Harmonizing Our Supply Chain

Ports + Politics
carl w. bentzel

Our supply chain needs to be harmonized. I believe that the U.S. public would be startled at the level of dependency that our nation’s economy derives from all of the products that we ship through U.S. ports. Given such, we have to maximize efficiency through better information sharing practices.

The challenges of supply chain stakeholders sharing timely information and real time estimated arrivals, and speaking the same lexicon in the movement of freight, has existed for a long time. It became much more pronounced during the pandemic, reaching what I would consider a crisis point in the summer of 2021.

During this time, where U.S. ports were setting all-time record highs in the movement of imported containerized cargo, they were also struggling to find adequate supplies of intermodal chassis: One of the two west coast railroads paused service for two weeks in July, further stalling the supply chain. It was as if one part of the supply chain was unfamiliar with what was happening with the other. However, the most surprised was the shipper, who was trying to move its cargo.

There needs to be better connectivity within the supply chain and much better communication so that shippers and operators such as carriers, MTOs, ports, and rail lines are working in tandem and not independently reacting to the next supply chain disruption.

A standard harmonized practice needs to be established.

Throughout the pandemic, our ports and terminals handled a 27% increase of imported container shipments. For a variety of reasons, our supply chain could not handle it. The result was a meltdown of the supply chain, leaving shippers, stakeholders, and U.S. consumers vulnerable.

To address these challenges, I was directed by Federal Maritime Commission Chairman Dan Maffei to lead the Maritime Transportation Data Initiative (MTDI). Public meetings began in December 2021 and culminated in June 2022 with a Data Summit. Overall, we had the participation of 80 different experts from every sector of the maritime supply chain, supplemented by meetings with the Administration, international shipping interests and other stakeholders.

The three objectives of the Maritime Data Initiative were:

  • Catalogue status quo in maritime data elements, metrics, transmission, and access;
  • Identify key gaps in data definitions/classification; and
  • Develop recommendations for common data standards and access policies/protocols.

I have recently completed the initial Recommendations and Views. The report is posted on my webpage (fmc.gov/commissioners/carl-w-bentzel), and we are in the process of developing questions for a series of Requests for Information (RFIs) that we plan to release in June to solicit further public comment on the recommendations.

At the core of the MTDI process are recommendations for pre-planning cargo movements, enhanced in-transit visibility with real-time forecasted arrivals, harmonized exchange of transit data from carrier to terminal, and better coordination among transportation modes and stakeholders to inland destinations.

In my view, the costs of transportation congestion were the most singularly important contributor to the costs of inflation that have resulted in trillions of dollars of impact on our economy and on U.S. consumers. Could this have been avoided? Perhaps not completely, but a stronger, more connected supply chain will help mitigate severe cargo disruptions and congestion.

Ports must continue to play a key role in coordinating our supply chain. I am asking that, if you are a landlord port, assist in public facing the information that terminals will be receiving from the ocean carriers, terminals, and intermodal rail carriers moving cargo to points inland. I am also strongly encouraging a coordination process in which shippers will have a much clearer understanding of equipment availability, rail arrival and departure times, gate access, and continuing to provide a record of road closures, severe weather conditions that inform the supply chain’s fluidity, through tweets, emails, or texts and that this information is preserved for up to two years.

Cargo surges will happen again. It is my goal to have a better information sharing process in place, better advanced notification of incoming cargo, and much better coordination between the different transportation modes and stakeholders. The number one takeaway from the 18 MTDI public meetings is that moving freight through our supply chain is a shared responsibility. Information sources currently exist with minor modification to provide planning and real-time coordinated information to enhance efficiency throughout the supply chain.

harmonizing our supply chain

As I said, this is not a new problem and not just a pandemic issue. The participants in Commissioner Rebecca Dye’s Fact Findings 28 & 29 repeatedly referenced information sharing and a common lexicon as major contributing factors to inefficient cargo movement and delays. The MTDI has looked at these issues head on.

This is an area that has developed an intense national and international level of interest, and I have met with and consulted our international colleagues involved in shipping. They are interested in what we are considering and acknowledge that it is an issue of enormous consequence, in need of a solution. In May, the State of California announced an MOU for the launching of a collaborative for data sharing and the availability of $27 million of investment in technology.

To capitalize on this investment, we need to establish a standard governing what information needs to be supplied by the industry to make the technology work.

It’s vitally important to point out that the entire MTDI process has been completely and utterly transparent. I’m proud to say that the public, industry stakeholders, academia, and each FMC Commissioner participated in the MTDI meetings and will continue to have the opportunity to constructively contribute to the final MTDI product.

Further, to this point, each of the 18 public MTDI meetings that we convened in 2022 were recorded and are on the FMC YouTube channel. That is eighteen hours of supply chain data experts and users actively answering and discussing the data questions asked throughout the meetings. We have posted comments to this process on my webpage as well.

How we get to the final recommendations for MTDI needs to be as transparent as the harmonization of information and the practice we will be mandating.

Simply put, there is too much at stake not to take action to establish a Maritime Transportation Data System.