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The history of the Bill of Lading

Actualizado: 17 nov

In 1956 Malcolm McLean’s standardised shipping container made its maiden voyage. This started a revolution that not only dramatically lowered the cost of loading and unloading a ship, it made the modern globalized world possible. How? It provided a safer, more efficient and cost-effective way to transport goods from one side of the globe to the other.

The shipping industry now carries 90% of all globally traded goods. The container was standardised over 60 years ago, and the world has changed quite a bit since then.

In the 1990s, the world wide web ushered in a global technological revolution on par with the shipping container. Industries such as banking, telco, retail and the airlines adopted the standards necessary to fully leverage the power of the web. As a result, many of the companies in these industries were able to fully digitally transform, increasing efficiency and innovation, and creating a better customer experience.

Container shipping can realise similar benefits by embracing digital standards as it evolves to greater digital maturity. Central to this is accelerating adoption of a standards-based electronic bill of lading (eBL) across all sectors of the industry: a universal eBL.

The bill of lading (B/L) is the most important trade document in container shipping. It functions as a document of title, receipt for shipped goods and evidence of an underlying contract of carriage. Currently, stakeholders along complex supply chains must physically pass paper B/Ls from one place to another. The manual handover of paper documents is inefficient, expensive and error prone, which contributes to high costs and supply chain bottlenecks. These issues have never been more widespread or apparent than at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paper-based B/L processes broke down as cargo in ports could not be gated out because original bills of lading (B/Ls) did not arrive or could not be manually processed in time.

Despite this, adoption of the electronic bill of lading is extremely limited. Currently, ocean carriers issue around 45 million bills of lading (B/L) per year, and in 2022, only 2 % of B/Ls was electronic.

For shipping customers, the frustration goes beyond cargo getting stuck when paper B/Ls are not in the right place at the right time. With all the required trade documents that are part of the B/L documentation process (e.g. carrier and authority certificates, import/export licenses, and certificates of origin), it is common to find 50 sheets of paper in a package of shipping documents that must be exchanged between, in some cases, 30 different parties. This creates inefficiencies that slow trade down and hamper growth and innovation.


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