Successful digitalisation of Customs processes

6 November 2023
How can we help you?

Turnaround time reduced by 30%

Reading time: 6 minutes

Since 2021, the Port of Rotterdam Authority, Customs, GroentenFruit Huis, and Portbase are working on further digitalisation of Customs processes to facilitate more efficient and safer checking of containers/reefer containers. The desired result being: reduction of wait times and unnecessary expenses. Which steps have been taken since? What lessons have the supply chain partners learned? And what else is coming down the pipeline?

The number of reefer containers being shipped via the port of Rotterdam has been steadily growing for years. Currently, one in seven of all containers processed in Rotterdam is a reefer container. The expectation is that this number will increase further. “Especially for tropical fruit we’ve seen strong growth. But, due to rising temperatures, other sectors are turning to reefer containers as well,’ notes the Port of Rotterdam Authority. Increasing wait times and additional expenses are a direct result of the increased number of containers that need to be scanned.

 Reefer containers
Photo: Freek van Arkel

High-tech Customs Scan

All large container terminals on Rotterdam’s Maasvlakte now have a high-tech Customs scanner on-site. Customs analyses images of containers’ contents remotely, 24/7. Therefore, containers no longer have to be moved off-site or opened up unnecessarily, and 95% are cleared within 36 hours of offloading. “This is one of the first quantifiable outcomes of our collective efforts,” stated Customs.

Nice results

Logically, cargo owners and end users benefit the most from this increased digitalisation. Shippers report that turnaround times in the inspection process are markedly shorter. “Almost all excesses, such as containers sitting for more than five days, have been eliminated from the system. We see a reduction of processing time of more than 30%, especially thanks to the reduction of these excesses. And Customs sees as substantial reduction in the number of complaints, by up to 80%,” as noted by Customs and the Port of Rotterdam Authority. And complaints, at the end of the day, also take time to process.

Almost all excesses, such as containers sitting for more than five days, have been eliminated from the system.

“Minimising wait and turnaround times was one the most important reasons for us to support this project,” notes GroentenFruit Huis. Members notice on a daily basis that the number of issues with Customs processes has come down. “If something goes wrong, you always hear about it. We used to get calls twice a week, and now the phone hardly ever rings.” In short, nice results. “But we’re not there yet,” continues GroentenFruit Huis. “Especially with the expected growth in the number of reefer containers, or in case of more inspections due to tighter policies, more discussion will be triggered as to whether the approach suffices. Constructive defining of short and long-term business will be a logical next step.”

Avoiding food wastage

Of course it’s a matter of economic value but more is at stake, according to GroentenFruit Huis, which advocates for the interests of companies in the fruit and vegetables business. “Especially in light of the increase in sustainability awareness, we see a growing focus on avoiding food wastage. Nobody wants to throw out food anymore. Therefore, in recent years, the need for faster inspections, minimal wait times, and fewer disruptions increased. In addition, regulations for growing fruit and vegetables are only getting stricter. Fewer pesticides are allowed, which only made these products more vulnerable.

Communication and security crucial

Aside from economic value and sustainability, the security of reefer containers from South America has become a growing issue over the past few years as well. Logistics processes are being disrupted as a result of drug trafficking and crime-related issues. Digitalisation of Customs processes helps minimise wait times and increases chain efficiency and security. Portbase’s Port Community System (PCS) enables efficient and straightforward coordination and exchange of information in Rotterdam. This helps prevent data fraud and makes it harder to illegally pick up containers with drugs. Also, it’s important to realise that this is a matter of collaboration between Customs, ship agents, terminals, shipping companies, carriers, and other stakeholders in the chain. Communication between these parties is a key factor in determining the efficiency and security of the entire checking process. This is crucial, especially for reefer containers with their perishable contents.

It’s a matter of collaboration between Customs, ship agents, terminals, shipping companies, carriers, and other stakeholders in the chain.

Shorter wait times

Customs checks were already being registered digitally through the Inspection Portal on Portbase’s Port Community System. By digitally notifying the carrier – with the ship agents’ consent – of these registrations as well, turnaround times are being reduced, and processes become safer and less susceptible to errors. Especially when there’s a weekend in between, time savings can be substantial. After all, the carrier won’t have to wait for the ship agent's orders before arranging for transportation. “Previously, all these notifications were entered manually and communicated via, for instance, email. If a check notification was entered on Friday night, it was sometimes only picked up on Monday morning. This, of course, meant that a container would be sitting for three days. Now, notifications appear on the schedule instantly, with shorter wait times and processes as a result. Also, this avoids food wastage,” stated the Port of Rotterdam Authority.

Understanding each other

“The project’s objective is, and will continue to be, optimising the process,” emphasise the collaborating parties. Since we launched the project, major strides have been made here. “Depending on what’s happening, we meet in person six to eight times a year. “You notice that this fosters understanding for each other’s positions, which is a big help,” according to Customs. “We continue to be separate entities, but we have a common goal: an optimally efficient chain, with minimal expenses and minimal delay. To achieve this goal, we depend on each other very much.”

Understanding each other’s situation has been the most important lesson so far: “Of course, we as Customs want to check the containers that enter the port properly and quickly. But we continue to be an executive body.”

“It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else when something goes wrong, but in real life, things tend to be a bit different. Good communication provides us with insight and clearly shows the importance of working together. Good collaboration between parties is much more important than the self-interest of one link in the chain. Joint progress, that needs to be the goal,” added GroentenFruit Huis.

Customs Dashboard

At least as important is that, thanks to improved collaboration and further digitalisation of processes, more data are available. Data that will be used to provide more insight. Currently, it is possible to pinpoint where in the chain a container is held up – and why. Also, the exchange of data is much improved. This way, it’s possible to flag problem areas at an early stage and respond proactively.

It has even become possible to share forecasts, extrapolated from historic data. Also, problem areas can be better substantiated, for instance through digital tools like the Customs Dashboard, which has been operational since the start of this year and shows the shorter turnaround times. “This dashboard is the result of a data-driven collaboration between Customs and the Port of Rotterdam Authority, through which information is exchanged, analysed, and translated into business value. This is very important step, because only when something has business value can you set a course for it,” adds the Port of Rotterdam Authority.

This dashboard is the result of a data-driven collaboration between Customs and the Port of Rotterdam Authority, through which information is exchanged, analysed, and translated into business value.

Benefits for all parties

Further digitalisation and improved collaboration benefit all parties. Case in point: Customs and the terminals have more insight in capacity, which facilitates the scheduling of inspection processes and makes these more efficient.

Also, the filling out of digital Customs forms has gotten better. “But there certainly is room for further improvement,” according to Customs. “We still see a lack of detail on forms, as certain questions deal with intellectual property.” It’s understandable that not everyone wishes to share such information, but it would make the checks even more efficient if this were provided.”

More to come

The parties will naturally continue with this data-driven approach, and view various processes in Rotterdam through a critical lens. A next step can be to give priority to reefer checks throughout the chain. To be continued.