Digital shipping documents 'could produce savings of $6.5bn'

2 March 2023

Nine ocean carriers have promised to adopt 100% digital bills of lading by 2030 in a move they estimate could save $6.5bn a year for stakeholders.

Members of the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) said they believed converting the transfer of physical paper bills of lading into digital format could enable $30-40bn in trade growth while hugely improving sustainability.

MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM, Hapag-Lloyd, ONE, Evergreen, HMM, Yang Ming, and Zim have all signed the electronic bills of lading commitment, which will see them target having 50% of their bills of lading digitised by 2025 and 100% by 2030.

Bills of lading are vital documents for container shippers and function as a document of title, receipt for shipped goods, and a record of agreed terms and conditions.

Ocean carriers issue around 45m bills of lading a year, according to the DCSA. In 2021, only 1.2% of these were electronic.

“Manual, paper-based processes are time-consuming, expensive and environmentally unsustainable for stakeholders along complex supply chains,” said the DCSA.

“Paper-based processes break down when cargo in ports cannot be gated out because original bills of lading, or title documents fail to arrive or cannot be manually processed in time. In contrast, digital processes enable data to flow instantly and securely, reducing delays and waste.”

Vincent Clerc, CEO at A.P. Moller -Maersk, said: “This is an important step in the journey towards creating a digital standard of one of the most cost-heavy and troublesome components in the shipping industry.

“A fully digitised bill of lading enables a more seamless customer experience across the supply chain and in turn it will help democratise trade and reduce time and costs for all involved parties.”

One of the major factors holding back digitalisation of bills of lading is the issue of interoperability – ensuring that all users can open a bill rather than just users of one platform. 

DCSA head Thomas Bagge has said the electronic bills should be “like email”, in that different operating-systems will open bills of different formats in the same ways an email sent from a Mac can be opened on a Windows computer.

So far manufacturers have tended to prioritise trying to achieve monopolies over interoperability with their competitors.

IATA’s experience of adopting e-air-waybills (eAWBs) in the air cargo industry since 2005 has been troubled. Adoption is still estimated to be only as high as 85%.

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