TPM24—the premier conference for global container shipping, logistics, and supply chain operations— took place March 3-6 in Long Beach, California. The event brings together industry experts across carriers, shippers, and service and technology providers to discuss trends, negotiate contracts, and share the latest perspectives on the international shipping supply chain.

Conflicting forces are currently overwhelming the ocean market, generating additional uncertainty within supply chain operations. Over-capacity across ocean shipping, coupled with increasingly depleted customer inventory, has reduced the rates shippers can charge to their lowest since before the pandemic. Disruptions including the crisis in the Red Sea are helping to raise rates (perhaps temporarily) for many trade lanes, though for unfortunate reasons. With record levels of new shipping capacity coming this year, it will be crucial to monitor how carriers handle profitability and adjust to market trends.

Below, we discuss four major takeaways from our visit to TPM24:

1. Evolving dynamics between carriers and shippers 

Risk of too much capacity: From now until the end of 2026, we will see a significant amount of new capacity. With lower demand levels compared to pandemic peaks, ocean freight has reverted to being a “buyer’s market.” Shippers we spoke with at the conference had no issues getting similar prices to last year, as carriers continue to chase volume. The question is what ends up happening when more capacity is injected into the market. Can rates drop even further? How will this impact relationships if they do?

Relationship resets: High prices, followed by shippers not hitting their volume commitments, have strained shipper-carrier relationships over the last few years. The result is a relationship reset—shippers we spoke with mentioned that they are strategically picking carriers who treated them well during tough times and are shifting volume away from those who pushed extra, costly services to secure contracts.

2. Implementation of new logistics technologies

Is AI just a buzzword at this stage? Unsurprisingly, technology was a key theme of this year’s TPM, and AI stood at the forefront of CEO agendas. The global logistics industry has been slow to operationalize new technology, and shippers and carriers alike have been tasked to find use cases for AI in their respective businesses. But while many companies reference AI in their names or product descriptions, it seems their solutions do not truly embrace AI advances.

Among the few actual AI solutions represented at TPM were providers that convert disparate data (i.e., emails with booking confirmations and PDF bills of lading) into structured data that can be imported into various enterprise resource planning (ERP), transportation management system (TMS), or visibility platforms.

How real is end-to-end supply chain visibility? Third-party, carrier-agnostic supply chain visibility platforms have existed for over a decade. While carrier-provided data continues to improve as carrier integrations further standardize, there is a noticeable gap between shipment-level visibility and item-level visibility. Leading visibility platforms are investing in creative ways to ingest item-level data at the origin to help solve this pain point for many shippers. AI and machine learning can make a big difference in the near term here.

3. The decarbonization agenda 

Decarbonization and other efforts to reduce environmental impact were a major focus throughout the convention. Carriers are putting their money where it counts by investing in cleaner fuels and vessels—and want shippers to share the cost. A few significant elements worth noting: 

A need for consistent, standardized measurement: Although we’ve seen progress in this space, decarbonization reporting requirements remain misaligned across the industry. Cooperation between government and private sector entities is needed to streamline simplicity for all parties.

Carrier investment in alternative energy sources: Switching from conventional fossil fuels like heavy fuel oil (HFO) and marine diesel oil (MDO) to cleaner and greener options is essential to meet carbon emission targets. Carriers are investing in alternatives such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), biofuels, hydrogen, and ammonia to lessen their carbon footprint. The challenge is to make these alternative fuels readily available at a reasonable cost and in the required quantities at ports to facilitate a more significant change over the next 5-10 years.

Regulation alone will not meet emission targets: Regulatory frameworks are critical to driving industry decarbonization. However, regulation alone will not produce needed results. Collaboration among industry stakeholders—including carriers, shipbuilders, shippers, and governments—is essential, as sharing knowledge, resources, and best practices will accelerate progress.

4. Disruption is the new normal

The international supply chain has experienced a disruption every few months for some time; this is now the backdrop to “business as usual.” As such, many organizations have grown more adept at adjusting to and managing these events. 

With that said, this does not mean the supply chain is protected from major turmoil. Red Sea impacts are throwing off lead times and increasing prices. On top of this, the U.S. East Coast port labor contract expires in September. The supply chain appears ready to adapt, but organizations will need to proactively prepare.

For more insight on the future of the container shipping industry, read our 2024 container shipping outlook.