By Tom Peters

The developing technology to create a more efficient cargo supply chain, the status of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations, and CN’s continued investment in safety and equipment to keep cargo moving fluidly, were among the main topics of discussion at the annual Halifax Port Days.

Digitization in the shipping industry grabbed the attention of delegates as a panel of business and technology experts focused on a new blockchain collaboration between Maersk and IBM, called TradeLens. The goal of the project is to develop a highly secure digital ledger system that promotes the sharing of information across the global shipping industry which can reduce costs, improve productivity, increase the speed of the delivery of goods and provide transparency. The Maersk-IBM blockchain will enable the needed safety and security for the digital platform.

“The shipping industry is changing and the digital revolution is happening in shipping and the supply chain,” said panel moderator Kevin McCann, partner in National Public Relations.

Michael White, CEO and head of TradeLens (Maersk GTD Inc.), said the global supply chain is very complex, and very slow moving with a lot of inefficiencies. “It needs a change to be more efficient,” he said and suggested that blockchain technology can change the game moving from paper to digital technology. White said the marine industry has a huge need for this technology and “everyone can benefit. Digitization is coming whether we like it or not. Industry needs to change and it would be good to have more companies involved early,” he added.

In July, Halifax Port Authority became one of over 100 companies participating in the TradeLens’ digital global shipping platform which will integrate global shipping and trade partners including terminals, shippers, freight forwarders and ports to provide a single shared and trusted view of supply chain transactions. “Through our involvement in TradeLens, we are taking the next steps to ensure the Port is on the leading edge,” said Karen Oldfield, President and CEO, Halifax Port Authority.

In recent months, the Operations Centre on the Port’s website has become a critical digital tool for the sharing of real-time information with customers and the larger community. Shippers and cargo owners can find up-to-the minute information on terminal gate metrics, weekly dwell time, predictive air gap, arrivals and departures and special alerts. To its credit, Halifax’s web-based Port Operations Centre is this year’s American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) winner in the IT Awards program in the Port Operation and Management Systems category.

Michael Foster, Senior Vice-President and Chief Information and Technology Officer at CN, said the railway has been an early adopter of TradeLens. He said CN is working to involve more technology into its system, moving away from historic processes of decision making to using real time data. Foster said “business agility” is critical but a limiting factor has been a lack of technology to go with it.

Panelist Matt Hebb, Interim CEO, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, Halifax, said he sees a growing demand for new technology to open new fields of innovation. He said Canada is an underachiever in the ocean economy globally, and believes innovation technology is way to develop and improve its standing.

Bhavna Sethi, Blockchain and Cloud Innovations for IBM, and part of the team behind TradeLens, told delegates that blockchain is an enabler that can solve business problems, it’s not just a technology platform. She said that information shared on the system is secure and can’t be modified.

Prior to the panel discussion, CN’s Dan Bresolin, Assistant Vice-President International Intermodal, provided an update on the railway’s programs on safety, equipment renewal and major investments in facilities across the country to build on efficiencies in the movement of cargo. In an interview, Bresolin said CN will be active participant in Halifax’s plans to expand its South End container terminal operated by Halterm. Halifax Port Authority has announced it plans to spend $35 million to extend the South End terminal so it will be able to handle two, ultra-sized container ships (10,000 TEUs and greater) simultaneously. “Our role is that of an enabler of the gateway so we are going to build whatever rail infrastructure is needed, we are going to make sure we have people, trains, conductors, everything in place so we can support the growth that is going to happen in Halifax and we see that growth is going to be there,” he said. Bresolin said CN has invested $50 million in Nova Scotia in the last five years and will spend $30 million this year in New Brunswick.

In a keynote address, Laura Dawson, Director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, in Washington, D.C., and one of the world’s leading experts on political and economic relations between Canada and the U.S., gave her take on the on-going NAFTA negotiations.

Dawson, a former trade professor at Carleton University, said she believes the talks are nearing the end, and agreement will happen soon. She said of the approximately 32 chapters in the agreement, nearly all issues, especially the issues that concern the shipping industry such as border crossings, regulatory matters, etc, have been dealt with, and only a handful remain. She said she expects a deal soon but doesn’t expect actual implementation until 2019 or even 2020. The agreement would have to undergo a full review and passed by Congress. Dawson says as long as Donald Trump remains President there will be instability in trade relations between Canada and the U.S. She said the President’s ability to impose tariffs of 25 per cent on steel and aluminum for national security reasons is concerning.