In a world where innovation impacts every aspect of our lives – from Siri and Alexa to contactless payment systems and personalised advertising – it’s no understatement to say the breakbulk sector remains somewhat behind the times. Even the container industry, which has undergone significant commoditisation in recent years, is a step or two ahead.

But this shouldn’t be cause for concern. A number of innovations are on the horizon, and they look set to shake things up – in turn, driving quality of service for shippers, and harnessing efficiencies for both shipping companies and their customers. 

We all know why innovators innovate: to streamline process, reduce costs and increase transparency. Becoming a more forward-thinking industry also ensures we attract the right talent. So here are three innovations I predict will take the breakbulk industry by storm in the months and years ahead, and here’s how they’ll benefit cargo owners.

 1.    Online booking portals

Today, when booking a flight online, you’re given a log-in so you can check in, update your personal details and make changes to your booking. In the traditional world of breakbulk, where personal relationships remain paramount, transactions and quotes tend to be made and requested over the phone or via email.

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However, online booking portals are very much a reality in shipping, and at WW Ocean, we hope to see this technology introduced in the near future as well. Customers will be given a log-in, they’ll be able to see the freight rate at any particular time, and a quote will be generated automatically. The time savings shouldn’t be underestimated: at the moment, the quoting process is lengthy and onerous for both shipping operators and cargo owners. Technology can – and will – offer a welcome solution.

 2.    Online documentation

Nowhere is the industry more antiquated than in the area of documentation, which hasn’t evolved for many years – perhaps decades. When cargo arrives at its final destination before the documentation, and the shipper is thus unable to pick up their cargo, we have a serious problem. The manual system might have been well-suited to the age in which it was invented, but it definitely isn’t the best approach today. If funds can be transferred digitally from one bank account to another, why can’t the same be said for documentation papers?

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Again, change is on the horizon – what will pose a challenge will be the platform upon which the new system is built. Every buyer and seller around the world (including the banks themselves) will need to agree on the universally-used system. But once this is agreed on, we’ll have a harmonised documentation process which should make our customers’ supply chains far more seamless than ever before.

 3.    Drones

While drones may have become popular with consumers a few years ago, their potential to improve customer experience in breakbulk is unrivalled. When it comes to cargo surveys, for example, they’ll be used as ‘the eye in the sky’ to examine cargo from all angles. This will reduce cost while also saving time. From the shipping company’s side, drones will also be used to ship spare parts to vessels – in turn avoiding costly supply boat runs.

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In a fast-paced digital world, brands live or die by their commitment to innovation. You might make your name with one particular product or service, but without an eye on future trends, you’ll be left behind: the fates of Kodak and Nokia were sealed when they underestimated changing consumer need and innovation in their sectors.

For breakbulk customers, though, change is just around the corner. This is a world ripe for innovation – and the next couple of years will see a step-change in the way our industry operates. Stay tuned.