The International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (Fiata) has partnered with essDocs, a paperless trade platform provider, to introduce electronic documentation to its members.

As part of the partnership, the two parties will build a Fiata-customised version of essDocs’ web-based CargoDocs platform, which will allow members to issue Fiata bills of lading (FBL) and other documents without paper.

A pilot project is expected to start in a few weeks and run for six months, according to Verena Schaer, Fiata’s training and information technology manager. It will be run together with five companies in the UK, Vietnam and three other locations, which are currently being decided.

The pilots will be carried out in three phases to ensure what the companies call “a seamless transition to a paperless environment”.

This means that, initially, printed paper will still form part of the process.

In phase one, freight forwarders will replace their current printing of FBLs with an online tool housed within essDocs’ servers. Members will be able to draft their FBL online and share it with their shipper before it is printed and signed.

Phase two will add various security features to help identify fraudulent FBLs and will be extended to include members’ own house bills of lading and other Fiata documents.

Only in the third phase will firms be able to go fully paperless.

“In some countries, the paper version is required by banks and/or authorities, so we want a step-by-step approach to accompany our members in the process,” Schear tells GTR.

An essDocs spokesperson adds: “You have to keep in mind that these parties aren’t currently paperless, so it makes a lot of sense to get users on board with a solution that is, for example, 90% paperless, before going end-to-end electronic. What we’re trying to do is to show that you can get started today with an online tool that removes paper to a big extent, so that you’re eased into this process and prepped for going full electronic in future.”

Once phase three is launched, any member will be given the option to go fully electronic. Some, however, may still decide to use paper for printing and signing.

“Some Fiata members may still choose to output to paper at the very end, but others coming in can equally adopt end-to-end electronic if they wish, and if it makes sense for them and their processes,” the essDocs spokesperson says.

As soon as the pilots have finished, the parties will define a future timeline, including when the electronic FBL will be made widely available to Fiata members.