The shipping industry is forever evolving, with the adoption of digitalisation across numerous practices bringing time, cost and productivity benefits to companies doing business across borders. However, up until 2021, one area involved in international trade remained true to its traditions: the bill of lading (BL).

Documents of bills

Invented as far back as in the 13th century, the bill of lading is one of the crucial documents for facilitating cross-border trade. It acts as proof of cargo receipt, contract of carriage between carrier and exporter, and a legal document of entitlement for the original holder. And while its function on paper continues to serve millions of transactions worldwide, we feel it’s time to embrace the digital age.

The TradeLens electronic Bill of Lading (eBL) performs all the functions of the original BL within legal and regulatory frameworks, but with access, transfers and surrenders all being performed digitally – much like you would when transferring money to another person’s bank account.

So the paperless revolution is here; but how exactly does it work and what are the benefits for customers in everyday business?

How it works

ISSUE: It all starts with carriers issuing an eBL for a shipper as a structured document. The issuance is recorded, and a ‘hash’ of the document is saved to the TradeLens Blockchain.

TRANSFER: Now, the shipper can view the issued eBL in the TradeLens platform and, when ready, instantly and securely transfer it to any onboarded counterparty with the click of a button.

SURRENDER: When the container shipment is ready to be received, the consignee can click “Surrender” and the eBL returns to the carrier for cargo release.

Maersk busan Harbor

Paper-free and pain-free?

Going paperless may seem an incredibly simple premise when you break it down, but it’s been a long time coming for customers looking to alleviate the pain points that come with the traditional bill of lading.

With paper out of the equation, the need for companies to pick up and subsequently send physical documents to and from companies involved in the transaction is eradicated – and with it, the associated risks and costs.

Should anything happen to the documents in transit whether lost or destroyed, the financial consequences can be significant. Not to mention, the potential friction caused between buyer and seller.

Maersk employee using laptop

Paperless documents also combat the possibility of physical assets being tampered with or duplicated, all thanks to strictly permissioned parties having access to the documents through blockchain technology.

With blockchain, all information and new versions of critical documents are uploaded and secured as individual ‘blocks’ in the blockchain network. This gives you optimum visibility of the entire lifecycle of the document, as you can see its full history together with which party has made which changes at the exact time they took place.

This transparency and traceability throughout the whole process, from issuance to surrender, is an invaluable prospect for businesses doing international trade.

Another key benefits of eBL is just how much time and money can be saved by going digital. What we see in the market all too often is cargo reaching its destination and being ready for collection by the recipient, but key documents aren’t yet in place for the transaction to be completed.

While finding timely and expensive avenues for release without original documentation, customers may be subject to amounting detention and demurrage costs by the day – all the while increasing the lead time to the consumer market for goods.

With eBL, transferring documents occurs within a matter of minutes, effectively streamlining operations for businesses and freeing up valuable capital across the supply chain.

Thanks to blockchain technology, for the first time in history we have an immutable and tamper-proof environment that allows us to truly audit ownership and build trust in a trust-less ecosystem. At any point in time we can verify who is the legal and rightful owner of the goods in transit, regardless of their role in the supply chain, which party is holding the goods or even where they are located geographically. This has simply never been possible on traditional IT architecture.

Sophia Brumann
TradeLens Area Growth Manager, United Kingdom & Ireland

What’s next for eBL?

Following a hugely successful pilot scheme, eBL transactions are now officially taking place in Europe, with the list of acceptance countries and territories growing and customer benefits becoming more apparent.

Maersk port and territory

The mission for TradeLens is for the momentum to continue and ultimately to connect the ecosystem across the board. This means bringing together all parties in the supply chain (shippers, freight forwarders, intermodal operators, ports and terminals, ocean carriers, customs/government authorities and more) on to a blockchain-based platform to share true, actionable information in real time.

A paperless trade environment in the long run will see productivity, cost-efficiency and security increase dramatically for businesses, while smoother transactions for cargo moving in and out of ports could prove fundamental to reducing congestion on the global supply chain.

Add this to the sustainability benefits that come with minimising paper use and courier transit, and our calls to embrace the digital age become even louder.

Read case studies for eBL customers Avanti and Syngenta here.

Discover how TradeLens can transform your trade.

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Hala Demloj
Area Growth Manager, TradeLens - Central South Europe

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