• Maersk, APL, Hyundai race to build paperless cargo system
  • Adoption of blockchain could generate $1 trillion in trade

Globalization 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. A.P. 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 globalization. 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.

“This would be the biggest innovation in the industry since the containerization,” said Rahul Kapoor, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in Singapore. “It basically brings more transparency and efficiency. The container shipping lines are coming out of their shells and playing catch-up in technology.”

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.

APL Ltd., owned by the world’s third-largest container line CMA CGM SA, together with Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, Accenture Plc, a European customs organization and other companies said last month that they’ve tested a blockchain-based platform. South Korea’s Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. held trial runs last year using a system developed with Samsung SDS Co.

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. A single shipment can require hundreds pages that need to be physically delivered to dozens of different agencies, banks, customs bureaus and other entities.

Trail of Roses

In 2014, Maersk followed a refrigerated container filled with roses and avocados from Kenya to the Netherlands. The company found that almost 30 people and organizations were involved in processing the box on its journey to Europe. The shipment took about 34 days to get from the farm to the retailers, including 10 days waiting for documents to be processed. One of the critical documents went missing, only to be found later amid a pile of paper.

“The paperwork and processes vital to global trade are also one of its biggest burdens,” according to Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, which has teamed up with International Business Machines Corp. to enable real-time tracking of its cargo and documents using blockchain. “The paper trail research that Maersk did uncovered the extent of the burden that documents and processes inflict on trade and the consequences.”

That plethora of paper processors has been one of the reasons shipping has lagged behind other industries in moving to electronic forms. The variety of different languages, laws and organizations involved in moving cargoes in the past made standardization a slow process.

Instead the industry has relied on advances in transport technology and cargo handling to improve efficiency, with the great Clipper sailing vessels replaced by steamships and then modern oil-powered leviathans – the largest ships on the oceans. In the 1850s, it took more than three months to move chests of tea from southern China to London. Today, that journey would take about 30 days.

The biggest change came in the 1960s, when the industry adopted the standard-size steel boxes in use today, replacing the wooden crates, chests and sacks that stevedores had hauled on the docks for centuries.

With these containers sometimes holding products from different suppliers, and ship cargoes sometimes ending up with thousands of customers in dozens of countries, the transition to a uniform electronic system presents major challenges.

“Not all stakeholders are looking at deploying the same blockchain solution and platforms,” APL said in response to questions. “This can pose as a challenge if stakeholders are expected to trade via a common platform or solution.”

And the shipping lines will also need to persuade the ports and other organizations involved in cargo trading to adopt their systems. Maersk said Singapore-based port operator PSA International Pte. and APM Terminals, based in The Hague, Netherlands, will use its platform. APL and Accenture said they plan to pilot their product by the end of this year. Accenture said it has tested its technology with other pilot shipments that range from beer to medical supplies.

The cost savings could be visible in the companies’ financial statements in about two years, Kapoor of Bloomberg Intelligence said.

“Shipping needs to stop thinking about itself as this standalone middle sector,” said K D Adamson, chief executive officer of Futurenautics Group. “It needs to start thinking about how the different elements of shipping fit into other ecosystems.”

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Barclays Plc has installed devices that track how often bankers are at their desks.

Managers were peppered with queries when investment bank staff in London discovered black boxes stuck to the underside of their desks in recent months, according to several Barclays employees who asked not to be identified speaking about their workplace. They turned out to be tracking devices called OccupEye, which use heat and motion sensors to record how long employees are spending at their posts.

There was a “phased roll-out” of the devices, and Barclays staff and the Unite union were notified before they were installed, although the bank did not send out a specific memo about them, according to spokesman Tom Hoskin. The Barclays employees said they don’t remember being informed about the boxes, but spokespeople for the bank said there have been no official human-resources complaints.

The devices, made by Blackburn, U.K.-based Cad-Capture, are pitched as a way for companies to find out how they can reduce office space, providing a multicolored dashboard to show managers which workstations are unoccupied and analyze usage trends.

“The sensors aren’t monitoring people or their productivity; they are assessing office space usage,” the bank said in an emailed statement. “This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption, or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments.”

Shrinking Workplaces

Hot-desking may appeal as a cost-cutting strategy to Barclays Chief Executive Officer Jes Staley, who has said there are “tremendous savings” to be made by reducing the bank’s real-estate footprint. In December, Barclays sublet office space in London’s Canary Wharf district to the government, saving about 35 million pounds ($45 million) a year.

Investment banks are increasingly using technology to keep tabs on how their staff spend their time. Barclays has introduced a computer system to track how much is earned from every client, allowing bosses to determine how much time traders, analysts and salespeople should spend with each customer. 

“We were given assurances that the boxes did not monitor individuals or their performance,” Unite national officer Dominic Hook said in a statement. The union “will keep a close eye on the situation to make sure that the sensors are never used to spy on staff or as a means to measure productivity.”

Other Banks

Inquiries to ten other banks with operations in London found that Lloyds Banking Group Plc uses similar motion-tracking devices. OccupEye boxes have caused controversy elsewhere: the Daily Telegraph newspaper removed the devices the same day they installed them after complaints from staff and a journalists’ union about “Big Brother-style surveillance.”

Investment banks JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Citigroup Inc. and Credit Suisse Group AG do not currently use any kind of desk monitoring in London, according to people with knowledge of the banks’ practices, who asked not to be identified speaking about personnel matters. Spokespeople for the four firms declined to comment.

U.K. peers HSBC Holdings Plc and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc also have no similar desk monitoring system, spokespeople for the lenders said. Standard Chartered Plc, Deutsche Bank AG and Morgan Stanley didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lloyds, like Barclays, has been trimming its London space, aiming to save 100 million pounds a year. “It’s important to keep office and working space under regular review,” Lloyds spokesman Ross Keany said in an email. “While we use motion sensors in some of our sites, we also make sure to engage colleagues and seek their feedback on what would work best.”

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