What does a digitized supply chain look like?

As the TradeLens team's work on digitizing the supply chain continues, we often refer to two key statistics that provide perspective:

Documentation can be exchanged over 100 times per shipment, which can account for 20% of the transportation costs.
 Costly paperwork IBM and Maersk have identified that it’s possible for paperwork and documentation to be exchanged over 100 times for a single container shipment; and The World Economic Forum estimates that document processing accounts for 20% of the total transportation costs within global trade.

Reflecting on those remarkable numbers, we know that the work we're doing to help simplify and digitize the shipping document workflow is going to save billions of dollars for businesses and trade authorities around the world.

We recently took another step towards that objective with the introduction of document sharing. Now structured documents, like digital bills of lading and invoices, as well as unstructured documents, like scanned copies of packing lists, can be shared on the TradeLens platform.

This is huge because the ability to track documents end-to-end for a shipment is one of the two main goals — along with visibility of the milestones within a shipment — that we have set for the TradeLens platform.

Each time a document is edited, a new version is created and added to the platform without deleting or changing the old one.

The problem we’re solving comes from the need to access, share and update documents from end-to-end flow of a shipment. The hundreds of potential versions and types of documents attached to any shipment—all coming from different people or organizations and going to different people in the supply chain—are currently exchanged one-to-one. This causes a lot of administrative complexity and can lead to problems which makes the process laborious and error prone.

In contrast, our platform provides a shared and trusted, immediate source for documents that will save time, effort and frustration for everyone up and down the ocean and inland supply chain. Here’s how the new document sharing functionality of TradeLens helps clear up today’s documentation challenges:

  1. All the documents in a shared ledger
    TradeLens provides a common view of the documents associated with the different levels of a shipment as it moves toward its destination. All the documents are in a shared ledger rather than in file folders, hard drives or email inboxes throughout the supply chain.
  2. Version control 
    Each time a document is edited or uploaded, a new version is created and added to the platform without deleting or changing the old one. This is a blockchain feature that prevents documents from being lost and assists with dispute resolution.
  3. Auditability 
    Our tool uses blockchain to create an immutable log that enables users to go back and see who made any change, when it was made and the prior versions of the document. The same tool enables authorities to easily trace a container’s origin and events throughout transit.
  4. Collaboration
    Shippers rely on their customs brokers and freight forwarders to keep track of documents and send them around. TradeLens document tools let you work together with your 3PLs and customs brokers to manage and create key shipping documents across digital workflows.
  5. Accessibility
    Shippers have the ability within the platform to define who can access documents for their consignments, thanks to a unified permissions model based on international standards.
  6. Immediate notification
    Parties to the consignment such as customs brokers and inland transport providers are notified automatically when documents are added or updated, for dramatic time savings over the course of a shipment.

Real gains from document sharing are going to come from how TradeLens handles structured documents. This feature eliminates paper from the supply chain—and all its inefficiencies. It’s also going to transform work flows by reducing the need to manually enter the same data repeatedly. When a structured document goes in at the factory or port, the data will be instantly useable to the entire supply chain and accessible to those who have the correct permission to see it.

A TradeLens web user-interface screenshot showing the documents associated with a single shipment
 TradeLens web UI An example of a consignment with multiple documents associated. You can see the Certificate of Origin with its version, when it was modified and by whom.
A TradeLens web user-interface screenshot showing a shipment's certificate of origin
Immutable documents You can then drill down to see the contents of the document, with guaranteed immutability on the blockchain.

When we think about that stat of 200 documents per shipment, we realise that the ability to consume documents as data without manual input is going to hugely reduce redundant work. Today, you can share over 18 types of unstructured and structured documents with the platform, and you can edit structured documents within the platform as well.

New documents could be generated by a system that knows where to find information it needs from existing documents.

We are constantly adding to that number and we’re already working on new ideas to enhance document sharing capabilities. Here are some capabilities we are investigating for future deployment:

  • Integrating Optical Character Reader (OCR) technology.
    Turn unstructured documents into structured ones.
  • Automated document workflows
    By understanding the purpose and contents of documents we can automate certain actions and notifications in the shipment flow.
  • Smart-creation of documents
    New documents could be generated by a system that knows where to find information it needs from existing documents.

It won’t be long before those numbers I referenced at the top of this article start dropping. In fact, it can't happen fast enough. We're happy to be part of the solution. You can be too.

Here’s where else we’ll be for the remainder of 2019.

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