How digitising ocean booking and document management improves your supply chain


By Corey Brincks, Senior Product Marketing Manager, FourKites. 

Document management is a critical, yet often overlooked, aspect of international shipping. A single ocean journey typically spans 20 days and requires between 9 and 18 separate documents, each of which must be carefully prepared, reviewed and submitted to specific parties at specific times.

The process is further complicated by the extensive communication required, with many shipments generating over 200 emails between the various parties involved.

While it may be tempting to view document management as a mundane administrative task, the consequences of failing to give it the attention it deserves can be severe. Inaccurate or delayed documentation can lead to significant shipment delays, resulting in substantial demurrage and detention charges that can quickly erode profit margins. Beyond the financial impact, these delays can also strain customer relationships and damage a company’s reputation for reliability.

Booking management is another crucial element of international shipping that can significantly impact the efficiency and profitability of a company’s supply chain operations. The process involves a complex series of interactions between shippers, carriers, and other stakeholders, and requires a deep understanding of the various factors that can influence the availability and cost of shipping capacity.

With countless external factors that can significantly impact international shipping, why leave anything to chance when ocean bookings and documents can be streamlined and controlled?

I spoke with FourKites’ Head of International Solutions, Mike DeAngelis, to explore how shippers can take control by digitising booking and document management.

How are most shippers managing bookings and documents today?

Shippers have yet to fully capitalise on the potential to optimise their performance through a robust integration of booking and supply chain visibility systems, and the subsequent process automation that such integration enables.

I recently spoke with a global executive at a major food and beverage company who revealed that they are booking directly with carriers through the carrier’s website and, to achieve visibility,  manually input booking information into SAP. This leaves them dependent on carriers to provide spreadsheets, which can vary in quality and frequency, and the process is time-consuming, often taking hours or even days. Consequently, their operation remains highly inefficient and prone to errors, inevitably leading to downstream complications. There’s still a lot of room for performance improvement among even the biggest shippers.

Why is it important to synchronise bookings, documents and shipment details across your supply chain systems?

When the right data and documentation fail to reach the right person at the right time, shipments can grind to a halt, and visibility into their estimated time of arrival (ETA) can become obscured. Containers can be denied loading for myriad reasons — hazardous materials (HazMat) paperwork gets rejected, shipping instructions are delayed, or customs filings fail to arrive within the mandatory 24-hour pre-departure window. If those documents aren’t approved and delivered to the appropriate parties, your cargo won’t make it onto the vessel and, to make matters worse, you’ll start accruing demurrage and late delivery charges.

On the load creation front, when you have to rely on manual load creation from a third party, even if it’s one of your own offices, you are bound to encounter missing shipments and tracking that starts after the fact, limiting your visibility. This disjointed process across multiple systems can lead to downstream problems and unpleasant surprises. If you can only see what’s in a container two weeks after it’s loaded without any initial ETA, you’re perpetually playing catchup.

What practical steps can ocean shippers take to enhance their operations through digitised document management and booking processes?

Achieving world-class, reliable and real-time ocean visibility begins with implementing a robust document management process and gradually automating each step. Automation is only feasible when you have 99% confidence in the timeliness and accuracy of your data.

At its core, document management is about efficient process management and coordination: ensuring that the right version of the right document is seen and approved by the right person at the right time, and is available before it causes any disruptions. Platforms and services that provide out-of-the-box structure for establishing and automating document management steps can significantly impact demurrage charges, a cost that can amount to millions per year.

Ocean booking solutions that integrate with your visibility solution make efficient, automated document management systems possible. The quality and frequency of data from the booking partner, as well as how that data synchronises with the visibility solution, are crucial factors. Shippers should also evaluate whether each load can be created automatically between their chosen solutions. When executed correctly, the time and cost savings can be substantial.

Any other tips for international shippers looking to improve their booking solution and overall network visibility?

Shippers who rely on third parties to relay essential information are introducing a potential point of failure into their shipment visibility system. By booking via an ocean TMS with direct carrier relationships, shippers can gain more control over their operations by eliminating the issue of missing or disassociated containers, booking numbers, and bills of lading. This enables shippers to automate and manage their shipments within a single integrated system.

By automating load creation through integrated booking and visibility solutions and seamlessly establishing associations between booking numbers, container numbers, and order numbers from the moment the data becomes available, shippers can shift their focus from chasing freight forwarders to daily operations and decision-making. Plus, having an automated system can save time and extend visibility lead times, getting ETAs into the hands of inventory managers, production planners, customer service managers, and more to enable better-informed decision-making.

Incorrect or delayed documents can have severe consequences, preventing your container from being loaded onto the vessel or being released from the terminal, resulting in costly demurrage and detention fees that can amount to as much as 20 times the price of the container itself.

To avoid these unnecessary expenses, which can quickly rack up to millions of dollars, it is essential to create a single, digital hub for all your shipping documents. By streamlining document management and automating workflows, you can ensure that you have accurate, complete documents delivered on time, every time. Look for a platform that can:

  • Automatically generate shipping instructions and VGM
  • Set document requirements based on shipment characteristics
  • Establish deadlines and notifications according to ETD/ETA
  • Automatically notify stakeholders of responsibilities, ensuring a smooth and efficient process from start to finish.

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