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Container Tracking Software: How to Leverage Container Tracking Technology for Complete Transparency

Container-tracking software solutions and technology are revolutionising the maritime industry by giving unparalleled transparency

Real-time and automated container tracking software solutions are transforming the maritime industry by delivering unparalleled visibility and transparency throughout a container’s journey, helping entities remain compliant, avoid penalties, and preserve their reputation via efficient container monitoring.

According to Körber‘s 2023 State of Shipping and Returns Survey, 70% of consumers experienced shipping delays, and 35% of them stated they had not received an explanation for these delays. This survey underscores the importance of augmenting ship visibility through container tracking. 

Container tracking presents an innovative and groundbreaking opportunity for industry stakeholders to fulfill customer requirements, preempt unforeseen delays, enhance transparency, and establish accountability.

Automated ship container tracking solutions, like what we provide here at Pole Star Global, offer advantages to shippers, financial departments, government agencies, port authorities, and customers alike. By using Pole Star's PurpleTRAC container tracking software, you will optimise your operations, access real-time information regarding container movements and compliance assessments, and establish a comprehensive audit trail. And to access all of this, you simply need a container number.

In this container tracking software guide, we explain the importance of automated real-time container tracking systems, how such systems work, and the distinct advantages that arise from integrating these systems into your maritime operations. 

These advantages encompass decreased shipping expenses, streamlined transhipment management, and the establishment of transparent and effective supply chains. You'll also learn how container tracking software can identify port congestion and assess port efficiency. 

Furthermore, you’re granted exclusive access to our container tracking software solution, PurpleTRAC, giving you a practical resource for proficient container tracking management.

  • PurpleTRAC: Getting started with Pole Star Global's container tracking software solution
  • What is container tracking?
  • How do container-tracking software solutions work?
  • Understanding shipping container tracking: Glossary
  • The value container tracking systems provide for different stakeholders
  • Innovative tracking for shipping containers: Moving away from manual processes with automated and real-time updates
  • The benefits of container tracking software
  • Overcoming transhipment challenges with container tracking software
  • Tracking container milestones using container tracking software
  • Join Pole Star Global on tour

PurpleTRAC: Getting started with Pole Star Global's container tracking software solution 

Complete the form below to request a demo of Pole Star Global's container tracking software solution, PurpleTRAC. In this demo, you'll see how our container tracking software works to fully screen vessels and a container's journey, with a complete audit trail and downloadable reports. We also discuss these capabilities later in this article.

What is container tracking?

Container tracking employs technology to monitor the whereabouts and condition of shipping containers throughout their journey, from their point of origin until they reach their final destination. The primary objective is to help organisations anticipate supply chain challenges and prevent potential delays, while also ensuring compliance and accountability.

The concept of container tracking encompasses both basic manual tracking methods and advanced automated solutions that furnish real-time insights regarding a container's progression through the supply chain.

Leading the field is Pole Star's container tracking solution, PurpleTRAC, which furnishes dynamic, up-to-the-minute container information across 165+ carriers (which is the maximum in the industry) and 1800+ watchlists. This encompasses comprehensive reports detailing a container's port visits, precise arrival times, involved vessels, ownership particulars, and alerts for potential breaches of sanctions tied to shipments linked with the container. This methodology delivers a holistic overview of the container's journey, encompassing loading, unloading, and any transhipment events to streamline inspections. Additionally, access to PDF reports that outline the container's port visits and exact arrival times ensures a thorough and traceable audit trail.

Plus, if you’re not sure which container to choose, our PurpleTRAC software comes with an auto-detect carrier feature. Track containers by selecting the auto-detect carrier option, or simply skip this step and submit the container number on its own. The carrier will still be screened.

Download our one page overview of Pole Star Global's container tracking software solution 

How does automated container tracking work?

Container screening via PurpleTRAC uses track and trace data from carriers combined with vessel/company/location screening on PurpleTRAC (ship + sanction data). It’s a snapshot screening result. Estimated Time of Arrival (ETAs) are based on a carrier's schedule and the actual timestamps are as confirmed by the carrier. This feature provides the most recent result, so when screening the container again sometime later, some estimated events would have changed to actual timestamps and a vessel could have alerts where it didn’t before.

