In the latest example of container lines endeavoring to digitize critical ocean freight documents, Ocean Network Express (ONE) in the second quarter of this year will begin developing an electronic bill of lading (eBL) for shippers to use globally. The move comes after a successful trial of the system with software provider essDOCS, the companies said Thursday.
Singapore-based ONE tested the eBL on a shipment of synthetic rubber from Russia to Shanghai sent by Russian petrochemical shipper SIBUR International. ONE used essDOCS’s CargoDocs product to build the eBL.
ONE said it plans to roll out — on a regional and then global basis — a digital bill of lading product that would allow the draft BL to be reviewed, edited, and approved electronically using the CargoDocs system. That capability would be available via ONE’s online customer portal.
Development of an electronic bill of lading has long been a goal of many in the container shipping industry, but it has been elusive in part due to a lack of standardization of the document.
The container shipping information portal INTTRA, now part of the supply chain planning software provider E2open, unsuccessfully attempted to develop a standardized electronic format more than a decade ago. Maritime trade finance solutions provider Bolero International in 2018 developed a paperless bill of lading for Evergreen Line.
More recently, the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA), a nonprofit consortium of nine of the largest global container lines, including ONE, has indicated that a standardized digital bill of lading is on its roadmap. Other providers, such as Cargo X, have attempted to develop eBLs using blockchain technology in the past two years.
In theory, an eBL helps all parties attached to a shipment avoid errors due to rekeying of information into multiple systems, as well as errors introduced when a BL is amended. There are also costs and time inefficiencies related to the use of couriers to send bills of lading around the world when the documents need to be amended. The largest impediment, industry sources have told JOC.com, is a lack of a standardized format for such instruments, which has prevented the industry from having a common version to adopt.
It’s also not clear if a single container line can create a long-term competitive advantage through the digitization of bills of lading, particularly because most large shippers use multiple carriers and may also use non-vessel operating common carriers (NVOs), which issue their own house BLs.
No IATA in ocean freight
The air freight industry, meanwhile, has already migrated to an electronic air waybill environment. But that initiative was driven in large part by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the kind of global governing body the liner shipping industry lacks.
The ONE electronic bill of lading is aimed at reducing manual data re-entry by allowing data to flow into ONE’s internal transportation management system. Shippers would be able to either print the electronic bill of lading or receive the eBL through the ONE online portal.
“Accelerating ONE’s digitization effort is the key to actively addressing our customers’ pain points, such as waiting times for bill of lading issuance,” Richard Hiller, ONE global head of sales, customer service, and documentation, said in a statement.
essDOCS has a wide range of customers, particularly in the energy, banking, and commodities sectors. In the logistics industry, it counts the forwarders BDP International and Kuehne + Nagel, and container line Cosco Shipping, as customers.