Electronic bill of ladings: A shift long overdue

Paperwork is still the center of all things logistics. And of all that paperwork, the most important piece is the bill of lading (BOL).

Why? The BOL is the legal document that includes all of the details about the shipment and the goods being carried. It also serves as a receipt, meaning the carrier won’t be paid for the delivery without it.

The BOL performs three key functions:

  1. Proof or evidence of contract of carriage
  2. Proof to receipt of goods
  3. Document of title

The adoption of the electronic bill of lading

Before the current health crisis, most organizations did not consider paper to be a health hazard. Rather, it was an inconvenience for drivers and office clerks to handle as part of the payroll and billing process.

But thankfully, transportation and logistics companies have made the health and safety of their workers and partners a top priority. Many industry-leading carriers have also shifted to an electronic approach to BOL to increase efficiency and accuracy. Electronic bill of ladings (eBOLs) have become an obvious choice for carriers also looking to prioritize critical safety within today’s work environment.

This was proven evident when several leading organizations announced that investing in this type of technology was a priority. For example, in May 2020, Lowell, Arkansas-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. announced a new eBOL feature to allow businesses and carriers to digitally sign bill of ladings and reduce contact during the delivery process.

Electronic bill of ladings offer simplicity, efficiency, and a safer option.

– Shelley Simpson, J.B. Hunt

“The current environment is challenging every aspect of the supply chain, from securing capacity to completing deliveries,” said Shelley Simpson, executive vice president, chief commercial officer, and president of highway services for J.B. Hunt. “This new electronic bill of lading feature offers simplicity, efficiency, and most importantly, a safer option for drivers and front-line employees to sign load documents.”

Another example is Halvor Lines. CIO Bonnie Ramsay saw that the organization’s 600+ drivers were at risk when picking up paper BOL documents at shipper facilities and handing them to receivers to sign within close proximity.

Ramsay knew Halvor could develop an eBOL solution with cloud-based document management and electronic signature systems. She said her motivation for developing the eBOL was to help drivers stay safe, but the company also has been able to gain some efficiencies by getting signed eBOLs into its back-office systems immediately when drivers complete a delivery.

Proven benefits, but miles to go

DCSA, a nonprofit consortium of nine container lines working to develop interoperable standards, estimates that eBOLs could save the shipping industry a collective $4 billion in processing costs if they reach 50 percent adoption by shipment volume. Citing adoption of electronic air waybills (e-AWB) in the airfreight industry, which were introduced in 2010 and have hit 68 percent adoption, DCSA said it projects a 50 percent adoption level of eBOLs could be reached by 2030.

Scott Sullivan, executive chief financial officer and chief information officer at Pitt Ohio, said his organization struggles with electronic bill of ladings due to a lack of industry adoption.

The whole subject of eBOLs is ripe territory for both shippers and carriers. There’s so much efficiency to be gained on both sides of the equation.

– Scott Sullivan, Pitt Ohio

“The whole subject of eBOLs is ripe territory for both shippers and carriers. There’s so much efficiency to be gained on both sides of the equation,” he said.

“When we get a paper document, until we get someone to key that into the system, we can’t provide you with any information. But if they send it to us digitally, as soon we receive it we can tell them, ‘We’ve got it. We’re doing your pickup. And pickup’s completed.’ We’re trying to get customers to give us the information electronically, but we’re only at about a 10 to 15 percent adoption rate,” said Sullivan. “Out of that, probably 5 percent of the bills come across digitally. So we’ve got a lot of work to do there, not only from a customer side but also from a carrier side.”

While safety is top of mind due to the current global health situation, bill of lading automation also increases efficiency and improves accuracy. The eBOL process reduces the amount of time it takes drivers, carriers, shippers, and receivers to enter data manually.

It also reduces the amount of errors or inconsistencies in the document, streamlining accounting processes. This reduces operational costs for everyone involved.

Removing paperwork from the transportation process; a digital handshake

The right transportation and logistics automation solution enables you to instantly capture, identify, and digitize transportation and trade documents in any form. With unlimited, configurable workflows and inherent integration capabilities, you can easily connect and automate data transfer between all trade management and transportation systems.

By electronically capturing and automatically routing all incoming trade document data, your organization improves end-to-end visibility into complex supply chain processes and increases control over supply chain events. For example, digitizing BOLs allows a receiver to electronically sign the bill of lading, helping carriers and receivers reduce contact during deliveries while reducing total freight spend and improving import/export trade compliance.

As more organizations digitize transactions, logistics teams will have greater flexibility in where and when they work. Besides health and safety benefits, the productivity and visibility gains make digitizing the BOL process an obvious decision for those who are just getting started.

Want to learn more? Download this transportation and logistics automation solution overview.

Cara McFarlane

Cara McFarlane

Cara McFarlane is the global solution marketing manager for Hyland’s insurance vertical. Her mission is to effectively position Hyland as the leading content services platform within the insurance market by... read more about: Cara McFarlane

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