Standardizing electronic bills of lading (EBL) tops the agenda of the Digital LTL Council, which expects to release its recommendation by the end of January.
The formation of the Digital LTL Council was announced in November. But it has been in the works for many months, according to Brian Thompson, chief commercial officer of SMC3 and Christian Piller, vice president of value engineering at project44. The release of the EBL standard could trigger the Council’s formal unveiling, they told FreightWaves in an interview.
SMC3 also is a major information source on LTL pricing.
In addition to technology solutions providers SMC3 and project44 driving the Council, major LTL companies such as Estes Express and Old Dominion Freight Line are among the 20-plus members on the roster. So are some of the bigger 3PLs, such as C.H. Robinson and Transplace.
The divergence in technology among LTL carriers means “if you are a shipper you may have to map your system to as many as 90 different attributes across your carrier base,” according to Thompson. “So, we want to standardize that.The first thing is to get agreement on what that gold copy of that bill of lading would be so that everybody is on the same page.”
They’re getting close.
“We’re down to the final crossing of the T’s and the dotting of the I’s,” Piller said. “It is not unrealistic that we will have this out to the border market by the end of January 2021.”
Thompson said their estimates are that only about 15% of bills of lading (BLs) in the LTL business are electronic. Otherwise, he said, “it’s all paper based.”
The initiative to create an EBL had challenges that on the surface may seem mundane but still needed to be worked out. For example, Thompson said existing bills of lading don’t even agree on how to write the date. It could be month/day/year. But it might be day/month/year, which is common in Europe.
Another example Thompson noted would address hazardous material (HAZMAT)? An EBL agreed to by Council participants would standardize that documentation.
A standardized EBL would provide visibility to where a shipment is in the supply chain from shipper to carrier to final customer. Currently, paper b/ls get carried by the trucking company from shipper to customer. That prevents knowing the whereabouts of the shipment until it hits a customer’s dock. An EBL could be created and modified for all stakeholders to see.
The broader goal, Thompson said, is “the elimination of needing to do the manual bill of entry, which is where the predominant number of errors occur.”
The last in-person Council meeting was held in January, followed by monthly and bi-monthly virtual gatherings. The formal announcement of the group’s launch was withheld, Thompson said, “until we got to the point where we had something to announce and where we really wanted to generate some awareness across the industry of the benefits of these relationships.”
Piller said he could envision the Council morphing into something like the International Air Transport Association (IATA), where the Council would have full-time employees engaged in a “full-time job tracking initiatives, driving projects forward and marketing.” Adoption of standards is one of the tasks of IATA.
Some Council members “have experience digitizing the airline industry, so we rely heavily on them for guidance,” he said.
While the EBL standards are near, the Council has posted case studies on its website. One focuses on the transportation spend at RR Donnelley, a marketing company that operates a commercial printing business with a product that needs to be shipped and shipper ULine, which produces and ships boxes and other business supplies.
If the Council evolves to resemble the IATA, it will need dedicated funding. Piller said the funding now consists mostly of time and employees that companies have assigned to participate in the Council. Travel mostly disappeared because of the pandemic.
Whatever form it takes, Piller said he wants the Council to stick around.
“I hope it’s evergreen,” he said. “We have years of challenges ahead of us to solve. Once we solve those challenges years from now, there will be a new set of challenges.”
The Council has received “amazing participation” and no holdouts by LTL companies, third-party logistics companies (3PLs) and some shippers.
Of the 21 participants listed on the website, just two are shippers. “We’re always looking for more shippers,” Piller said.