TradeLens, the blockchain initiative spearheaded by Maersk and IBM, is facing growing competition from other consortia and technology providers.

Some of the world’s top container lines and terminal operators have now formed a consortium to develop a new blockchain-based platform for the global trade ecosystem. It is scheduled to go live as soon as next month.

Participants in the new consortium, called the Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN), include ocean carriers CMA CGM, Cosco, Evergreen Marine, OOCL and Yang Ming, as well as terminal operators DP World, Hutchison Ports, PSA International and Shanghai International Por.

The first application of the platform will allow shippers to digitise and automate the documentation and processes around ‘dangerous goods’, a category of goods classed as hazardous and which is subject to a range of regulatory schemes. However, the ultimate aim is to “facilitate the seamless sharing of documents and data across all stages of the shipping lifecycle”, CMA CGM says in a statement.

Andy Tung, co-CEO of Orient Overseas Container Line, refers to the GSBN as a “highly collaborative environment” that can “facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas towards even more innovative business models and solutions for our customers”.

“With the vision of a truly open blockchain platform for the industry, the GSBN will be key to the success of establishing a sustainable blockchain ecosystem for all stakeholders in the supply chain,” he says.

The news is undoubtedly a slap in the face for Maersk and IBM, which are also building a blockchain-based platform aimed at connecting all parties in the trade ecosystem. Called TradeLens, it enables users to interact efficiently, access real-time shipping data and digitalise and exchange trade documentation.

On paper, the TradeLens project seems to be a story of success: more than 92 organisations are now participating in the platform’s early adopter programme for the “industry-wide solution”, which has to date captured more that 236 million shipping events on the blockchain.

However, a year and a half after the initiative was first formed, TradeLens has only managed to attract one carrier outside the Maersk Group, namely Pacific International Lines (PIL).

Speaking to GTR in August, Marvin Erdly, global trade digitisation leader at IBM Blockchain, admitted that the platform had struggled to gain traction with other carriers. “Some were worried about too much Maersk control,” he said. The firms had therefore decided to revise their partnership model and not form a joint venture as was originally planned (Maersk would have owned 51% of the company).

“This is not a platform for Maersk, it is an industry platform that needs to be adopted by the industry,” Erdly continued. “We announced we were going to form a joint venture, but we have since received feedback from many in the ecosystem. We did get some pushback, especially from other ocean carriers, who said if this joint venture cannot be more broadly distributed in the industry it’s not a model they would find the best. We took that very seriously.”

He also said the parties were in “active discussions” with rival shipping lines and were “very optimistic” that others would join “very quickly”.

But the public is still to hear any public statements from Maersk and IBM on this matter. Meanwhile, the formation of the GSBN seems to speak for itself as to what rival firms think of TradeLens.


Startups entering shipping

As an industry still largely dominated by manual, paper-based and disparate processes, it’s no wonder that shipping is gaining increased attention from the world of blockchain. TradeLens and the GSBN are not alone in their ambitions to change this through the use of blockchain technology.

Israeli startup Wave, which in 2016 completed the world’s first live blockchain trade transaction with Barclays, is working towards releasing a commercial blockchain-powered bill of lading solution. The firm is currently conducting live pilots together with Israeli shipping company ZIM and other carriers.

Another startup, Slovenia-based blockchain firm CargoX, announced last week that its blockchain-based bill of lading platform is now commercially available. The solution allows for the issuance and transfer of electronic bills of lading on a public blockchain network and targets freight forwarders and NVOCCs (non-vessel operating common carriers), which will then be able to offer the solution to their customers.

CargoX, which raised over US$7mn in an ICO in January, has spent the second half of 2018 conducting pilots with a number of logistics providers, which are now using the platform. These include Swiss Fracht AG, Sprint International Express, Globalink, Global Value Network and Freightalia.

According to the startup, users can issue and transfer a bill of lading in minutes and at a cost of US$15. That’s a significant improvement from the days or weeks that a conventional, paper-based process usually takes, and which costs up to US$100.

While CargoX brands itself as a platform that is “completely neutral and partner-independent” – seemingly as opposed to initiatives like TradeLens – its solution is more narrowly focused than TradeLens, digitising just one piece of documentation: the bill of lading. The firm’s CEO and founder Stefan Kukman has previously told GTR that it had decided to dedicate its efforts to “solving one problem at a time”, but plans to expand to other trade documents, including the letter of credit.