PurpleTRAC’s container tracking feature will provide:

  • Full screening of all vessels in the container journey;
  • Severity statuses of ports, plus the origin and destination (if any), based on the customer’s blacklist settings;
  • Compliance status of the carrier + watchlists (if any);
  • A detailed journey schedule;
  • Downloadable container reports (PDF).

Pole Star Global’s PurpleTRAC container tracking solution gives a real portrait of container movements between loading and unloading points, yielding more precise Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) predictions for the global array of container vessels. All you need to access this information is a container’ number.

To help you comprehend automated container tracking solutions and the benefits they give, we’ve defined key terms commonly used in the industry in our glossary below.

Understanding container shipping tracking: Glossary

  • Port of landing (POL): The Port of Loading (POL) refers to the specific harbour or terminal where cargo, including containers, is loaded onto a vessel for transportation. It’s the initial point within a logistics chain where goods are packed onto a ship for export. The POL is crucial in the shipping process as it marks the origin of the cargo's voyage, and it’s where the documentation and handling of goods typically begins.
  • Port of departure (POD): The Port of Departure (POD) is the designated harbour or terminal where cargo, including containers, is unloaded from a vessel upon reaching its destination. It signifies the endpoint within a logistics chain where goods are discharged from the ship after their journey. The POD is a pivotal component of the shipping process, representing the final stage of transportation, and it’s associated with customs clearance, cargo handling, and delivery to the intended recipient or onward transportation.
  • Actual time of arrival (ATA): The Actual Time of Arrival (ATA) refers to the precise moment when a vessel reaches its designated destination or port. It’s the exact time a container physically arrives at the predetermined location - as opposed to any estimated or projected arrival times. ATA is a crucial parameter in logistics and transportation management, helping organisations schedule tracking, coordinate operations, and assess the efficiency of transport services.
  • Actual time of departure (ATD): The Actual Time of Departure (ATD) refers to the precise moment when a vessel begins its journey from a specific location, such as a port, terminal, or point of origin. It’s the exact time a container departs - as opposed to any estimated or projected departure times. ATD is a significant parameter in logistics and transportation management, helping to track schedules, synchronise operations, and evaluate the efficiency of transportation services.
  • Free on Board (FOB): A freight on board agreement, otherwise known as a Free on Board (FOB), is an international commercial law term published by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). Two main types of FOB agreements exist:
    • FOB Origin - indicates that the buyer assumes responsibility for the goods and shipping costs from the moment these goods leave the seller's location;
    • FOB Destination - is a shipping arrangement where the seller remains responsible for the goods and shipping costs until they reach the buyer's designated location.

 Hence, these agreements define ownership, responsibility, and risk during transportation.

  • Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA): Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) refers to the projected time when a ship, container, or shipment is expected to reach its designated destination. It's calculated by considering factors like distance, vessel speed, weather conditions, and potential delays. 
  • Estimated Time of Departure (ETD): Estimated Time of Departure (ETD) refers to the anticipated time when a vessel, container, or shipment is scheduled to depart from its current location or port of origin. ETD is a critical piece of information for coordinating loading, customs clearance, and logistical operations to ensure timely departure. 
  • Geofencing port areas: Geofencing port areas involves creating virtual geographic boundaries around specific port locations using GPS or RFID technology. This digital perimeter enables authorities to monitor and control the movement of vessels, vehicles, and cargo within designated areas. Geofencing can help enhance security, streamline operations, and enforce regulations by triggering alerts or actions when objects enter or exit these predefined zones - such as container carrier ships - allowing for efficient management of port activities and resources.
  • Port calls: A port call refers to the scheduled arrival, stay, and departure of a ship or vessel at a seaport (as defined by the geofenced port areas). During a port call, various activities take place, including loading and unloading cargo, refuelling, crew changes, maintenance, and regulatory inspections. Efficient management of port calls is crucial for optimising maritime operations, minimising turnaround times, and ensuring the timely movement of goods and vessels in and out of ports.
  • Port waiting areas: A port waiting area is a designated space within a port where ships and vessels wait before they can access the docking facilities or proceed to load or unload cargo. This area allows port authorities to manage the flow of incoming vessels, ensuring they are efficiently processed and allocated a berth or dock space. Port waiting areas play a crucial role in regulating maritime traffic, optimising port operations, and preventing congestion at the dockside.
  • Transhipment port (TSP): A transhipment port (TSP) is a location within a logistics network where cargo is transferred from one transportation vessel, such as a ship, to another. The aim is to get the cargo to its final destination. These intermediate ports facilitate the movement of goods between different modes of transport, optimising shipping routes and increasing efficiency. TSPs play a crucial role in global trade by enabling the consolidation and distribution of goods across various shipping routes.

