Following the acquisition of a US customs brokerage in February that tripled its North American footprint, container carrier Maersk Line said Monday it has built an online platform to create customs declarations for importers and exporters using ports in seven European countries.
The move to bundle customs documentation services with ocean freight in an online product thrusts Maersk into direct competition with three types of service providers: independent customs brokers; freight forwarders that have in-house customs broker divisions; and global trade management (GTM) software providers, which provide shippers with the ability to create customs declarations electronically. The bundling is part of a larger effort by Maersk to become a global integrator of container shipping logistics.
Regional rollout, global goals
The customs platform, available initially in Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, the UK, and Spain, is a continuation of Maersk’s efforts over the past year to extend its services beyond port-to-port liner coverage. That initiative kickstarted in September with Maersk pulling the more lucrative origin forwarding services of sister company Damco under the Maersk banner and continued into 2019 with its purchase of US customs brokerage Vandergrift.
“The solution provides downstream benefits of full governance and compliance [and] eliminates the need to provide a quote as pricing is displayed online, [which saves] three to five minutes per quote,” Vincent Clerc, chief commercial officer of Maersk parent A.P. Moller-Maersk, said in a statement. Clerc added the platform is intended to reduce “the number of intermediaries [that shippers] deal with from three or four to just one, as well as paperwork, which subsequently reduce[s] the time spent on transactional procedures.”
Maersk’s move into digital customs brokerage can be seen through the prism of TradeLens, a blockchain-based platform Maersk co-developed with IBM to provide ocean freight parties with a centralized place to share and extract data related to ocean shipments, including customs documentation. Notably, a large proportion of publicly announced members of TradeLens thus far have been customs agencies and port authorities.
Some GTM software providers offer both trade compliance tools and ocean freight procurement and visibility tools, allowing the shippers or third-party logistics providers (3PLs) that use them to coordinate the physical movement of freight with the associated regulatory documents. Having the ability to manage these processes in tandem allows shippers to navigate disruptions in one workflow, whether it’s the late arrival of a vessel or a customs hold at origin or destination.
GTM providers generally invest significant resources in constantly updating trade regulations around the world, referred to as “trade content,” or use third-party providers that supply that information.
“We welcome the possibility to have all customs house brokerage documents uploaded on the internet platform [quick plus easy handling],” Robert Weber, a logistics director at the German industrial shipper Neenah Gessner, said in a statement. “[It] would be good to have one invoice handling in the future, but [it is] okay for now.”
Maersk said its goal is to offer the online customs documentation platform worldwide by the end of 2019.
The platform’s launch follows the first-ever use of a cross-border electronic consignment note called e-CMR, the digital version of the United Nations Convention on the Carriage of Goods. e-CMR was launched by TransFollow, a Dutch initiative of Evofenedex and Transport Logistics Nederland.
The e-CMR shipment was handled in February and March involving three road haulage companies: JC FIOLET Transports in France, International Road Ferry in the Netherlands, and Brian Yeardley Continental in the UK. The project was supervised by France’s La Federation Nationale Des Transports Routiers (FNTR), the UK’s Freight Transport Association (FTA), and the UK Department for Transport. The next step is for the UK to evaluate the e-CMR protocol and ratify it with the UN for a possible extension across Europe by the end of 2019.
Similar to an ocean bill of lading or air waybill, the paper-based CMR consignment note is an official document and contract between consignor, carrier, and addressee. It provides a paper trail of the logistics movement of the cargo and is normally the sole document that the drivers of the trucks have in relation to the load they carry.
With the electronic version, the International Road Transport Union (IRU), which supports the e-CMR, said shippers or transport operators would be able to electronically input, store, and exchange logistics data in real time.
In a statement, the IRU said the timely recording and exchange of logistics data meant that users would instantly receive information on the goods being transported, so any required subsequent actions, such as initiating legal processes, invoicing, or even accident response procedures would happen faster and at a lower cost.
John Lucy, manager of international transport and trade procedures at the UK logistics group FTA, said the digitalization of paper-based documents was crucial for trade between the UK and Europe. Without a formal deal in place to keep the UK in the European customs union following its departure from the EU, all trade between the two would immediately become subject to customs clearance procedures.
“The anticipated increase in EU customs documentation requirements post-Brexit will accelerate this digital development; we are already seeing EU trials of e-TIR and e-ATA carnets to enable future frictionless cross border travel for freight,” he said. “Underpinning this development will be the requirement for an electronic, internationally accepted consignment note; the e-CMR will be at the core of this process.”