What is a bill of lading and why isn’t a digital format industry standard?

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The bill of lading is believed to be the most important transport document in international trade: a mainstay of the global supply chain that’s present from origin to destination and critical to customs clearance, financing and ownership of cargo.

But for as much as shipping has changed over the decades, not much about the bill of lading (BL) has. Today, it’s pretty much the same often-paper, always-time-consuming document it ever was.

That’s why driving an eBill standard is largely considered the Holy Grail of global trade. Succeed in that, and partners up and down the supply chain would benefit from the days and weeks that paper BLs add to the process as they are printed, pouched, messengered, lost, found and waited upon.

It's ironic because there isn’t a single aspect of the BL that couldn’t be done better digitally. To demonstrate, let’s dive into the essence of these documents and the challenges that remain to making them digital.

How does an original paper bill of lading work?

Once the vessel departs, an original BL can be issued by the ocean carrier. After the shipper endorses the original bill, it is couriered to the buyer who then needs to surrender it back to the carrier at destination as part of the cargo release process.

It sounds simple enough, but along the way the BL impacts many other processes and actions. Even before issuance, the time-consuming process from a shipping instruction to the issuance of a verified BL, many iterations and changes can occur to get the BL into an approved state.  

The BL, and its critical data fields are required for customs clearance, letter of credit, change of title and other processes. One delay in any of these can result in costly extra charges.  

The functions of a bill of lading were made to be done electronically

In oftentimes convoluted international shipments, the BL is the legal go-to document that facilitates negotiation, lending and risk reduction by performing three key functions:

1. It is evidence of a contract of carriage

2. It confirms receipt of goods

3. It serves as the title to the goods

So, can eBill perform these functions while maintaining the integrity and legality that’s required? The P&I Clubs think so. Today’s top eBill solutions meet these challenges through rule frameworks and advanced security measures — all while providing significant cost and time savings.

eBills can play a pivotal role — and a digital role

Carriers issue the BL, but they rely on information from shippers which may change multiple times during the booking and shipper’s instruction processes. Electronic features like structured documents make creation, approval, distribution, tracking — everything — easier than paper.

This benefits not only the shippers but the carriers, buyers, sellers and banks without having the need to continue to print out paper — which defeats the purpose

Digital does the different types of bill of lading better

There are many types of BL, reflecting the complexities of international trade. Eliminating paper is only the beginning of the ways eBills can help streamline processes related to the two main categories of BL:

Sea Waybills are sometimes referred to as “Express Release.” They have a named consignee on them but are issued without any original documents that have to be presented for the release of the cargo. Non-negotiable and non-transferable, they are usually used in three cases:

1. Intra-company shipments between divisions located in different countries

2. Shipments when no negotiations take place between the seller and the consignee

3. Instances when the shipper doesn’t have to submit an original BL to any party in order to secure their payment

 

Original BLs have different forms that all hinge on the issuance of original BL documents in some way.

· Order BLs are the most common type of BL. They enable delivery of the cargo to be made “To Order” to the bonafide holder of the BL. These types of BL are negotiable and often linked to letter of credit transactions. Often banks must verify and endorse the original BL before the cargo can be released to the buyer.

· Straight BLs stipulate that the cargo may only be released to the specified consignee and only upon the surrender of an original BL.

· Open BLs are negotiable and transferable. The name of the consignee can be changed with the consignee’s signature and transferred — often multiple times.

Going Digital assists in filling out the bill of lading

With shippers providing the majority of the information for a BL, completeness and correctness is crucial. eBills help guide the way. If shippers can provide bill of lading information digitally, there’s less risk of keying errors. Form fields and autofill features all speed the process and lead to time savings.

One of the challenges of going paperless with BLs from the very beginning is standards. Adhering to set data standards makes information useful for different parties within organizations and multiple supply chain partners and it enables seamless workflows from automation. Unfortunately, standards are far from being standard today.

Digital makes the information included in a BL more useful

Users look to the bill of lading as an infallible source of essential and comprehensive information like names and addresses, purchase orders or reference numbers, special delivery instructions, pickup date, description of items, packaging type, NMFC freight class and DOT hazmat designations.

eBills of lading can make this information highly transparent to supply chain partners who can use it. But like many of the benefits of eBills, this transparency hinges on adoption — if all the participants of the supply chain are rowing together digitally, it works. If not, it just makes for another manual process that may end up being even more work than paper.

With its centrality to supply chains and essentiality to digitizing global trade, it’s easy to understand why the industry has its sights set on digitizing this important document. But acceptance of the eBill remains both the goal and the greatest challenge today. That’s why getting the eBill to catch on will require successfully digitizing the entire process for eBills, too.

TradeLens, with its relationships with the world’s largest ocean carriers, is in a unique position to explore the digitization of this process at an unprecedented scale. Within an ecosystem where there’s already widespread acceptance, the potential of the eBill could finally be revealed. 

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