Data opportunities in logistics, transport, and shipping

This article is sponsored by Rackspace Technology and AWS.

Image courtesy of Arno Senoner.

For the enterprise world to keep sailing, the logistics, transport, and shipping industries must operate on time and point. Thus, any delay, redundancy, or bottleneck with people, processes, and technologies must be resolved promptly to prevent an irreversible domino effect.

In this regard, logistics, transport, and shipping businesses have the opportunity to transform their business, given the right tools and strategy.

To provide valuable insights into this matter, senior data and IT experts gathered for a roundtable, “Transforming Logistics, Transport & Shipping Using Data,” organised by Jicara Media and hosted by Rackspace Technology and AWS.

According to Hemanta Banerjee, Vice President of Public Cloud Data Services at Rackspace Technology, organisations often make the mistake of treating data transformation projects as a one-time, big-time undertaking, which could do more harm than good.

Banerjee recommends starting small and building up gradually. “As you get more information, you get better at it, and you make better choices, which drives your subsequent decisions,” he explained.

The executive also emphasised that IT alone cannot spearhead such an undertaking, which is another common mistake he has observed among businesses.

“IT can provide the tools, technologies, or skill sets of the people. However, ultimately, there has to be somebody on the business side who possesses a deep understanding of the strategy, operations, and so on, and can do the analytics and gather insights. IT can bring the data to one place and make it available, but utilising it to gather insights and make business decisions has to be driven by someone running the operation,” Banerjee said.

Troubled waters

Elite Digital Logistics, which provides freight management solutions to the chemical industry, started its cloud journey in 2014 by partnering with vendors such as Rackspace Technology and AWS.

Presently, the company faces the challenge of effectively utilising the massive amount of data they possess.

“We’ve been on the journey of digital transformation for the past five years, and it’s moving. So, we are now in the part of legacy modernisation of the full data platform. The challenge is that we have a huge amount of data accumulated over the past 30 years, and we need to figure out how to use it in the best way,” said Thirumal Raj, Global CIO/CTO of Elite Digital Logistics.

Meanwhile, a Singapore-based supply chain and fulfilment firm are currently searching for a platform that can synchronise data from all their various clients.

“We are warehousing all of the products, which were ordered from Lazada, for example. So, we are integrating APIs from different systems of different clients, and we have lots of challenges due to data privacy. Therefore, I’m looking for solutions that can replace the existing multi-channel applications we currently have,” said the IT manager of the supply chain and fulfilment firm.

In the case of Equatorial Marine Fuel Management Services, data management challenges arise from the point of data creation and the fragmentation of different parts of the business and supply chain.

“It is different when you’re sitting in the office, than when you’re onboard a vessel. How do you digitise data between vessels and supply chains? It’s different in the vessel environment. It’s not as simple as putting in a wireless access point or running a cable from point to point. Connectivity is a real challenge,” noted Collin Ng, the company’s CTO.

Industry transformation

Logistics, transport, and shipping industries have undergone significant transformations in recent years.

Previously, the industry was dominated by major players who controlled various aspects, from consignees and shippers to key ports used for bunkering. This created a closed-loop system, remarked Dr Joey Tan, Head of Strategy Pursuit & Sustainability at AWS.

However, today’s system is much more open, with 20 to 22 milestones between shippers and consignees that expose many unknown factors. When considering IT solutions for data, Tan believes there will never be a perfect solution to control every aspect of organisations’ data.

In addition to these challenges, profitability remains a difficult issue to address.

“The margin of a logistics or supply chain business is always eroding. So, no matter how innovative our ideas are, we will inevitably encounter the hurdle of implementing them cost-effectively for businesses,” Tan added.

Given these scenarios, Tan enumerated three strategies to give businesses a head start in data transformation:

  • Understand your company in terms of the domain.
  • Understand how you ingest all kinds of unstructured data into a common platform.
  • Explore new data concepts, such as synthetic data.

“How do we use AI to extract certain elements of the data that we receive, to create valuable data that we need? This will only happen if we are comfortable with the fact that there will never be a structured perfect database out there,” he explained.

Indeed, AI is solving problems for companies like Equatorial Marine, although it cannot fully replace human judgement at an industrial site.

“AI helps to reduce a lot of errors and makes life a lot easier. Humans can make better judgements more quickly, with the support of AI. We’ve tried using AI to make good decisions, but it’s still difficult for AI to make judgments that humans will feel at ease with. Also, customers still prefer a human touch,” noted Equatorial Marine’s Collin Ng.

Ng suggested that companies facing challenges in getting AI or automation projects approved should always inform decision-makers about the type of data they have and what they can do with it.

“While tools like surface analytics can provide qualitative metrics, it’s important to consider what kind of business use they have. For example, we look at what impacts our turnaround time or how long it takes for a vessel to deliver our fuel. These kinds of analogies can help us make decisions,” the company CTO said.

Cruising ahead

In addition to data consolidation, standardisation, and finding value from unstructured databases, shippers and transporters are focused on data security.

With cybercrimes becoming more sophisticated, no industry is immune to the risk, and companies must take proactive measures to protect their data. However, even with these measures, 100% security is not possible.

According to the supply chain and fulfilment firm’s IT manager, data security is the main concern in times like these. They emphasised the importance of securing data storage, defining confidential and non-confidential information, and highlighted the vital role of technology in predefining and locking down data access while gathering and using data for analytics.

Noting all of these concerns, Rackspace Technology’s Hemanta Banerjee said they can assist organisations in the following areas:

  • Advisory: Working with organisations to understand their current position, identify their future state, and suggest the appropriate solutions to leverage.
  • Day One services: This includes migration, transformation, or modernisation, with the help of AWS.
  • Day Two services: Rackspace Technology can ensure that organisations’ systems and workloads are running efficiently in the cloud.

In conclusion, the Rackspace Technology executive advised businesses to treat their digital transformation as a journey with clearly defined parameters of what they wanted to achieve within a certain timeline. This approach, said Banerjee, would make the project implementation go smoothly.