Digital evolution

INTTRA exec discusses pace of technology adoption in shipping

By: Eric Johnson
Photo: Rolls-Royce PLC /
 Inna Kuznetsova speaks with a mixture of excitement and caution when she describes a summit her company held in Hamburg in late May with 150 shipping and logistics industry executives.
   Kuznetsova, president and chief operating officer at the ocean shipping technology provider INTTRA, said she was encouraged by the pace of change in terms of technology adoption in the shipping industry.
   But she’s also pragmatic about where the industry is now compared with where it needs to go.
   “Fifty-one percent of the industry is still submitting shipping instructions and booking manually by phone, email, and fax,” she said in an interview with American Shipper. “There’s quite a lot of room for the acceptance of even basic forms of digitization.”
   That said, Kuznetsova noted that “winners in the race have automated what can be automated a long time ago. Now they’re moving forward.”
   That means engaging in pilot projects to digitize processes beyond booking and submitting shipping instructions, or even submitting verified gross mass (VGM) information electronically. Kuznetsova said she was struck by how many attendees at the INTTRA summit in Hamburg were already participating in technology pilots, or were eager to do so soon.
   Those pilots range from initiatives around data analytics to blockchain. Both are concepts that INTTRA is helping its network of shippers, freight forwarders, carriers, and partner software companies to better understand from an ocean shipping and broader supply chain perspective.
   INTTRA has long resided at a key intersection in the shipping industry. It essentially provides a hub where providers of capacity and buyers of capacity interact in a digital way. That unique position has emboldened the software company to try to take a leading role in dragging the industry toward more digitalization.

Winners in the race have automated what can be automated a long time ago. Now they’re moving forward.

   As Kuznetsova sees it, these pilot projects are necessary and useful, but they need to lead to a point where companies can leverage a broader community of participants. In other words, a blockchain pilot between a single carrier, single forwarder, and single shippers is useful to the extent that it proves a concept can work. But if that concept is to be widely adopted, it needs a mechanism by which the technology and benefits can be dispersed in a cost effective manner.
   INTTRA sees itself as one of those networks, though there are indeed others endeavoring to do the same. INTTRA has the advantage of touching around one-quarter of all container booking orders worldwide, so scale is major factor.
   Prior to the summit, INTTRA released a white paper characterizing how the company sees digitization impacting the shipping industry over the next 15 years.
   In the paper, called Blueprint 2032, the company discusses so-called "restful interfaces," more commonly known as application programming interfaces (APIs). American Shipper discussed the uptake of APIs with INTTRA executives in early 2016, but Kuznetsova said this week that the discussions around this form of system-to-system integrations are increasing.
   “Interest in the use of APIs has grown tremendously over last year,” she said. “We advocate for them and have APIs for a number of products. At our summit in Hamburg we ran a special track (on APIs) for our industry software partners.

The radio did not kill books. Even the internet has not killed books. New technologies create their own value but they don’t necessarily kill other technologies.

   “A lot of newer companies in our industry have advocated the use of APIs. But at the same time, we have to be careful when we project this switch," she added. "The radio did not kill books. Even the internet has not killed books. New technologies tend to find a place of their own. They create their own value but they don’t necessarily kill other technologies on their own.”
   Kuznetsova sees adoption of APIs through the lens of a growing divide between companies embracing digitization of processes and those that aren’t. She also sees INTTRA’s role as smoothing out the differences between those companies at different stages of their digital evolution.
   “A container goes through 10 or 20 different providers’ hands, and the whole chain is only as strong as the weakest link,” she said. “For quite a lot of companies, EDI remains a strong standard. We have customers who need support even with new versions of EDI. Growing digitization implies a growing divide among the industry. There’s sometimes a lack of resources and time to replace and entire IT system. And so we see the strengths of INTTRA in our ability to link players regardless of where they are. We absorb that complexity, and help them benefit from technology going forward."
   In that way, INTTRA sees broader use of APIs as a diversifying its “data ingestion services,” Kuznetsova said. If one company wants to submit shipping instructions via an API, and another via an emailed spreadsheet, INTTRA’s role is to ensure that both methods are supported.
   Looking forward, Kuznetsova said more digitization will lead not only to automating processes that are currently manual, but also engendering new business processes.
   “The industry can start looking at processes differently,” she said. “The iIteration of solutions were about financial aspects. Rates and quotes on one side, and booking and shipping instructions on other side, and those systems don’t talk to each other. Having all this data in the cloud in the same digital format, that creates opportunities.”
   For instance, she said a company could get more strategic around reducing dwell times based on analyzing how much detention and demurrage it had, a topic American Shipper analyzed in its June issue cover story "No such thing as 'free' time." A company could integrate container movements with rates and invoicing to reduce invoicing errors.
   “I’m very encouraged by the direction the industry is heading,” said Kuznetsova. “We should all push for better pricing in peak season so the industry can continue investing.”