An Open Source Approach to the Electronic Bill of Lading

The Open eBL initiative embraces lessons learned from TradeLens to overcome industry challenges

“The aim of the new company will be to offer a jointly developed global trade digitization platform built on open standards and designed for use by the entire global shipping ecosystem.”PR Newswire announcing Maersk and IBM to Form Joint Venture Applying Blockchain to Improve Global Trade and Digitize Supply Chains, 2018

“Digitalizing the bill of lading—which accounts for 10 to 30 percent of trade documentation costs—could unlock more than $15.5 billion in direct benefit to the shipping ecosystem and up to $40 billion in increased trade.”McKinsey & Company, 2020

“The platform called TradeLens will be phased out by the end of March next year, Maersk said. ‘While we successfully developed a viable platform, the need for full global industry collaboration has not been achieved, the company said in a statement.’”Reuters, 2022

“Success, however, may come with smaller projects: ones involving fewer participants, with clear returns on investment and that don’t try to transform an entire sector all at once, experts say.”The Wall Street Journal, 2022, on the demise of TradeLens

The global trade ecosystem, despite its vital role in fueling the world economy, remains stuck in a paper jam, plagued by antiquated and cumbersome paper-based processes and a lack of transparency. This inefficiency translates to billions of dollars wasted and countless hours lost, hindering international commerce and frustrating stakeholders across the supply chain. But there is hope that global trade can progress beyond physical documents with an initiative launched by The Center for Global Enterprise’s Digital Supply Chain Institute (DSCI) and leading members of the shipping and logistics community.

Open eBL is designed to overcome the obstacles that befell other digital efforts by introducing standards-based, open-source electronic bill of lading (eBL) solutions. Unlike its predecessor, TradeLens, a joint venture formed by Maersk and IBM, Open eBL embraces open-source standards and a non-profit structure, effectively addressing concerns about vendor lock-in and data privacy that stymied earlier efforts. This commitment to transparency fosters trust and collaboration, paving the way for a truly inclusive platform benefiting the entire supply chain community.

The advantages of electronic bills of lading (eBLs) are undeniably significant. They expedite processing, slashing customs clearance times and enhancing cargo visibility. Additionally, eBLs eliminate the risks associated with physical documents, minimizing the chances of loss, damage, and fraudulent activity. The environmental benefits are equally compelling, as the shift away from paper reduces resource consumption and carbon footprint, aligning trade practices with global sustainability goals. McKinsey & Company estimates that eliminating paper processes can bring a 90% reduction in document processing costs.

Open eBL’s true strength lies in its open-source philosophy. This approach fosters innovation and agility, allowing the platform to adapt to ever-evolving business needs and industry trends. Organizations gain greater flexibility to customize workflows and optimize processes, unshackled from the limitations of proprietary solutions. Open-source development also promotes cost-effectiveness, lowering the total cost of ownership and democratizing access to advanced trade solutions.

The lessons learned from past endeavors guide Open eBL’s strategic approach. Its collaborative spirit ensures that the platform serves the needs of the entire community, not just select players. By focusing on demonstrably valuable use cases, Open eBL aims to create compelling value propositions that resonate with supply chain operators, driving organic adoption and user buy-in.

Open eBL understands the challenges of transitioning from paper-based systems. Flexible tiered subscription plans or usage-based pricing and user-friendly interfaces will ease the adoption process, while partnerships with technology providers will ensure robust integration with existing infrastructure.

Building a strong ecosystem around the platform is another key strategy. Attracting early adopters and influencers, encouraging third-party development, and fostering collaboration create a powerful network effect, propelling Open eBL forward.

Open eBL’s success hinges on its ability to adapt and evolve. By remaining agile and responsive to market dynamics and user feedback, the platform can continuously improve and maintain its relevance. Embracing data insights and user feedback ensures that Open eBL remains at the forefront of trade innovation, driving efficiency, transparency, and sustainability across the global trade landscape.

The time has come to unjam the paper jam and usher in a new era of open, collaborative, and streamlined global trade.