Globalisation has brought the most advanced trading networks the world has seen, with the biggest, fastest vessels, robot-operated ports and vast computer databases tracking cargoes. But it all still relies on millions and millions of paper documents.
That last throwback to 19th century trade is about to fall AP Moeller-Maersk A/S and other container shipping lines have teamed up with technology companies
to upgrade the world’s most complex logistics network.
The prize is a revolution in world trade on a scale not seen since the move to standard containers in the 1960s — a change that ushered in the age of globalisation. But the undertaking is as big as the potential upheaval it will cause. To make it work, dozens of shipping lines and thousands of related businesses around the world — including manufacturers, banks, insurers, brokers and port authorities — will have to work out a protocol that can integrate all the new systems onto one vast platform. Should they succeed, documentation that takes days will eventually be done in minutes, much of it without the need for human input. The cost of moving goods across continents could drop dramatically, adding fresh impetus to relocate manufacturing or source materials and goods from overseas.
The key, as in so many other industries, from oil tankers to cryptocurrencies, is blockchain, the electronic ledger system that allows transactions to be verified autonomously. And the benefits wouldn’t be confined to shipping. Improving communications and border administration using blockchain could generate an additional $1 trillion in global trade, according to the World Economic Forum.
The shipping paper trail begins when a cargo owner books space on a ship to move goods. Documents need to be filled in and approved before cargo can enter or leave a port. In 2014, Maersk followed a container filled with roses from Kenya to the Netherlands. The company found that 30 people and organisations were involved in processing the box on its journey to Europe. The shipment took 34 days to get from the farm to the retailers, including 10 days waiting for documents to be processed.