By James Coombes, CEO and Co-Founder of vector.ai
Brexit has been thwarting operations in the supply chain for nearly five months now. Businesses on both sides of the UK/EU border are still adjusting to the new Brexit arrangements.
In total, it is estimated businesses will need to process an extra 200 million customs declarations every year, compared with roughly 55 million before Brexit. To put this into context, a seafood exporter now has to fill in 71 pages of documents for just one lorry of fish.
These outdated and cumbersome processes are plainly causing significant delays and disruption in our supply chains. We’ve heard of containers full of pork left to rot at a port in the Netherlands and thousands of pounds worth of fish discarded each week.
Perhaps most worrying is the fact that this isn’t even the full ‘Brexit effect’. Further customs requirements will come into force later in the year, requiring any business importing animal products, live animals or plants to wade through even more documentation.
Without some sort of further, extensive trade agreement, this problem of excessive bureaucracy isn’t going to go away. And while the most sensible approach would be to work towards a new global standard for all documents, the reality is that in the current, highly fragmented market, no single party holds the power or permission to dictate a new, singular digital standard.
In the interim, many firms are attempting to hire more people to deal with the increase in processes and procedures – easier said than done when the supply chain industry is facing a serious skills shortage. Last year, the Government announced its intent to recruit 50,000 customs agents to help process the extra forms. To date, just 10,000 have been recruited.
We’re certainly seeing more of our customers looking to recruit people to take on some of the heavy lifting. One of the freight forwarders we work with has been forced to hire 40 percent more staff since the start of the year. Even if other firms follow suit, it’s uncertain whether this will be enough to handle the extra restrictions when they come into force. It is time for a different approach.
Over the coming year, we’ll see Artificial Intelligence (AI) play a central role in the supply chain. It will handle basic cognitive tasks more quickly than humans, empowering teams to communicate faster and with better data at their fingertips.
The latest AI technology has the power to automatically analyse incoming documents and email, identify relevant information and instantly assign actions. What’s more, it can automate the entry of data required to fill in customs and freight documents – saving hours of time and stress. And, because modern AI approaches have a feedback loop which learns over time, they are more robust and dynamic than off-the shelf Optical Character Recognition (OCR)-only approaches.
Essentially, by automating monotonous tasks like ‘answer that email’, ‘key in that data’ and ‘find that piece of information’, employees can reduce the time spent on administrative tasks such as processing documentation for various import and export checks. It means they can focus on building relationships with people in their supply chain network, improving their customer service and freeing up time to focus on business development. Not only will this lead to better and more profitable businesses, but happier team members freed from process pain. And, crucially, it will ensure traceability in an industry that is subject to strict regulatory scrutiny. Businesses will be able to track the origin and journey of their goods throughout the supply chain.
Of course, businesses will still be subject to a more processes and complexity across their supply chains in the post-Brexit world. But with the right AI tools, these processes needn’t be slow, error-prone and expensive. By bringing supply chains into the digital age, it is possible to rescue businesses from the extra process pain and focus on improving their import/export profitability.