U.S. administration expands supply chain data-sharing to track inland ports

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WASHINGTON DC : The Biden administration is expanding a supply chain data-sharing partnership consisting of U.S. retail and logistics businesses and foreign ocean carriers in an effort to better track both the global and domestic movement of goods.

First launched in March 2022 in response to massive congestion at West Coast ports, the Freight Logistics Optimization Works (FLOW) platform was designed so major American supply chain stakeholders can have real-time insight of port congestion and monitor unexpected cargo shifts caused by world events—with the ultimate goal to better inform supply chain planning and mitigate supply chain delays and fees.

Two years to the date of its inception, FLOW has now begun to publish data on inland freight hubs, including rail terminal and warehouse end-destination data, that can enable its more than 60 members to gain an enhanced view of future container import volumes  and traffic.

Andrew Petrisin, an advisor for multimodal freight for the Department of Transportation (DOT), told that the total volume of cargo captured by FLOW at some major U.S. ports is nearly 80 percent.

The additional data will enable users to track container import volumes and traffic from the point of export origin into a U.S. port before eventually being picked up by truck or rail and delivered to a warehouse or another inland port.

Inland ports are critical to the flow of trade, as they facilitate the pickup and drop-off of loaded containers as well as the movement of empty containers so they can be loaded onto vessels at the coastal ports.

FLOW includes retailers like Walmart, Target, The Home Depot, Nike, Ikea, Ralph Lauren, Dollar General and Gap Inc. among others, as well as ocean carrier giants like Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), Maersk, CMA CGM and Hapag-Lloyd.

Logistics providers within FLOW include UPS, FedEx, DHL and C.H. Robinson, alongside rail carriers BNSF and Union Pacific. The initiative also includes terminal operators at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York & New Jersey, Houston and Savannah.

Through FLOW, the DOT collects, aggregates and anonymizes key information shared by participants on inbound containerized freight, starting with importer purchase orders or bookings. Members can also share available supply-side assets such as terminal slots, tractors, chassis and warehouse space. This information is provided on a daily basis if automated, or weekly if manual.

From there, the platform is built to align future demand volumes against current regional capacity so shippers can better determine where they should be moving ocean containers.

Incoming demand is shared up to 90 days in advance of cargo arrival, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). FLOW members can access the data through a shared online portal or API hosted by the BTS.

According to the report, this data is currently helping logistics decision makers manage and mitigate trade uncertainties such as the recent Red Sea diversions and  Panama Canal backlogs.

“FLOW members are getting more granular views of their supply chain allowing them to consider not only alternate routings but also potential shifts in their distribution networks,” Jesse Whitfield, director of global ocean freight with UPS, said in a statement. “That directional insight is invaluable when it comes to being able to pivot during times of disruption.”

The DOT has held regular listening sessions with the freight industry and marine labor groups since the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea began last year, the report said. Additionally, the department is currently working with FLOW participants to leverage data on cargo shifts from the Suez Canal to going around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Bud Darr, executive vice president of MSC, which has seen its operations shift drastically due to the Red Sea disruptions, called FLOW “an excellent example of how government can make a genuine difference in collaboration with industry, without imposing compulsory measures.”

The expansion of FLOW is one of multiple initiatives by the Biden administration with the intent to bolster national supply chain operations. In 2021, the White House established the Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force as Covid-era bottlenecks caused challenges for supply chain stakeholders. Late last year, the administration launched the White House Council on Supply Chain Resilience in an effort to shore up U.S. agricultural and food systems, and improve access to medicine and critical economic data.

Most recently, the Biden administration unveiled it would invest $20 billion into U.S. port security to help foster the domestic manufacturing of cranes amid concerns that current China-made cranes could present an espionage or disruption risk.

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