• Container tracking and smart containers


    Most reputable shipping lines provide container tracking tools, track and trace, through their own websites. Containers are not yet tracked electronically (implanting micro-chip transmitters is still too expensive) but every move is notified and recorded in the tracking system, making up-to-date information available. As individual carriers traditionally work with proprietary computer systems and programs for such services, receivers have to contact each carrier individually, which is cumbersome. However, shipping portals are increasingly standardizing the way shippers, receivers and clearing agents interact with carriers, by providing access through a single platform. Other service tools will include sailing schedules, container bookings, bill of lading information and event notifications. Large shippers/receivers can have direct (authorised) access to such portals and may for example operate entirely with electronic information, including bills of lading. Smaller or occasional shippers/receivers mostly still rely on hard copy (printed) bills of lading but the portal can arrange to print the document at the most appropriate location. This saves time and minimizes the risk of mail being lost.

    Eventually, such portals will also interact with both e-commerce and paperless trading systems. For more on this go to www.inttra.com 

    Depending on their sophistication modern container seals, unlike RFID devices *, can record and transmit all actions that might occur during a voyage, particularly also the opening/closing of container doors. They are read by scanning, some at distance using RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), and are useful tools for keeping track of cargo and facilitating cross-border trade, for example by reducing customs formalities in Europe. But security concerns are also placing electronic seals in the forefront of anti-terrorism activities. Until fairly recently a container load of simple food items like bottled water, flour or sugar did not pose any major security risk as theft was unlikely. But today there is a real risk of terrorist action (contamination, poisoning…) and also low value food cargo requires high levels of security.

    The Smart Container pilot project by US Customs represents another potential approach but, whichever direction is taken, electronic seals or smart containers, one or both will become an integral part of coffee logistics.  Although the cost of active (able to report) electronic seals is coming down and re-usable ones are increasingly available, cost still remains an obstacle, not least because of the massive number of container shipments that take place daily.

    * RFID or Radio Frequency Identification devices are very small chips linked to a tiny antenna. The chip contains an identity number which it broadcasts when activated by a radio signal.


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