With the pandemic limiting our travel, I have had a more significant opportunity to give remote talks or be included in conversations on the dramatic changes we see in the logistics supply chain. On a recent Clubhouse Supply Chain panel, a panelist commented that he was using THE eBOL app and was producing eBOLs regularly. What was significant for the conversation was more about the process. Still, my takeaway from that conversation is how much misinformation exists about what an eBOL is and what it can do for us. I hope to be able to explain more about what an eBOL is in today’s blog post and also what the benefits are.
Firstly, the terminology causes some confusion; eBOL stands for Electronic Bill of Lading. This broad term is what we see and what the trucker was referring to on the call that he had an app that allowed him to scan a paper document and produce a PDF (portable data file); this IS an electronic file, of course, but is it an eBOL? Let’s talk about the benefits we can derive from the digitization of the bill of lading, and then we’ll come back to answer this question.
The typical lowly bill of lading is a document produced by the shipper (Consignor) of goods delivered by the carrier to a customer (Consignee). Rarely does the carrier generate the bill of lading. We could argue that the legalese says that the carrier is responsible for generating the bill of lading, but that is not the accepted practice. The main reason for this is that the carrier does not have the information on what is being shipped. Producing a bill of lading requires access to the structured data that makes up the bill of lading. This data typically comes from the shipper’s back-office system or ERP.
Since the 90’s when we started working with companies in digitizing their supply chains, the key focus was eliminating paper and creating structured data models that supported business processes. Yeah, no one called them that, but the ERP industry developed these for you, and that is why we were able to integrate operations across functional areas and break down silos by creating these data models. Through data models, when a part is manufactured, it can go from the shop floor to inventory and be shipped to a customer without repeated reentry because of the standard data model that describes an SKU, merchandise, and the like. and is accessed or transferred digitally within an ERP system
A structured data model is the description of an entity through data defined in an agreed-to manner. The way Wikipedia states it :
A data model (or datamodel) is an abstract model that organizes elements of data and standardizes how they relate to one another and the properties of real-world entities. For instance, a data model may specify that the data element representing a car is composed of many other elements representing the vehicle’s color and size and defining its owner.
Ok, still with me? Imagine if you will if instead of a digital data model, manufacturing produced the part, generated a PDF document that listed the part number, batch numbers, quantity, and then sent that over to the warehouse with the goods. Yeah, not fun reentering the data all over again, and what a waste of time and money, not to mention the potential for error.
So, our vision of the eBOL is the same, only extending the digital data model across the supply chain. Instead of providing a carrier with a paper document or PDF file, we envision transferring the bill of lading data model and its structured data, benefitting the shipper to reduce carrier errors in delivering to the wrong address, classifying the contents incorrectly, and the like. The benefits to the carrier are significant. There are no more offshore data entry farms. The data is available immediately to the driver, and the back-office system ensuring the shipment can be handled in the most efficient manner possible. Longer-term data availability benefits all parties as the data can be utilized for track and trace, analytics, extensive data analysis, machine learning models, and the like.
So, let’s go back to our original question. A pdf is made up of unstructured data, though portable and easy to copy and forward. A pdf of a bill of lading is NOT an eBOL. A step further, an eBOL is NOT an app but a data model that describes a document entity with structured data that can be reused without further data entry or enhancement throughout the supply chain by all business partners.
Advanced Solutions produced our first eBOL almost 15 years ago using what has been the industry’s ongoing initial attempts at digitization, EDI. What? You thought eBOLs were a recent innovation? Nope, the concept and standard data model have been around for a long time. EDI transaction 211 Motor Carrier Bill of Lading defines the first eBOL data model available.
A shared understanding of what an eBOL is will help us move forward and focus on the problem and not terminology that we are addressing with the use of a digitized process. The ability to receive data in an understood format for reuse throughout the supply chain, reducing costs, errors and facilitating trade is the ultimate goal of our continued development of the eBOL.
Phillip Avelar is a Managing partner at Advanced Solutions, based in Chicago. He works with SAP enterprises to optimize their supply chains, increase productivity and challenges the status quo. He shares his passion for solving customers problems in his blog posts, industry articles and conference talks.