freight shipping documents online

Move: Freight Forwarding Goes Paperless

One freight forwarder now creates documentation electronically, providing clients with Internet access to it and maintaining it both for them and for government agencies.

Some industries generate a lot more paperwork than others. The freight shipping business is one of those. Millions of tons of freight travel around the world every day, generating documentation at every step of the way related to logistics, schedules, imports, exports, customs requirements and more. The challenge in this age of lean operations is reducing the volume of paperwork associated with those processes.

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Marisol International moves containerized and non-containerized freight all over the world via ocean vessels, air, rail and truck. As a licensed customs house broker they also work directly with customs, border protection and other government agencies in the U.S. and globally to facilitate customs clearance, payments of duties and delivery to clients. 

"Tracking every piece of every shipment – especially when international customs and import/export regulations are involved – generates a lot of documentation on behalf of our customers," says Jason Descamps, chief information officer. "We now create that documentation electronically, providing access to it for our customers via the Internet, and maintaining all their records both for them and for related government agencies."

Why Go Paperless?

Issues related to the handling and delivery of documents as well as the management of file storage made it increasingly difficult and expensive for Marisol to process paper. When one export customer inquired about whether its complex documentation needs could be managed online, management decided in 2008 to create a paperless system.

Descamps and his team wrote new software applications for managing the different types of forms and reports they use every day. The key was the use of the portable document format (PDF) as the basis of its electronic documentation. 

"It enables us to provide information with the look and feel of the original documents, but handled in a more secure environment that is more accessible to our clients," he explains.

A server-based PDF application from activePDF, Inc., proved less expensive to deploy and didn't have the long-term maintenance and support issues of single-user PDF programs. It enables Marisol to centralize control of PDF settings enterprise-wide to support their clients' corporate business standards. They can also view and modify PDF documents remotely, using smartphones and tablet devices and standard browser software.

Document Flow

In a typical job, such as an import shipment, a shipment booking notice is received via email from an agent or a steamship line. 

"We put that document into the system so the customer has upstream visibility into the shipping process earlier," Descamps says. "The agent who's handling this shipment will save that email file to a drive on our server. We grab it, convert it to a PDF and put it in the file in our system where it's immediately available for the customer to view at any time." 

"From there we follow up with the document packet, which is prepared by the vendor overseas and usually includes forms such as invoices, packing lists and any accompanying documents that might pertain to government agencies or visas. They email that packet to us and it can contain documents in virtually any format, such as Excel, PDF or Word. That information is also saved to a drive or uploaded via a web interface."

Some of Marisol's systems generate an internal work sheet for submission to U.S. Customs. The application pulls system data from the SQL database, converts it to a PDF and allows them to accept it electronically or to print it out, if necessary.

Certified Records Storage

U.S. Customs granted Marisol permission to store documents electronically. The forwarder maintains backup storage for all its critical systems in an off-site underground HIPAA-certified data facility in Springfield, Mo. It runs directly on battery power on a 24x7 basis, but the site is equipped with two 6,000 horsepower, 2 megawatt generators on-site so that if the battery system fails they have instant backup power.

In less than four years Marisol's secure, underground data storage facility now houses more than three quarters of a million PDF documents related to as many shipping jobs.  These files range in size from a few to hundreds of pages per electronic shipping record.

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