Interoperability in FENIX – Mission accepted

Seamless communication between logistic actors is a challenge by its very nature. When it comes to intricate data exchanges via numerous digital platforms, a common understanding of the different payloads will reduce complexity. FENIX is facing up to this challenge and the partners are already on the right path in tackling these issues.

In freight transport and logistics, we see substantial growth and diversification of flows and connected data, especially related to eCommerce, IoT applications, and emerging technologies. Inevitably, this will rapidly increase the already high demand for more sustainable and multimodal transport. In turn, this will demand data interoperability and harmonisation as well as technical solutions to share data between heterogeneous IT systems over many stakeholders involved in European and global transport & logistics networks.

However, seamless communication will be difficult to achieve as long as logistics’ actors are hesitant to collaborate and adjust their IT systems and to harmonise processes in TEN-T corridors. In some cases, existing IT systems may be very cumbersome and changes are expensive and resource intensive. Therefore, companies may also be reluctant to make voluntarily changes without external pressure from regulations or their customers’ demands. Another reason why companies do not seek common standards or solutions might be that their competitive advantage can seemingly only be secured with proprietary solutions. Additionally, the increasing speed of system adaption can often drive the development of proprietary solutions even when standards are available.

Despite the obstacles to collaboration, adoption of standards and the sharing of solutions, there is a rapidly increasing appetite in disparate types of organisations for implementing global standards. The aim of adopting standards seems to stem from organisations’ requirements to improve interoperability, especially semantic interoperability. According to the EIF Model, semantic interoperability ensures that the precise format of the exchanged data is both preserved and understood throughout exchanges between parties. In other words, “what is sent is what is understood”.

Within FENIX there are three semantic components identified to tackle semantic interoperability:

  • Firstly, the need for accurate, complete and globally interoperable information for logistic locations is greater than ever: Addresses are often incomplete, geo data does not provide information on the location’s owner, the UN/LOCODE is not designed to be granular in nature. However, these incomplete data location identifiers are used in message exchanges. For an unambiguous identification of locations with all information, one only needs an additional, globally unique number in the system to reference one site’s identification standard to another and allow the information to be available to all those with access rights. GS1, together with PTV and other FENIX partners, is developing a so-called “Match & Bridge approach” which is a step in the right direction and will facilitate semantic interoperability.
  • Secondly, UN/CEFACT EDIFACT EDI messages are still being applied and implemented. Although the discussion is now turning to how organisations can exchange data more seamlessly using newer web technologies, these message types are still heavily used.
  • Thirdly, identifiers for shipping containers, like the BIC and the ILU code, are typically in place for multi-modal transport collaborations. BIC and ILU codes are unique and recognised throughout Europe and by all terminals. Some terminals use them as a primary key for the historical search of shipments and documents.

Looking forward, in an ever more connected world, it will be essential to use industry standards.  This will be the case especially when there are new requirements for additional semantic information.  It will be important to build out the existing standards  and allow them to evolve rather than have the supply chain disrupted with customised solutions.

However, there are still far too many proprietary identification types and message formats in use to really be able to speak of comprehensive interoperability. Nevertheless, the improvement of platform-to-platform connectivity via a common FENIX connector is compelling.  Once additional connectors are implemented, the full power of this optimisation will unfold which will enable a leap towards increased efficiency and effectiveness in logistics.