The value container tracking systems provide for different stakeholders

The significance of today’s new and innovative container tracking systems differs depending on the stakeholders in question. Different stakeholders will value distinct facets of container tracking solutions, as discussed: 

  • Shippers: Utilising container tracking solutions enables shippers to proficiently oversee their inventory, preventing depletion and guaranteeing punctual delivery of merchandise. Plus, seasonal inventory is effectively managed with accurate time of arrival estimations for goods' during high-demand periods.
  • Banks and financial institutions: By tracking the estimated time of arrival (ETA) for containers, financial departments can mitigate the risk of financial setbacks by knowing when to issue or claim payment for import and export transactions. Container tracking solutions produce instant verification of container shipping documentation and automated sanctions screening of all vessels, ports, and shipping companies that will handle the cargo from end to end. Such solutions allow banks and financial institutions to save money spent on 3rd party services, while also saving them time. Financial institutions can also automate and scale up their trade finance processes and identify fraudulent shipments.
  • Customers: Accurate information is given on the ETA of goods, and reasons for delays are stated, improving customer satisfaction. With this information, customers can better plan their operations by knowing when to expect the arrival of goods.
  • Governments and port authorities: Containers are commonly used for smuggling illicit goods. For instance, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, most of the cocaine seized in the EU has been transported by sea via maritime shipping containers. Hence, it is imperative governments and port authorities maintain complete transparency regarding the entities, ships, and cargo under their jurisdiction. This transparency enables the detection of suspicious activities prior to the arrival of illicit goods at their ports. Governments and port authorities can leverage container insights to explore potential leads regarding containers of concern anticipated to dock at a port. Ultimately, this information can provide real-time backing for border control, customs, and law enforcement endeavours. 

Innovative tracking for shipping containers: Moving away from manual processes with automated and real-time updates

The traditional journey of a shipping container goes something like this:

  • The container departs from the Port of Loading (POL) aboard vessel A;
  • The container is transferred to a transhipment hub;
  • The container is unloaded at the transhipment hub;
  • The container is then reloaded onto another vessel, let’s call this vessel B. 
  • Vessel B will transport the container to its final destination, otherwise known as the Port of Departure (POD). 

Sometimes a container will stop at multiple transhipment hubs (hence, it’s easy to see how the process can get a little complicated). Transhipments are necessary when there’s no direct link - or links aren’t cost-effective - between the POL and POD. Other reasons for a transhipment are that the POD is unavailable due to external factors, or the POD can’t handle vessels of a certain size. 

To navigate the risks associated with transhipments, it’s important you’re aware of the reasons behind potential delays ahead of time, and that you’re able to keep track of a given container’s whereabouts during its shipment.

When a transhipment takes place, there’s the risk that containers will get lost or delayed during unloading and loading periods. These delays might stem from scenarios such as rollover errors - which is when a container isn't loaded onto the designated vessel - or a tight transhipment window - meaning operations aren’t completed as scheduled. We discuss potential causes of container delays later in this article

Real-time container tracking empowers organisations to take immediate action and avert potential setbacks, whether it involves addressing rollovers or managing tight transhipment schedules more effectively.

Manual container tracking processes are prone to error and slow

Prior to the introduction of automated container-tracking software solutions, shipping companies used manual methods to monitor container locations. They relied on periodic updates from ports, waiting for these updates to appear on the port's website. 

Carriers were then required to visit the port's website to find out which ships had arrived. This data had to be manually updated by freight forwarders or shippers on their respective sites. To meet the needs of their customers, it was the responsibility of the carriers to manually communicate any issues. This process is sluggish and susceptible to errors, which can lead to incomplete and inaccurate information due to misunderstandings or communication breakdowns.

