Customs processes further digitised

11 June 2021
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The trade in refrigerated products via reefer containers is seeing spectacular growth in the Port of Rotterdam. The Port of Rotterdam Authority, Customs, Fresh Produce Centre and Portbase have joined forces to facilitate this growth market and ensure that customs clearance is faster, more efficient and safer. Reefer containers account for over 15% of the total number of containers shipped via the Port of Rotterdam. This proportion is expected to increase further in the coming years. The initial results of the partnership are promising.

A row of reefer containers

The Port of Rotterdam Authority works continuously with supply chain partners to examine opportunities to further optimise port and chain process efficiency and safety. A pilot started recently to make customs’ processes safer and more efficient. ‘This is a rather complex process that involves more than you would at first expect’, began Hanna Stelzel, Business Manager Logistics and Supply Chain at the Port of Rotterdam. Popularly known as customs clearance, in practice this involves more than the activities carried out by Customs. It is the combined action of customs, ship agents, terminals, shipping lines and other involved chain partners. With lots of communication back and forth.
‘Communications between all involved parties largely determines the efficiency of the entire clearance process’, added Anne Saris, Business Manager Agrofood and Distribution from the Port of Rotterdam Authority. ‘Cooperation is crucial. The faster and more efficient the communications, the more efficient the customs clearance.’

The increase in the number of reefers was a key reason to examine processes together with chain partners. As container numbers in the port increase, the number of inspections increases, too.
These inspections are carried out based on risk analyses and profiles, with country of origin and history (or lack of this) helping to determine whether a container should or should not be inspected. Reefers often originate from high-risk areas, which means they are also more frequently selected for inspection. As further growth is expected, it is crucial that the port makes optimum preparations to facilitate this increased flow of reefers. Efficient customs processes are an essential link in the chain. ‘Moreover, these help attract additional flows’, added Stelzel.

Customs inspects the containers in three ways, the most common being via scanning. All large container terminals on Maasvlakte in Rotterdam have a high-tech customs scanner on site and images of the container contents are analysed by customs remotely, 24/7. This means there’s no need for containers to leave the terminal, or be opened unnecessarily and, in 95% of cases, they can be released again within 36 hours of unloading. A second method is the physical inspection, that is carried out on the State Inspection Terminal (SIT) on Maasvlakte. The third option involves using sniffer dogs to check the relevant containers at the terminals. ‘It also happens that further controls are needed after viewing the scanned images. That’s the physical inspection at the SIT’, added Loekie Lepelaar, Customs Affairs Advisor and Client Manager at Customs, Port of Rotterdam.

‘We’re continuously examining processes and analysing bottlenecks together with our chain partners’, Saris continued. A project team, involving the Port Authority and Customs as well as members of Fresh Produce Centre and Portbase, was established recently to minimise waiting times and delays during customs inspections. The project team analysed customs processes and concluded that there is quite some room for improvement, particularly as far as physical checks and inspections with sniffer dogs are concerned. ‘The necessary improvements are not so much in the inspections themselves, but in the processes around these, such as scheduling transport from the terminal to SIT and back and the communications between the parties involved’, explained Stelzel.

Further analysis also showed that a large proportion of bottlenecks are created by processes that still require one or more manual actions. Stelzel stated: ‘If Customs selects a container for a physical control, the ship agent and terminal are notified. The ship agent then contracts a logistics service provider to transport the container to the State Inspection Terminal. That transport movement will then be scheduled for the following day. With manual processes, such as typing emails or telephone contact between the involved chain partners, it can happen that a container scanned on a Thursday can only arrive at the SIT on the Monday or even Tuesday, partly because not all links in the chain work 24/7.’ ‘That’s certainly not something we want, particularly for reefers, where shelf life is key’, stated Saris.

That’s why the partners started a pilot this spring to digitise many of the manual processes. All customs clearance checks are already announced digitally via the Port Community System’s Inspection Portal. ‘Making all these announcements digitally at the transportation company - with the ship agents’ approval - enables us to accelerate transport scheduling. The time gains can then be considerable, certainly if there’s a weekend involved’, stated Dalibor Stojakovic, Product Owner at Portbase. ‘The LSP can start scheduling before receiving the assignment from the ship agent, although actual transport movements of course only take place once the assignment is received.’

‘Further digitisation enables us to reduce turnaround times and minimise waiting times’, added Daco Sol. The Logistics, Supervision & Supply Chain Programme Manager at Fresh Produce Centre is aware too of the consequences of unwelcome delays. ‘There’s a huge risk of quality losses for fresh produce. Or you may need to find other sales channels and the financial losses can run to tens of thousands of euros. Of course, nobody wants that. Minimising waiting and turnaround times was therefore one of our most important reasons for taking part. Our members import fresh produce and aim for the shortest possible turnaround time in the chain.’

It’s still not known how many gains will be made. ‘We’re still in the start-up phase and it’s too early to say more about this. But that digitising makes the processes more efficient is certainly already clear’, stated Stelzel. She also thinks that it helps that all involved parties see the potential of this and are also actually prepared to make improvements.
Sol added: ‘The greatest gain so far is having much more insight as this has helped us understand the origin of delays and that communications and manual activities are the bottlenecks. The level of focus there is on this right now is a first step in the right direction. But we’re not there yet. As far as we’re concerned, the ultimate goal will only be achieved if all processes that can logically be organised and optimised are also actually organised and optimised. That sounds ambitious perhaps, but I’m convinced that it’s achievable as long as we’re all on the same page.’

Stelzel concluded: ‘The initial results are promising. We can keep delays to a minimum, not only for reefers but also for other containers. This ensures that cargo owners don’t face unnecessary costs. Other chain partners have now also expressed interest and we’re expecting to take rapid steps there, too. Ultimately, the aim is to work together to improve efficiency in the port.’