There is constant chatter surrounding gaps within the supply chain–from driver shortages to lack of technology adoption. While solutions to these problems may seem simple enough, many fail to realize the multiple moving parts of a supply chain that would need to adopt these solutions.
Just this year, the Port of Los Angeles became the first port in the Western Hemisphere to process 10 million container units in a 12-month period. “Over the past 12 months, port terminals have worked an average of 15 container ships each day, up from a pre-pandemic average of 10 ships a day, representing a significant increase in productivity,” the Port of L.A. reports. With America’s busiest port breaking records for annual volume, it sets a new standard for the industry.
With a new record of goods being shipped, this introduces a magnitude of opportunities for error. Perhaps one of the most common is in the bill of lading (BOL) lifecycle. A BOL serves as a contract between an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the shipper and the carrier–acting as a legal document to protect all parties involved.
From the time an item is developed overseas to the time it takes to reach an end consumer, that product and BOL have switched hands multiple times. There’s the OEM, the carriers, port staff, freighter’s crew, other port’s employees, the carrier again, a potential distributor, more carriers and then finally the retail store, where the end consumer can purchase the product. With products being mass shipped and divided at ports or distribution centers, this leaves room for error when it comes to BOL accuracy.
Because of this, an electronic bill of lading tool (eBOL) can help create a valid, blockchain-like record of a product’s journey–from origination to end consumer–resulting in less human error, faster turnaround times and reduced inflation costs.
What can go wrong with the BOL?
According to a recent study, the top challenges in supply chain management were recorded to be visibility (28%), fluctuating consumer demand (19.7%) and inventory management (13.2%). Consider the effects of COVID-19 this past year, and these areas have since then largely increased. In fact, the global e-commerce market is expected to total $4.89 trillion this year, and keep growing over the next five years.
With rising demand, the BOL is essential in the supply chain lifecycle to ensure accuracy and transparency throughout. This means facilitating collaboration, standardization, digitization and automation across all supply chain parts.
With the BOL serving as proof that the shipper has given permission to haul goods, the traditional paper copy leaves room for human error. For example, during a pickup or delivery, the driver is recording the product, quantity, whether it’s cold storage or not and the final destination of a shipment. Next, the clerk would sign the paperwork and the driver would be on their way. After that, the BOL paperwork would need to be faxed in, but consider the driver’s route. A driver might be gone for a week or two (even more) before the BOLs would be able to be turned in. And it doesn’t stop there–once the driver’s packet of BOLs makes it back to headquarters, the office then needs to process them manually and store the physical copy for years for auditing purposes.
The long turnaround time simply sets companies back. Additionally, if a driver recorded the wrong product name or number, this could result in a product having to be returned, costing companies time and money.
How can an eBOL platform help?
An eBOL is not a new concept within the supply chain, but due to the amount of moving parts and interoperability challenges, it hasn’t reached wide-scale adoption. However, due to the visibility, inventory and growing capacity as well as safety challenges, companies are starting to include eBOL and digital pickup and deliveries as part of their supply chain digital transformation initiatives. An eBOL tool creates streamlined workflows for all supply chain parties, resulting in more efficient shipments and greater transparency.
As discussed, traditional paper BOLs leave room for human error and improper documentation in addition to lengthy turnaround times. By eliminating paperwork and manual processes, an eBOL can instantly capture key information and significantly cut down on dwell times. In fact, companies who have used an eBOL tool saw a significant decrease in driver dwell times–from 66 minutes on average down to 23 minutes.
Going beyond paperwork, an eBOL tool has the ability to boost collaboration by supporting just-in-time manufacturing and replenishment planning. This provides visibility that allows logistics partners to make faster decisions in case freight needs to be re-routed to different plants, distribution centers and stores to meet customer demands. Overall, the entire supply chain becomes more agile.
Additionally, given the current environment of COVID-19 cases spiking and taking into consideration the delta variant, eBOL tools are effective in reducing health and safety risks for drivers and yard workers by minimizing paper and physical interactions. Now that information can be accurately tracked and shared through a contactless option, this makes the process self-service for drivers and eliminates the need for in-person check-ins.
What effect does an eBOL tool have on the end consumer?
It all starts with capacity. Driver shortage is not a new concept in the supply chain and logistics industry. Currently, the supply chain is stressed with a heavy demand and not enough capacity due to driver shortages, which can drive up shipping costs that translate to the end consumer.
However, if drivers across the supply chain spend less dwell time at facilities, that time can be spent making an additional stop. One more delivery added to a driver’s route could help create more capacity and stabilize shipping prices that has the potential to trickle down savings to consumer products.
In addition to strengthening supply chains, companies across the country are trying to find ways to keep inflation from rising. Using an eBOL tool turns those in-person interactions at facilities into quick, digital processes, streamlining the delivery and pickup process. By getting drivers in and out of facilities faster, companies can improve capacity challenges by enabling drivers to add another stop to their days, which will hopefully reduce shipping costs and benefit consumers in the long run.
Brian Belcher is the COO and co-founder of Vector, a contactless pickup and delivery platform that ensures supply chain partners get the right load to the right place at the right time. Prior to Vector, Belcher led Customer Success at Addepar, a wealth management platform, which manages more than $2 trillion in client assets. Before joining Addepar, Belcher co-founded Computodos, a socially-minded supply chain solution that helps source, transport and distribute recycled computers to developing countries. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Santa Clara University.