Container tracking software offers an innovative and quick solution 

In light of these shortcomings, to remain competitive, entities today are utilising automated processes for tracking shipping containers. By improving transparency and through automation, container tracking software solutions give clarity on delays, and reduce late fees and penalties - most notably detention and demurrage charges.

    • Detention charges: Charges applied to the merchant for the use of the container outside of the terminal or depot beyond the agreed time period.
    • Demurrage charges: Charges applied to the merchant for the use of the container within the terminal beyond the agreed time period.

Below, we discuss the benefits of container tracking software further.

The benefits of container tracking software

An estimated 226 million container boxes are shipped each year. The average number of containers lost at sea for the last three years (2020-2022) is approximately 2,301 per year (as reported by The World Shipping Council’s (WSC) annual Containers Lost at Sea report). What’s encouraging about this report is that the number of containers lost at sea fell to just 661 in 2022. Such a drop can be attributed to innovative developments within the maritime industry which have created and improved container tracking software for improved monitoring of shipping containers. 

These developments have brought numerous benefits to the entities that deploy them, which include:

    1. Real-time insights: Easily keep an eye on your shipments by following your containers in space and their status in real-time. Full transparency is given, meaning you’ll know when your containers are loaded and unloaded onto different vessels at different ports.
    2. Efficient supply chains: Container tracking software details where inventory is located, and will warn you about possible delays or early arrivals. In doing so, bottlenecks and inefficiencies are identified to drive operational efficiency, reduce costs, and create smoother shipping processes.
    3. Full transparency for optimised management: Automated container tracking will notify you instantaneously of containers facing critical delays and of those ahead of schedule. Such transparency enables you to focus your efforts on containers that require immediate attention.
    4. Reduced shipping costs: Use the transparency given by container tracking software to optimise routes, avoid congested ports, and enhance the accuracy of Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) measures. Accurate ETAs will mitigate unnecessary detention and demurrage charges given to the owner of a chartered ship on failure to load or discharge the ship within the time agreed. In doing so, shipping costs are reduced.

Overcoming transhipment challenges with container tracking software

Freight forwarders, beneficial cargo owners (BCOs), importers, and exporters are forced to act as investigators to locate a given shipment, to know where a given container is, and to understand where it’s going. Any delays must be investigated. Container tracking software will automate such investigations and give you the transparency you need to understand exactly what has gone on. But to fully realise the benefits of this software, you need to understand how delays happen in the first place.

Reasons for delayed container shipment 

  • Port congestion: When a seaport experiences an excessive and often unexpected accumulation of vessels, then ships must wait longer than expected to load and unload cargo. This leads to delays in the arrival, departure, loading, and/or unloading times of goods. Port congestion typically occurs when the port's infrastructure, facilities, equipment, or labour resources are insufficient to handle the volume of incoming or outgoing vessels efficiently. Factors contributing to port congestion can include high import/export volumes, inadequate infrastructure, labour disputes, inefficient logistics, adverse weather conditions, and other logistical challenges. Port congestion can disrupt supply chains, increase shipping costs, and lead to delays in the movement of goods, impacting both trade and economies.
  • Rollover delay: This occurs when a container isn't loaded onto the intended vessel scheduled to transport it from the TSP to the POL.
  • Transhipment delay: The scheduled transhipment will take place later than initially planned.
  • Late departure: The vessel departed from the POL later than the scheduled time.
  • Short transhipment buffer: There’s a high risk that the transhipment won't be completed as scheduled due to a narrow transhipment window.
  • No vessel allocation: At the POL or TSP, no vessel has been assigned to load the container(s).
  • Unfeasible Journey: Carrier-provided estimated transit times are too brief meaning ETAs are unlikely to be achieved.

It’s important to note that any given delay in one area of a container's journey will have a domino effect and could cause further delays in the rest of the journey. For instance, a short transhipment buffer could cause a rollover delay. The container is then slow to leave the TSP, and this late departure results in a later time of arrival at the POL.

On using Pole Star’s container tracking software solution, full transparency is given over the reasons for a container's delay, removing the need for time-consuming, manual detective work.

Tracking container milestones using container tracking software 

Containers pass through multiple milestones during a standard journey, with the most critical but least reported milestones being the ATA and ATD. Any delays in carrier updates can cause unnecessary demurrage fees as a result.

