How blockchain can help with freight fluidity

Did you know that 80% of the goods consumers use daily are carried by the ocean shipping industry? These shipments require a complex network of hundreds of actors and processes, using multiple modes of freight transportation (including sea carriers, trains, trucks and airplanes) to move goods across the world. In order to handle the increasing complexity of these networks, it is important to have an efficient flow of freight, or “freight fluidity”.

All players in this field look for ways to improve freight fluidity, many of whom joined the Implementing a Freight Fluidity Performance Measurement System workshop in Washington, DC earlier this month, which I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in and speak at.

This workshop is hosted by the TRB (Transportation Research Board), in collaboration with the FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) Office of Freight Management and Operations, and is attended by federal, state and local transportation authorities as well as researchers from universities and private sector representatives. These leaders all work together to progress the development of freight performance measures.

The TRB is one of six major divisions of the National Research Council, which serves as an independent advisor to the federal government and others on scientific and technical questions of national importance. The mission of the Transportation Research Board is to provide leadership in transportation innovation and progress through research and information exchange, conducted within a setting that is objective, interdisciplinary, and multimodal.

By pushing for the progress of freight fluidity, TRB helps all transportation government agencies set their plans and apply their investments for infrastructure development of highways, railroads, ports, terminals and all of the different parties that support the end-to-end journey of goods as part of supply chains.

So then, what is freight fluidity and why does it matter?

“Freight fluidity” is a broad term referring to the characteristics of a multimodal freight network in a geographic area of interest, where any number of specific modal data elements and performance measures are used to describe the network performance (including costs and resiliency) and quantity of freight moved (including commodity value) to inform decision making.

The concept of freight fluidity originated from a Canadian initiative, which defined a Canada National Freight Strategic Plan to increase the performance of supply chains across Canada and its participation in global trade. This includes a fluidity indicator which examines end-to-end supply chain performance.

Since its inception, multiple governmental and private organizations have been working to address the needs of measuring freight performance, including multimodal supply chains that move products from production, to consumption, to disposal.

Performance of the freight transportation system is important to shippers, carriers, planners, policy makers, as well as the general public, because it affects the efficiency and costs of goods and services. Therefore, it directly impacts the general performance of the economy. Freight performance measures often guide decisions about operations, investments, policies and regulations.

Benefits of freight fluidity:

  • Helps identify enhancements and make improvements
  • Provides understanding of multimodal, end-to-end flow of goods
  • Identifies bottlenecks and interrelationships with other modes/total supply chains
  • Connects transportation and economic development discussions
  • Improves quality of service which has direct effect on competitiveness

Workshop Overview

The workshop showcased recent developments in multimodal freight performance measurement in the Americas and Europe, and discussed gaps and areas for improvement. Opportunities were also covered, such as the use of emerging tracking and measurement technologies like smart vehicles, social media feeds, blockchain, IoT, GPS tracking, and examples of multi-sector data sharing to capture multimodal freight performance.

The workshop highlighted perspectives from both public and private sectors, including shippers, freight forwarder and policy makers on the topics of: Importance And Impact Of Freight Performance, U.S. Achievements and Innovations, International Applications, Emerging Technologies and Data Sources, Institutional and Legal Issues, Science Fiction to Engineering Facts, and Research Needs for Advancing Freight Performance Measurement.

As part of the Emerging Technologies and Data Sources Panel, I presented on blockchain technologies, specifically TradeLens, and covered how they can help freight fluidity achieve its goals across the complex networks and ecosystems.

Example of a solution using blockchain for freight fluidity

Blockchain solutions are well suited for handling issues of tracking and visibility across multiple parties with trust and security guarantees. It uses a shared, immutable ledger to track transactions and provide accountability while still respecting privacy requirements.

TradeLens is an open and neutral industry platform for global trade, underpinned by blockchain technology and supported by major industry players. The platform promotes a more efficient, predictable and secure exchange of information in order to foster greater collaboration and trust across the global supply chain.

TradeLens can help with freight fluidity and the overall freight performance area by providing the platform with data that is needed as a basis for understanding all of the steps of shipping cargo end-to-end.

Transportation is more than each segment of the journey; it is about the end-to-end supply chain, the sum of the parts, and TradeLens captures the end-to-end flows of goods, which can then be monitored, analyzed and optimized.

TradeLens and its blockchain infrastructure can support the reliability, accountability and visibility requirements of freight fluidity. Organizations that are part of the freight network do not need to create point-to-point integrations with other organizations. Point-to-point integrations are inefficient, expensive and vulnerable. With just a single integration with TradeLens, each organization is now united with every other organization in a decentralized manner.

The information provided by each participant on the network can supply the need for multi-modal data across the entire freight network, including information on origins and destinations of freight movements by mode.

Analytics on top of the network data can provide an understanding of how “fluid” the supply chains are — in terms of mobility, reliability, and resiliency. Derived data can supply the need for information on the quantity of goods moved (e.g., volume, weight, value — and by commodity type) throughout the network to understand flows and to weight performance measures across the supply chain. The resiliency of the freight network is critical to shippers and carriers and is included as another element within freight fluidity performance.

While there are many challenges in the freight industry and complexity continues to increase, blockchain solutions like TradeLens can help connect the dots across all different parties in this journey. By optimizing the freight ecosystem, we can streamline business processes and the exchange of value along the supply chain. By reducing risk we can replace uncertainty with transparency through a trusted decentralized solution.

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