. It also has communication capabilities, to send the measured data to a collection centre, and can be paired with extra remote sensors to address the specific needs of a given cargo consignment.

When trip plans and settings are used as parameters smart containers can differentiate business-as-usual conditions during the journey from exceptional conditions when certain measures exceed the configured thresholds, alerting stakeholders to take action.

Smart Container Project Methodology

The United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) has developed the data exchange standards required to promote and simplify the deployment of Smart Container solutions. These have been described and published through its Transport and Logistics Domain Smart Container Project, begun in October 2017, with all initial deliverables completed in October 2020. 

This project aimed to promote the usage of Smart Containers in multi-modal transport and has defined the deliverables required for integrating smart container data into the different industry processes of stakeholders throughout the end-to-end supply chain.

Adoption of global multimodal data exchange standards guarantees operational interoperability. With new and emerging technologies being tested and implemented in today’s challenging supply chain environment, these standards are more necessary than ever.

Smart container data exchange standards enable stakeholders in the logistics chain to reap the maximum benefits from smart container solutions, while enabling them to share data and associated costs.

Furthermore, there are potential risks associated with developing and implementing solutions that do not conform to global standards. Proprietary non-standardised solutions impede interoperability, leading to costly and time-consuming integration. This can prevent a user organisation from implementing solutions that would benefit them and may result in vendor lock-in.

An official UN/CEFACT White Paper completed in December 2018 defines the smart container solution ecosystem and the value of this service for each player. A subsequent Smart Container Business Requirements Specifications (BRS) document was developed and published in September 2019. This is an official global UN/CEFACT deliverable, which explains the value proposition of different smart container use cases in detail, with the focus on data exchange, values, and formats.

Each new project in the UN/CEFACT domain builds on its Core Component Library (CCL), or the appropriate subset of contextualised data elements, such as the Multi-Modal Transport Reference Data Model (MMT). Consequently, concurrent with the development of the BRS, activities to define the data elements that would specify smart container processes were initiated.

The UN/CEFACT CCL data model is extensible and evolves over time to meet changing requirements. Data elements to accommodate use cases as identified in the smart container BRS and their associated semantic definitions have now been implemented in the UN/CEFACT CCL and the MMT.

The MMT includes transport booking, transport ordering and freight invoicing processes, together with actual transportation and required border clearance process related data elements. These data elements create contextualised, technology-independent notification message structures.

In this data modelling process, items added to the CCL and the MMT during the smart container project include:

  • Sensor related data-elements and classes
  • Geographical information data-elements and classes
  • A total of approximately 120 additions to the CCL with 6 changes to existing entities (related to geographical objects)
  • Linking to MMT entities like Consignment and Transport Equipment

The methodology of the UN/CEFACT Smart Container Project is based on four steps:

  1. Identify stakeholders and Smart Container services as provided for in the BRS document.
  2. Derive data elements to be exchanged by smart container solutions identified in the use cases (outputs and inputs of the services).
  3. Select a subset of data to define a contextualised message structure to meet the requirements of a given use case. This message structure is independent from the technology that will be used to communicate the data.
  4. Define a specific syntax-based information exchange using a chosen technology, which may result in API definitions or EDI message definitions based on standardised data elements.

Step 3 of the process was finished in October 2020 with the completion of the Codes Lists and Messaging structures within the MMT, which concluded all the expected deliverables of the Smart Container Project.

Eleven new code lists (e.g., defined codes, names and descriptions) were created to align the entries to specific data elements to complement the UN/CEFACT smart container data model (a table including these code lists, their purposes and examples is included in the full paper linked here and again at the bottom of this article).

Next Steps

UN/CEFACT, in concert with other open standardisation organisations, will continue to develop and maintain standards for Smart Containers to ensure they support the business requirements of stakeholders, now and in the future.

At this stage, the smart container team has delivered the expected deliverables from the project proposal that was supported by the governments of France, Italy, Australia, and the United States. These deliverables include a White Paper for decision makers, BRS, a concrete data model for dry and reefer containers based on established standards, and various code lists that complement this data model.

A future Smart Container 2.0 project to update the current data model (if required) with the additional deliverable of an API catalogue for Smart Containers may be forthcoming. The UN/CEFACT group is currently working on an Application Programming Interface (API) standardisation methodology, which will enable the development of a Smart Container API catalogue that can provide a source code-based interface specification enabling software components (services) to communicate with each other.

The team is now also reaching out to early adopters, including IoT providers and relevant organisations such as the DCSA, SMDG, and IATA, to receive input based on their review of the project deliverables. The team will continually maintain the standard code lists with the relevant organisations and ensure the relevancy of the data model.

This paper can be considered as a call for review and participation to maintain the new smart container related code lists.


The UN/CEFACT Smart Container project developed multi-modal open communications standards that can facilitate the provision of state-of-the-art services. Any stakeholder may orchestrate and enrich related services to meet their business process needs.

The availability and exposition of these services can boost the digital transformation of the transportation and logistics industry, fuelling innovation in new applications and business models.

Smart containers will revolutionise the capture and timely reporting of data throughout the transport sector and are an essential building block to meet the emerging requirements for end-to-end supply chains. As leading carriers adopt smart container solutions, they gain valuable data that can be shared with all authorised supply chain stakeholders.

DCSA is one example of how the industry is adopting the UN/CEFACT Smart Container standards. DCSA has already defined IoT connectivity standards in support of smart containers and other IoT enabled objects, which will accelerate further adoption of this technology.

Many concepts and initiatives have also emerged that take into account smart container data and services. The maritime industry is taking advantage of emerging technologies and concepts including digital twins that will allow us to “digitally represent and simulate objects and events prior to decision making” – including smart containers. Digital data streams, built upon standardised data sharing, provide opportunities for real-time representation and simulation of authentic situations.

All initiatives involving smart containers will be more successful when based on standards. Collaborative efforts to support the improvement of the maritime sector by engaging an ever-larger community of people from research and practice also resulted in a textbook on ‘Maritime Informatics’, covering all the emerging concepts that are transforming maritime-based supply chains.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed herein are the authors’; they are not necessarily those of their employers or organisations in which they are active. This article is an abridged version of a longer paper by the authors, including further details, tables, diagrams and a full list of references, which can be downloaded here.

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About the Authors

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Hanane Becha is currently IoT programme Project lead at DCSA and the UN/CEFACT Vice Chair for Transport and Logistics.

Todd Frazier is Strategic Project Lead for the US Regulatory Compliance group and is the FedEx Express Accredited Representative to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). He is also Chairman of the Cargo Services Conference, the cargo standards formulation body of IATA.

Michael Schröder is Project Manager eSolutions at Hapag-Lloyd and contributes to various standardisation organisations, such as UN/CEFACT, DCSA and SMDG.

Jaco Voorspuij is responsible for Industry Engagement Transport & Logistics at GS1, is co-chair of the International Taskforce Port Call Optimization, and has worked with various standardisation organisations like CEN and UN/CEFACT.

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