February 1, 2023

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Tradelens Discontinues Operations. Why You Should Care.

Last week, TradeLens announced the discontinuation of operations ending operations in the first quarter of 2023. The launch of the platform in 2016 was a joint initiative by A.P. Moller – Maersk, an integrated logistics company, and IBM
IBM
.

While the end of the business venture might seem insignificant anywhere but in the world of supply chain, the end of this joint venture is important for three reasons. Tradelens is the only successful deployment of Enterprise Blockchain in a public supply chain network, Maersk is backing away from building a utility to improve ocean shipping, and IBM is admitting failure in thought leadership in Enterprise Blockchain in the public sector. When it comes to Tradelens, Enterprise Blockchain as a technology worked, but the limited deployment vision was a death nail.

Maersk Operations

Background

Enterprise blockchain emerged as a promising technology in 2009 and evolved into a public technology offering by IBM for supply chain in 2016. Up until last week, Tradelens was the only successful blockchain deployment in a public network.

By definition, blockchain is an inefficient database, but the immutability of the digital register improves trading partner collaboration. Maersk’s goal was simple. The Company wanted to create a Sabre
SABR
-like trading platform between ocean shippers much in the same way that IBM created Sabre for airline booking with American Airlines in 1960. The problem? Ocean shipping companies are a wily bunch unwilling to collaborate. The transaction frequency and margin volatility of the market is a barrier.

This reality is echo’d in the quote by Rotem Hershko, Head of Business Platforms at A.P. Moller-Maersk, “ TradeLens was founded on the bold vision to make a leap in global supply chain digitization as an open and neutral industry platform. Unfortunately, while we successfully developed a viable platform, the need for full global industry collaboration has not been achieved. As a result, TradeLens has not reached the level of commercial viability necessary to continue work and meet the financial expectations as an independent business.”

Why Does This Matter?

The announcement is meaningful for supply chain leaders in three areas:

  • Maersk Is Unwilling to Fund a Network to Improve Supply Chain Effectiveness. As of December 2022, the market cap of Maersk was $37.46 Billion. This makes Maersk the world’s 455th most valuable company. 2021 was a record year for Maersk in revenue at $48.2 Billion, compared to $29.2 Billion the prior year with EBITDA tripling year-over-year with record profits at $24 Billion and free cash flow of $15 Billion. The jump in revenues due to record high freight rates from pandemic shipping and global supply chain disruptions was unprecedented. Even after a record year, Maersk is unwilling to stay the course with Tradelens and fund a potentially promising freight booking utility to improve collaboration and freight visibility across ocean shipping trading partners. The announcement leaves brand owners (manufacturers and retailers) in a dilemma of how to build interoperability between trading networks where none exists today. Maersk is walking away from an opportunity to automate supply chain visibility and build the sorely needed network of networks between the technology trading partners — Ariba (SAP), GT
    GT
    Nexus (Infor), E2open, Elemica, Everstream Analytics, Edgeverve (Infosys), MPO (Kinaxis), Nulogy, Project 44, Shippeo, and Transporeon— operating as isolated entities serving only their own customers on fixed networks with no commitments to improve interoperability.
  • IBM Public Admission of Failure. In the last decade, IBM, a system aggregator, purchased over ten supply chain technology companies including the EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) provider Sterling Commerce. The result? Each purchased asset lost market share with a decline in innovation. EDI providers, once believed to have the potential to push Business-to-Business transactions to new technology platforms, largely became a profit maximization play. In addition, this month, the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) also scrapped its much-delayed blockchain project with IBM announced in 2016 to replace the clearing and settlement system that powers the equities market. The takeaway? IBM has great marketing of supply chain solutions. The issue is that IBM’s marketing message excellence for Blockchain and Watson is not equal to the company’s commitment to build next-generation solutions.
  • The Future of Blockchain for Supply Chain Networks. The aggregate industry vision for network deployments today is limited focusing on the combination of cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) signals. Blockchain offered hope to improve collaboration between trading partners that don’t naturally collaborate but need to track compliance (E.g. labor usage, food safety, and climate data) in a safe and secure manner. The current failure of Tradelens, and IBM innovation leadership in general, is a setback for the industry. If large trading partners like IBM and Maersk cannot muscle a cross-industry trading platform and focus on long-term benefit, who can?

Conclusion

Enterprise blockchain is still a promising technology searching for leadership and funding to improve visibility between supply chain trading partners. The failure of Tradelens is a short-term stumble. The failure was limited vision and the focus on short-term returns. The technology worked, but the founders lack the stomach to drive supply chain innovation.