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The container shipping industry has been progressively embracing Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and digitization over the years to meet a variety of needs. In a 2018 article, The Digital Imperative in Container Shipping, global consulting firm BCG described the digital push then: “The time has come for the container-shipping industry to join the digital revolution. Digital opens the door for carriers to strengthen their direct relationships with end customers, further reduce their costs (including for fuel, vessel operation, and customer service), and pursue new revenue streams beyond traditional shipping services.”

Of course, those were much simpler times, when a global pandemic hadn’t yet upended the world and the unprecedented supply chain chaos being experienced today was something most couldn’t have imagined. So, if digitization was an imperative for container shipping then—it’s even more the case now.

And when it comes to the global distribution of temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccines—as well as the massive quantities of perishable goods languishing in various stages of supply chain disruption—the imperative for reliable refrigerated shipping containers, aka “reefers,” to optimize cold chain logistics and improve visibility is more urgent than ever.

Creating Interoperability in Container Shipping

One issue that has made it difficult for digital processes to be optimized in such a massive industry was the lack of interoperability between the technologies in use. In 2019, the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) was created to help change that.

According to its website, the DCSA is “a nonprofit, independent organization established in 2019 by several of the largest container shipping companies. DCSA’s mission is to be the de facto standards body for the industry, setting the technological foundation for interoperable IT solutions. Together with our member carriers, DCSA creates vendor-neutral, technology-agnostic, standards for IT and non-competitive business practices. By working towards the widespread adoption of these standards, our aim is to move the industry forward in terms of customer experience, efficiency, collaboration, innovation and respect for the environment.”

This video from DCSA, “How digital standards transform customer experience,” provides a glimpse into the challenges associated with lack of visibility into the container supply chain—and how the use of digital standards can help to address them.

The DCSA published its first set of IoT connectivity interface standards for shipping containers in June of 2020.

In a DCSA press release, Thomas Bagge, CEO of DCSA, referred to the first release of IoT standards as “an important step in enabling mass deployment of smart containers and forms the foundation of a group of standards that will address the industry’s most critical container use cases. Once implemented, our IoT standards will enable, for example, reefer container tracking, monitoring and controlling along the entire container journey, with no connectivity ‘blind spots’. This will provide more value to the end customer while increasing the efficiency of container operations. Equally as important, we’re giving the industry a framework for interoperability that will allow stakeholders to create innovative IoT solutions that can be leveraged by any industry stakeholder, market supplier or service provider.”

In December of 2020, the DSCA released its IoT Data Standard for Remote Reefer Container Monitoring on Board a Vessel.

A DSCA press release announcing the new standard noted that although reefer containers “are embedded with an array of sensors connected to the Reefer controller units,” it was still necessary for crew members of a vessel to physically check the controller units throughout a voyage to ensure proper functioning and to inform any corrective actions that may be needed.

To help increase efficiency and reduce the potential for human error, the DCSA standard “defines a minimum set of data elements to be shared with the vessel crew to enable remote monitoring of smart Reefer containers on board a vessel. …The remote monitoring is feasible via IoT container devices that are able to collect data from the reefer controller units, process it and send these data elements to local servers and applications on board a vessel via the gateways on board a vessel.”

The Growth of Smart Reefer Containers

The release of the DSCA’s reefer container monitoring standard was certainly timely, since the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for smart reefer containers.

Quoted in a June 2021 Container News article, Al Tama, Vice President and General Manager, Container and Port Solutions, ORBCOMM described the dynamics involved: “Implementation of Internet of Things (IoT) telematics that allow reefer containers and cargoes to be remotely located and monitored around the world was already happening before the pandemic but adoption has escalated in the last year, including more factory installations on newbuild units.”

In an ORBCOMM post, Tama described the importance of the DCSA’s standards efforts, along with those of the Container Owners Association (COA): “The efforts of the Digital Container Shipping Association and the Container Owners Association in developing standards for reefer container IoT communication technology and data have been a big boost for adoption.”

In addition to citing a number of standards published by the DCSA, Tama noted that “the COA’s Reefer Telematics Working group, a collaboration of reefer equipment manufacturers and telematics Providers, published a new open standard Reefer Data Classification Scheme, supported by an open source Unified Data Model (UDM), to enable the exchange of information on refrigerated containers in a uniform way, independent of the model and manufacturer.”

A COA press release about the new standard described the impetus behind the project: “The key objective of the UDM is to remove barriers to interoperability within the industry and make it easier for data consumers to build value-added services for their container operations. This is relevant as it is estimated around 70% of all data integration activities today are spent validating, structuring, organizing and cleaning data, a cumbersome burden that the Unified Data Model eliminates for the data consumers.”

Commenting on the publication of the Reefer Telematics UDM, the COA states in the release: “By using the standard data model provided in this document, shipping lines – and other reefer container operators – who have mixed fleets of different reefer machinery will benefit from the convenience of accessing relevant data, without the complexity of accessing them with different formats and means.”

Predictions for the Future

Underscoring the impact of the COVID-19 to catalyze rapid change in the container shipping industry, the DCSA made five predictions for the next five years when it comes to digitalization in container shipping:

  1. Progress on customer experience—with increased visibility of cargo status that includes “proactive notifications of delays and a dramatic reduction in manual effort around booking, tracking and documentation.”

  2. More interoperability—with “an increasing number of technology platforms emerging that have been built on standards that enable interoperability.”

  3. The smart container tipping point—“…by 2026 we may well have reached the point where the benefits of smart containers are clear to all industry participants, including regulators and customs bodies.”

  4. A focus on sustainability—”DCSA expects sustainability to become an important driver of digitalization in its own right, as it enables carriers to optimize operations in ways that increase sustainability…”

  5. Accelerated innovation—”The digital standards we’ve released to date are setting a foundation that will lower the barrier to entry for businesses who want to introduce innovative, futureproof solutions that will transform the industry for the better.”

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