Is global shipping a technology problem or a data problem?

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It’s been Day 3 since officially launching SKUteam and the support I’ve received so far has been overwhelming – especially from folks in the shipping community. Call me nostalgic, but the last few days have made me think a lot about the incredible challenges that face the shipping industry. The spark for SKUteam came out of trying to answer the question: Is shipping really a technology problem or a (lack of) data problem?

Supply chains went global eons ago, thanks to cheap manufacturing and lax regulations almost everywhere else around the world. America then moved on to greener pastures (literally!) becoming the think tank that drummed up ground-breaking ideas for humanity. Like for example, SMALT (the world’s first smart salt dispenser) or Juicero (the $400 juicer that does a job just as good as your own two bare hands).

Now, in contrast to all of this revolutionary globalization and ground-breaking juicing technology, let’s talk about good ole’ Microsoft Excel. If you’ve worked in supply chain, you have for sure been exposed to this fancy term called DSR’s, or in other words – Daily Status Reports. This is as sexy as it gets in the world of supply chain, when it comes to real time data on what is happening in your supply chain. This sheet is everything you’d imagine, reams of data, color coded like the Indian traffic signal – the kind that is open to everyone’s own interpretation. There are multiple tabs, representing the past, present and the future or as I call it, the good, bad and the ugly, respectively. Each sheet has numberings running into the tens of thousands, so much so that it makes my bank account jealous. The column headers have alphabet combos long enough to be that bank’s account password. The files are saved at the close of each day with the dates intelligently coded into the file name, before being emailed out to aid in version control. Now, thanks to America’s urge to innovate everything, the date and month field are swapped out compared to Asia’s date format. Trust me, 20/02/20 (Asia) vs 02/20/20 (America) gives you the mind swirl that even California’s finest cannabis can only dream of. However, there is an immense amount of valuable data hidden in that excel sheet, that is waiting to be deciphered as if it were Harry Potter’s Sorcerer’s stone.

Let’s set aside Excel for a second and come back to our fundamental question: Is shipping a technology problem or a data problem? My arguments for why this is a data problem has one overarching thesis – the very existence of a multi-billion dollar industry called freight forwarding. Simply put, freight forwarders, are in the business of moving data and not cargo. Sitting behind two monitors, wearing a suit (if you work for a certain forwarder), one secret AirPod sticking out of your ear listening to the Backstreet Boys… There is no way one can say, we ship stuff for a living with a straight face. We are simply in the business of moving data. The data that A shipment is ready at B factory, for C trucker, so here is a D.O… well, you catch the drift. Getting a little technical here, the data that we corral across a zillion sources for vessel arrival info, AMS info for customs filing (which by the way is mostly incorrect on the Arrival Notice from the carrier), the 1C (clearance) from Customs and the info from the terminal appointment website that we can enter into a DO to send a drayage carrier to pick up in one go – without any punctuations, exactly – is what a freight forwarder does.

Be it production information or inventory reports from a Walmart supplier or even your hole-in-the-wall-bodega, it gets sent back and forth on excel sheets. From equipment availability at your local container depot, all the way to the container release information at the Felixstowe terminals, it gets sent back and forth on excel sheets. And this goes on Every. Single. Day.

If that data simply began becoming easily available via API’s across all the stakeholders in a shipment transaction, it is only then that shipping becomes a technology problem. Until then, all of these excel sheets flying around the globe make it very much a data problem. Without structuring this data and ridding the world of these Excels, any attempt at making this a technology problem would yield in something that looks like a human inside an ATM or a musician inside a jukebox like in this Jobsintown advertisement. Curious to hear your thoughts?

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