Like many topics in the supply chain industry, discussions of supply chain digitization and the electronic bill of lading have been around for years. Panelists spoke about these topics at conferences, and transportation leaders expressed interest in some day moving toward a more digital frontier, but the motivation to create more standardized, digital systems in the supply chain has never really moved beyond tentative plans.
The coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting shutdown of the economy, has made digitization a necessity. Buy in from all supply chain partners is necessary for full digitization, but a commitment to paperless processes from carriers would really move the needle.
“What we’re seeing in the current environment is that carriers want to embrace technology to create a safer supply chain,” according to SMC³ CCO Brian Thompson. “They’re realizing that the piece of paper with bill of lading information could be more dangerous than the shipment they’re picking up.”
Carriers are currently reviewing processes and instituting new procedures. They are asking themselves, “Do I really need that paper bill of lading? Can I invest in technology that will show that bill of lading on an electronic device?” The challenge on the carrier’s side is that it takes strategic investment in technology, and, there are numerous areas of a carrier’s business competing for finite investment dollars, Thompson said.
And carriers are not the only beneficiaries of a digitized supply chain. The proliferation of data exchange leads to increased efficiencies for all parties due to better visibility and reporting; once digitization is embraced, costs also go down and customer service improves.
But none of this can happen overnight. When digital processes are implemented in the first stage, supply chain stakeholders will start collecting and aggregating new data in a way that’s extremely useful to their respective businesses. The next stage, which is a little more complex, involves employing data scientists, along with high-powered algorithms, to put the data to work. But the second stage can’t happen without the first.
Throughout the industry, supply chain companies have been turned upside down and are being forced to do more with less due to furloughs and job losses. When that happens, companies turn to technology to ease the burden on employees. This does not mean that technology is replacing staff; there are myriad possibilities to increase productivity with digitization of supply chain processes, but there will always be a need for people in this industry.
“The main issue now is getting all of this data standardized and to get everyone talking in the same language. Cross-communication from different systems will be the next hurdle,” Thompson said. “There’s a need for standards.”
SMC³ serves as a central hub for digital communication, creating, managing and standardizing all of this data exchange for its customers. The SMC³-sponsored LTL Digital Council is also working to standardize and popularize digital conversions of manual, paper-heavy tasks.
There’s always been an interest in supply chain digitization, but stakeholders have lacked the urgency to make systemic changes. Nobody wants to pass paper and shake hands anymore due to health precautions, and the real data and analytical value that comes with transitioning to paperless processes is now apparent. Digitization is a trend that will not fade away, and instead of simply talking about the electronic bill of lading and other e-documents for many conferences to come, the industry is poised to finally commit.