The maritime trade industry is embracing digitisation and utilising technology and data flows to enhance visibility, improve planning and reduce costs throughout supply chains. Ports have a crucial role in helping to transform the industry and ensuring operations are efficient and environmentally friendly. GTR and Barclays organised a roundtable discussion with the UK’s leading port operator to explore the steps being taken to shape the future of trade.


Roundtable participants:

  • Julian Walker, chief commercial officer, Associated British Ports (ABP)
  • Lee Collinson, head of manufacturing, transport and logistics, Barclays
  • Jaya Vohra, global head of trade & working capital product management and trade client management, Barclays
  • Shannon Manders, editorial director, GTR (moderator)


GTR: How efficient are current logistical supply chains and how have companies across the maritime trade industry adjusted their business practices over the past few years? What impact has that had on companies’ financial needs?

 Walker: Over the last five years there have been dramatic changes in the way supply chains are operated, driven by a number of factors, including Brexit, which is an ongoing challenge, as well as the pandemic and other disruptive events, such as the Ever Given’s week-long blockage of the Suez Canal.

The reality is that even with the lessons learned, supply chains are still transitioning and are not as robust as they could be. I don’t think we’ve yet hit that sweet spot in terms of being able to deal with shocks.

We often hear that people are shifting their inventory management from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’, and that nearshoring and friendshoring are becoming more common. This is reflected in inquiries for warehousing space in the port sector as well as discussions with our customers, especially in the container trade between the Far East and Europe.

It will be interesting to see how nearshoring affects supply chains in terms of manufacturing. While many UK companies are still manufacturing in China, they’re increasingly looking to move the assembly of goods locally to boost value chain resilience and reduce cost risks. This shift allows for more parts in containers rather than assembled products.

 Collinson: I interact with clients across the manufacturing and transportation sectors, and this aligns with what we’re observing as well.

Delays in receiving specific components can bring production to a halt. In the UK, unsold items worth £23.6bn are suspended in manufacturers’ warehouses because key parts or materials are unavailable, as outlined in ‘Chain reaction’ a manufacturing, logistics and transport report that Barclays published at the end of 2022. As much as 72% of manufacturers are experiencing this kind of logjam.

We also learned through the research for our report that 39% of manufacturers with supply chain difficulties have increased storage, while 37% have widened the number of suppliers, and a third have moved to nearshore suppliers.

So we’re certainly seeing that management teams are now prioritising business continuity and are implementing strategies to mitigate supply chain and geopolitical risks.

Vohra: Companies have undergone rapid transformation in a short period of time as they’ve worked to change business practices and suppliers, and boost their resilience. This has resulted in increased working capital needs and the use of inventory finance, invoice finance and supply chain finance.

The rising cost of materials has also strained finances, necessitating these types of funding solutions.

At the same time, there is a growing emphasis on ESG practices and compliance with complex sanctions and changing regulatory environments, which adds to overall investment pressures.

Organisations in the maritime sector have had to adapt to these challenges.

I agree that although measures have been implemented in response to shocks, true resilience in supply chains has not yet been achieved. The focus now is on future-proofing and developing agile and resilient supply chain models, which require significant investment.


GTR: How is the maritime trade sector harnessing the power of technology and digital processes to address some of its critical challenges? What have been some of its biggest, most innovative, successes to date?

 Walker: There is a growing demand for digitisation and enhanced transparency in the port industry. ABP is rolling out a port marine information service to provide ship and cargo owners with greater visibility on port activities and vessel location, including information on their likely slot, for example. This is important both from a cost and an ESG perspective because you can start controlling or minimising your emissions if you slow shipping speed. We’re implementing this service across our ports, focusing initially on the larger ports like the Humber and Southampton.

We’re also exploring AI for planning efficiency and information sharing with ship and cargo owners.

Elsewhere, we’re leveraging technology in bulk cargoes, such as agri-products, for remote monitoring and quality control to predict risks such as mould or infestations. This improves our customers’ access to data, boosting overall visibility and bringing welcome predictability.

The port sector has been relatively slow in adopting technology but is now catching up and improving in these and other areas.

 Collinson: The pandemic highlighted the trade industry’s reliance on paper and wet signatures, prompting the need for innovation and the adoption of electronic signatures. This trend has continued even after the pandemic.

In maritime trade, increased access to data and AI are increasingly valued for improving operations and providing accurate arrival predictions.

For financiers, it is crucial to sustain innovation and collaborate with fintechs to explore emerging solutions.

Vohra: Digitalisation brings numerous advantages, such as the removal of paper, real-time visibility, better workflow management and data insights for efficient decision-making. Access to data is a significant benefit of technology and digital processes, enabling tracking of ESG and compliance aspects that are becoming increasingly important in the trade ecosystem.

