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AI provides greater efficiency and accuracy for product classification


If your company engages in the import or export of finished goods, components, or parts, you are undoubtedly familiar with the complexities surrounding product classification.

In the realm of international trade, navigating an intricate web of regulations and standards is imperative. This is evidenced by the membership of over 130 countries within the World Customs Organization (WCO), representing 183 customs administrations that collectively handle approximately 98% of global trade.

Central to this, the Harmonized System (HS) serves as a guiding framework for designating products, playing a pivotal role in determining applicable tariffs and the corresponding fees when goods traverse international borders. Simplifying this system are classification codes—OMA employs six digits, while nations employ varying combinations of two, four, six, or even ten additional digits.

The intricacy of this process becomes evident even if conditions were static, which, as a matter of fact, they are not. Dynamic regulatory updates to the tariff schedule can take place numerous times throughout a single year. In 2018, for instance, the United States made 270 tariff schedule revisions, while Brazil made 244 updates. Moreover, the surge in protectionist measures and trade conflicts further contributes to the complexity and uncertainty of supply chain management.

Firms must also factor in their own influence on classification requisites. This ensures accurate classification during the creation of new products or modifications to existing ones. As Virginia Thompson, a senior product manager at Thomson Reuters, emphasized in a recent webinar titled "AI at Your Fingertips: How Emerging Technology is Redefining Classification," the correct classification of a product wields immense influence. Thompson pointed out that it significantly impacts a country's revenue, a significance accentuated by the rise of tariffs and retaliatory actions in recent years. Thompson remarked, "It drives revenue tied to things like preferential claims, countervailing, and antidumping duties."

To delve deeper into this subject, two webinars are available on demand: "AI at Your Fingertips: How Emerging Technology is Redefining Sorting" and "The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Supply Chain."

As a result, customs procedures grow more rigorous, and companies shoulder increased responsibility. Thompson emphasized the pivotal nature of correct classification, particularly in providing documentation and evidence to customs agents during audits, thereby substantiating the accurate classification of goods.

Underpinning the necessity for accurate classification are three fundamental factors: compliance, cost considerations, and customer satisfaction.

Compliance: Multinational corporations often find that various departments or business units independently track and enact classification changes. Unfortunately, communication gaps between the company and its clientele can lead to discrepancies, culminating in shipment delays, erroneous duty payments, and violations of compliance.

Cost: Ignorance can yield dire consequences. Failing to report classification changes carries financial ramifications, often manifesting as over- or underpayment of taxes. Companies might be unaware of overpayments, and rectifying such errors can entail intricate and time-consuming refund procedures. Conversely, underpayment of duties can incur penalties and delays, as accurate duty payment is a prerequisite during shipment.

Customers: Disruptions in shipping timelines and supply chains impact both the company and its customers, underscoring the criticality of accurate HS classifications.

Many businesses turn to Global Trade Management (GTM) software or tariff classification solutions for precise product classification. Such automation confers benefits like process repeatability, documented workflows, cost savings, and the liberation of team members from manual tasks, enabling them to concentrate on strategic endeavors.

Given the multifaceted nature of classification and its frequent changes, achieving full automation remains a challenge. Nevertheless, strides are being made toward this goal through the application of artificial intelligence (AI). During the aforementioned webinar, Randy Rotchin, the CEO of commodity classification company 3CE Technologies, championed AI involvement in Smart HS classification. Rotchin described Smart HS as an AI-powered tool that aids classification by leveraging domain expertise and decision support mechanisms, distinguishing it from other ranking tools or wizards.

AI-driven solutions assimilate intricate business information about products and bridge the gap between operational teams' descriptions and the expressions within the Harmonized System. Rotchin exemplified the divergence by noting that without explicit knowledge, a search for "baby food" would falter due to the tariff schedule's term "homogenized composite food preparations." AI classification systems utilize inference mechanisms to gauge product integrity in alignment with harmonized system rules. When a product description is inputted into the system, it analyzes the description to ascertain if it meets the requirements for direct code assignment according to the harmonized system.

Tariff classification is the process of assigning a specific code or classification number to a product based on its characteristics, features, and intended use. These classification codes are part of a standardized system that helps governments and international organizations categorize and organize traded goods for various purposes, including customs duties, trade statistics, and regulatory compliance. The primary framework used for tariff classification is the Harmonized System (HS), which is a globally recognized system developed and maintained by the World Customs Organization (WCO). The HS is a hierarchical classification system that assigns a unique code to each product based on its attributes such as materials, function, and use. This code is typically a numerical string that can range from 4 to 12 digits, with longer codes providing more detailed information about the product. Here are some key aspects of tariff classification: Importance of Tariff Classification: Proper tariff classification is essential for several reasons. It determines the applicable customs duties and taxes that must be paid when goods cross international borders. It also helps in the enforcement of trade policies, regulations, and agreements. Moreover, accurate classification is crucial for compiling trade statistics and ensuring compliance with various laws and regulations. Harmonized System (HS): The HS is a standardized system that harmonizes the classification of goods across countries. It covers a wide range of products, from raw materials to finished goods. The HS is periodically updated to reflect changes in technology, trade practices, and product developments. Classification Criteria: Products are classified based on specific criteria such as material composition, function, intended use, and design features. The more detailed the classification, the more specific the code becomes. For example, within a broader category like "textiles," there are further subdivisions for items like "cotton shirts" or "synthetic fabrics." Classification Process: Importers and exporters are responsible for determining the correct classification of their products. They often use reference materials such as the HS tariff schedule, explanatory notes, and classification databases provided by customs authorities. Companies may also seek expert advice to ensure accurate classification. Tariff Rates and Trade Agreements: Tariff rates vary depending on the classification code and the trade agreements in place between countries. Some products may be subject to lower or zero tariffs under certain trade agreements, while others might face higher tariffs. Challenges: Tariff classification can be complex due to the diverse range of products and the need for accurate interpretation of product characteristics. Additionally, the HS is periodically updated to accommodate new products and technologies, making it important for businesses to stay informed about changes. Automation and Technology: As the complexity of trade increases, automation and technology are playing a larger role in the tariff classification process. AI and machine learning tools can assist in identifying the appropriate classification codes by analyzing product descriptions, images, and other relevant data. Legal Implications: Incorrect tariff classification can lead to financial penalties, customs delays, and even legal action. It's essential for companies to ensure accurate classification to avoid these potential issues. In summary, tariff classification is a critical aspect of international trade that ensures consistency in the categorization of goods across borders. It impacts customs duties, trade policies, and regulatory compliance, making it crucial for importers, exporters, and regulatory authorities to have a clear understanding of the classification process and its implications.


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