Developing a Digital Container Triangulation Solution in China

Digital technologies have changed the competitive dynamics of the logistics services industry. Companies like Maersk have started upgrading their traditional services towards technology-supported transportation solutions.

Subscriber: Log Out

Editor’s Note: The SCM thesis Developing a Digital Solution to Container Triangulation in China was authored by Jieming Feng and Mauricio Moreno and supervised by Dr. Özden Tozanlı ([email protected]). For more information on the research, please contact the thesis supervisor.

Digital technologies have changed the competitive dynamics of the logistics services industry. Companies like Maersk have started upgrading their traditional services towards technology-supported transportation solutions.

To offer a better customer experience with smarter, faster, and more sustainable logistics, companies must increase operational efficiency by addressing industry problems such as highly fragmented markets, low transparency, underutilized assets, costly manual processes, and, in many instances, outdated customer interfaces.

This new market environment requires the logistics companies to make it a strategic priority to invest in technologies for efficient performance, communication, and data visibility.

Technological advances have made it possible to incorporate tools in businesses that were previously impossible to manage digitally. Specifically, for the logistics industry, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) techniques are increasingly adopted to solve different business problems. Nowadays, with the challenge of container shortage and insufficient supply of shipping space in the industry, there is an impending need to improve the container turnaround and optimize the container transportation.

How can a digital platform solution match millions of import containers and reuse them for export in China? One attractive solution for most of the participants in this process is container triangulation: moving containers from importers directly to exporters without the need to empty containers to port. There have been different approaches to optimizing empty container movements using container triangulations (or street-turns), mainly deploying mixed-integer linear programming (MILP) and continuous programming. This research project investigated the current process and challenges of automation and digitalization of container triangulation in a digital platform developed by Maersk in China.

Automating and accelerating a leaner and greener solution

We divided the project into three principal stages: input, model, and output. At the input stage, we met with experts from the sponsor company as well as practitioners from markets spanning the globe. With a good understanding of the problem and experts’ insights, we framed and collected sample data from the sponsor company. Moving to the model stage, we applied match and machine learning clustering algorithms, and then we developed a MILP model to run the transport flow optimization. Finally, at the output stage, we quantified financial savings and environmental benefits based on the container distance traveled. Finally, by combining quantitative analysis and expert advice, we arrived at some recommendations.

What is next?

Container triangulation is a reality on the market today, as many companies, countries, and researchers are evaluating this new alternative. As reviewed above, container triangulation leads to reductions in transportation costs, lead time, and CO₂ emissions. By offering this process within its digital platform, Maersk can attract and retain key partners due to the incentives it generates. In addition, this process can be automated—as we observed during the project—planning and executing more quickly.

As we discovered promising benefits, we also found that there is still much to be done to fully realize the potential of container triangulation. Here are our takeaways and recommendations to scale up the solution into the digital platform:

  • Container triangulation provides efficiencies in time, cost, and carbon emissions.
  • Maersk can transform customer service by implementing digital solutions.
  • Scale-up is about collaboration and coordination among stakeholders. It is essential, since their interaction is what makes the solution an attractive alternative.

For future studies, we recommend taking the concepts covered in this research to a global optimization perspective, considering different transport companies or partners. As more participants get involved, more data and more markets become available in the platform, becoming more attractive for users and creating a feedback loop. This may generate business growth.

Every year, approximately 80 students in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics’s (MIT CTL) Master of Supply Chain Management (SCM) program complete approximately 45 one-year research projects.

These students are early-career business professionals from multiple countries, with two to 10 years of experience in the industry. Most of the research projects are chosen, sponsored by, and carried out in collaboration with multinational corporations. Joint teams that include MIT SCM students and MIT CTL faculty work on real-world problems. In this series, they summarize a selection of the latest SCM research.


Latest Resources
How to Optimize Your RFID Mandate Labeling within the Supply Chain
Unlock supply chain success by joining SATO America, Loftware, and GS1 Global experts to master new RFID mandates, retail labeling, and…
Read more

About the Author

SCMR Staff
SCMR Staff

Follow SCMR for the latest supply chain news, podcasts and resources.

View SCMR's author profile.


Supply Chain Management Review delivers the best industry content.
Subscribe today and get full access to all of Supply Chain Management Review’s exclusive content, email newsletters, premium resources and in-depth, comprehensive feature articles written by the industry's top experts on the subjects that matter most to supply chain professionals.



Sourcing & Procurement

Inventory Management Risk Management Global Trade Ports & Shipping

Business Management

Supply Chain TMS WMS 3PL Government & Regulation Sustainability Finance

Software & Technology

Artificial Intelligence Automation Cloud IoT Robotics Software

The Academy

Executive Education Associations Institutions Universities & Colleges


Podcasts Webcasts Companies Visionaries White Papers Special Reports Premiums Magazine Archive


SCMR Magazine Newsletters Magazine Archives Customer Service