Historically, there had always been a reliance on paper, but the Covid-19 pandemic expedited the adoption of electronic signatures. However, I think true innovation is yet to be achieved. Collaboration among banks, fintechs and industry stakeholders is essential for driving transformative change.

Challenges remain in scaling up digital trade offerings, such as electronic bills of lading (eBLs) and blockchain technology. Nevertheless, we’ve seen a change in approach, and industry bodies are working with the government and regulators to change legal frameworks and promote innovation.

It’s important to remember that the digitalisation process requires a long-term view and integration across organisations at different stages of the journey.


GTR: How important is the digitisation of trade documentation to the maritime sector? To what extent can the digitisation of documents, such as the bill of lading, absorb increased costs, save time and ultimately help mitigate future disruptions for the sector?

 Walker: In simple terms, eBLs have great potential for efficiency in the supply chain, although adoption has been slow despite discussions dating back several years.

In a post-Brexit environment, obviously, cargoes from the EU now need to go through the same level of checks and paperwork as rest of the world cargoes. The UK government’s new Border Target Operating Model aims for a frictionless border and Trusted Trader schemes, but there have been several delays to the rollout of these new measures and complexity remains. We brought in control posts as part of the Brexit process at the Humber, for example, and they’re still not being used.

But the key point is that the data flow around these measures, to be able to present information as required on the product that’s being carried, is heavily reliant on paperwork. There’s still a long way to go in terms of digitisation, but once that’s been cracked, there are significant efficiency gains to be achieved in both short-sea and deep-sea cargo flows.


GTR: How can efforts to enhance end-to-end visibility and the better use of data enable better planning, improve the flow of goods and head off disruption in the future?

Walker: Put simply, better data enables improved planning, leading to more efficient operations, faster transit of goods and cost reduction. So we’re looking at how AI can calculate optimal staff and equipment usage at ports, and how it can leverage data from drone technology to enhance port security as well as provide transparency on cargo quantities.

ABP is expanding our renewable energy generation and storage capacity, which we use for our own consumption as well as for our customers. With the use of AI, we can start creating microgrids and predicting demand across various different customers, which will optimise our electricity operations and ultimately reduce our need to import power from the grid.

We’re also setting up 5G networks within ports, so that our customers, whether that’s container or cargo operators or even crews, can get better access to broadband and better utilise the data that they’re receiving. Enhancing security is a primary objective, but the overall goal is to optimise performance and drive efficiencies, both for our customers and for us, as the port operator.

 Vohra: One of the biggest challenges trade financiers face is dealing with excessive amounts of paper, which slows down decision-making processes and access to finance for clients, while increasing operational costs.

Data can be really powerful in transforming the client experience and improving financial inclusion for companies of all sizes, including SMEs.

While we wait for electronic documents to truly scale across the globe, we need efficient technologies, such as OCR, for capturing structured data. Only then can we apply machine learning and AI capabilities to automate processing, enhance compliance checking, and speed up access to financing and goods.

Data is also critical for transparency in terms of ESG evaluation, which we can use to enhance our advisory support.


GTR: In what ways can increased digitisation of the maritime trade sector help to address major climate and environmental challenges?

 Walker: Earlier this year, ABP launched our ‘Ready for Tomorrow’ sustainability strategy, aiming for net-zero emissions by 2040. The strategy encompasses waste, air quality, biodiversity and water in addition to net zero. A key part of that is helping customers reduce their supply chain emissions – and data plays a critical role in that process.

Also central to our sustainability approach is the provision of renewable infrastructure, such as floating offshore wind in South Wales and hydrogen importation and carbon capture projects on the Humber.

Another interesting aspect of this conversation is the ability of ports to deal with electric vessels and charging infrastructure, which is gaining interest. There’s also growing attention on fuels for the future, like methanol, green ammonia and hydrogen.

The port sector has traditionally been a bit slow to react and embrace change. But now, the realisation of the role that ports have to play in terms of achieving net zero and providing data has really galvanised the industry. For us, it’s an incredibly exciting time.

 Vohra: The port sector plays a crucial role within the wider trade industry. Banks and fintechs alone cannot influence change, and we need to bring together all the components of the ecosystem to collaboratively drive innovation.

Certainly, eliminating paper in favour of digital processes has immediate ESG benefits by reducing environmental impact.

Better data enables the tracking of carbon emissions and promotes transparency in the climate agenda. It also helps evaluate and score supply chains for sustainability compliance and supports clients in their transition efforts.

Collinson: Across the manufacturing world, clients are at different stages of their ESG journey. However, even those who haven’t started yet are realising the necessity of embarking on this journey due to supply chain demands. We are training our bankers to assist clients in their ESG efforts and currently engaging in ESG conversations with all our UK clients. Through various events, we aim to connect the community and foster best practice sharing.


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