Sophisticated container tracking solutions give full visibility of key milestones, including:

  1. When a container has been loaded at the POL, and if there is a FOB agreement. At this juncture, the formal exchange of the cargo occurs, and the shipper obtains payment. Container tracking solutions keep track of this handover of responsibilities, meaning timely payment for the shipper.
  2. Knowing when a container arrives at the TSP means better management of land transportation and improved warehouse staffing. Staff are then free to complete more critical tasks and know when and how to scale.
  3. Container tracking monitors critical dates such as the ATA and the ATD to validate late fee invoices. This way, detention and demurrage charges are avoided and any inaccurate charges can be investigated.
  4. With real-time updates, human error is minimised. Shippers and freight forwarders therefore don’t have to rely on other inaccurate sources.

Using container tracking software to assess port congestion and port efficiency 

Two important factors that can determine whether a container will be delayed are the overall port efficiency (or turnover time), and port congestion. In this final section of this guide, we explain how you can use container tracking software, such as Pole Star’s PurpleTRAC solution, to estimate these factors.

Using real-time container tracking solutions to measure port efficiency

The quicker the turnaround time at TSPs, the more efficient the port is, and the lower the likelihood that delays will occur.

Container tracking solutions detail the time a container arrived at a port and the time the container left the port. Analysing port call durations reveals the average time a ship spends in a particular port. Longer turnover times indicate decreased efficiency.

Port efficiency can then be used to predict how long a container will take to leave the POL before arriving at the final POD. Note that when predicting this, you need visibility over the entire fleet of container vessels in line before you - and their container shipping status - as this will determine the level of port congestion.

Using real-time container tracking solutions to identify congested ports

Assessing port congestion is often simplified by counting the number of ships waiting outside the port. However, this approach can be misleading. For instance, it overlooks ships that intentionally slow down on their route to save fuel or due to congestion concerns. A more accurate measure would be to assess transit times, as we do here at Pole Star, which involves tracking when a ship exits the geofenced zone of its departure port, and when the ship enters the geofenced zone of its destination port.

For instance, transit times from China to the US West Coast ports peaked at 50 days in December 2021 and decreased to 32 days in August 2022. This change reflects the increased wait times for ships to dock in December 2021. Whether ships waited outside the port or sailed more slowly to manage congestion, considering transit times gives a more comprehensive view.

Using Pole Star’s PurpleTRAC container tracking software solution, you can analyse data from the waiting area, transit times, and port call durations. Using this information, it becomes possible to accurately gauge whether port congestion is worsening or improving.

Join Pole Star Global on tour

Join Pole Star Global as our team goes on tour. 

We'll be showcasing our best-in-class container tracking software and technology at major events across the globe. Come and visit our stand at any of the following:

  • GTR Singapore, on 5th and 6th of September 2023;
  • GTR Geneva, on the 28th of September 2023;
  • GTR New York on the 30th of November 2023.

Let us help you, as we'll showcase how our container tracking software and technology solutions can support your maritime operations. We look forward to meeting you, see you there!

Use Pole Star’s PurpleTRAC container tracking software for enhanced maritime visibility and accountability

The emergence of real-time container tracking software solutions represents a transformative shift in the maritime industry, ushering in a new era of visibility, transparency, and accountability throughout the container journey. The increasing complexities of global trade demand innovative approaches to address delays, inefficiencies, and compliance issues. Container tracking software, exemplified by solutions like Pole Star Global's PurpleTRAC, not only address these challenges but also empower industry stakeholders to take proactive measures that optimise operations, reduce costs, and enhance customer satisfaction.

Such solutions cater to a range of stakeholders – from shippers and financial institutions to governments and customers – offering them a means of streamlining operations, identifying inefficiencies, and maintaining compliance with increased confidence.

In this ever-evolving landscape, automated container tracking stands as a pivotal advancement that not only mitigates the risks and challenges associated with transhipments and delays but also ushers in an era of data-driven decision-making. By embracing these cutting-edge solutions, stakeholders across the maritime industry can optimise their operations, enhance supply chain management, and navigate the seas of global trade with heightened visibility and unprecedented accountability.


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