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IBM teams with Maersk on new blockchain shipping solution

IBM and shipping giant Maersk having been working together for the last year developing a blockchain-based shipping solution called TradeLens. Today they moved the project from Beta into limited availability.

Marie Wieck, GM for IBM Blockchain says the product provides a way to digitize every step of the global trade workflow, transforming it into a real-time communication and visual data sharing tool.

TradeLens was developed jointly by the two companies with IBM providing the underlying blockchain technology and Maersk bringing the worldwide shipping expertise. It involves three components: the blockchain, which provides a mechanism for tracking goods from factory or field to delivery, APIs for others to build new applications on top of the platform these two companies have built, and a set of standards to facilitate data sharing among the different entities in the workflow such as customs, ports and shipping companies.

Wieck says the blockchain really changes how companies have traditionally tracked shipped goods. While many of the entities in the system have digitized the process, the data they have has been trapped in siloes and previous attempts at sharing like EDI have been limited. “The challenge is they tend to think of a linear flow and you really only have visibility one [level] up and one down in your value chain,” she said.

The blockchain provides a couple of obvious advantages over previous methods. For starters, she says it’s safer because data is distributed, making it much more secure with digital encryption built in. The greatest advantage though is the visibility it provides. Every participant can check any aspect of the flow in real time, or an auditor or other authority can easily track the entire process from start to finish by clicking on a block in the blockchain instead of requesting data from each entity manually.

While she says it won’t entirely prevent fraud, it does help reduce it by putting more eyeballs onto the process. “If you had fraudulent data at start, blockchain won’t help prevent that. What it does help with is that you have multiple people validating every data set and you get greater visibility when something doesn’t look right,” she said.

As for the APIs, she sees the system becoming a shipping information platform. Developers can build on top of that, taking advantage of the data in the system to build even greater efficiencies. The standards help pull it together and align with APIs, such as providing a standard Bill of Lading. They are starting by incorporating existing industry standards, but are also looking for gaps that slow things down to add new standard approaches that would benefit everyone in the system.

So far, the companies have 94 entities in 300 locations around the world using TradeLens including customs authorities, ports, cargo shippers and logistics companies. They are opening the program to limited availability today with the goal of a full launch by the end of this year.

Wieck ultimately sees TradeLens as a way to facilitate trade by building in trust, the end of goal of any blockchain product. “By virtue of already having an early adopter program, and having coverage of 300 trading locations around the world, it is a very good basis for the global exchange of information. And I personally think visibility creates trust, and that can help in a myriad of ways,” she said.

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