Senior Business Manager Logistics
Port of Rotterdam
Once a month we spotlight one of our mentors at PortXL, who will share an industry challenge.
Donald Baan, who has been at Port of Rotterdam for over 10 years, is currently holding the role of senior business manager logistics, focusing on container logistics and responsible for business development activities in two major inland regions, Brabant & North Rhine Westphalia.
On top of that, he has been a lead mentor for PortXL since 2017. With previous roles at a container carrier and Rotterdam’s port community system, Donald has extensive industry experience, both from a logistics and an information technology perspective.
In this interview, Donald sheds light on the challenges of the increasing scale of logistics and how to connect the inland with the Port, through the use of digital solutions.
The challenge for inland logistics
Ultra large container vessels are calling ports with increasing cargo volumes per call (call-size). Their smaller counterparts (inland barges, trains and trucks), who are charged with taking these shipments from the deep-water port to the inland destinations, simply cannot handle these volumes within a reasonable timeframe. At the same time, the required information to plan inland transport is not always available in time and at the necessary quality. As a result, cargo is held up in the port longer than needed, takes up valuable space and an increasing number of trucks is used to compensate for lost time. Our question is: how can we optimise the flow of containers through the port and create a sustainable model that improves reliability performance (resulting in a modal shift towards rail and inland barge) for all participants?
The role of a port is always to be the link between the seaside and the hinterland. Containers have made such a fundamental impact to the transport industry because they link sea and land and can be used throughout the supply chain, on various modalities. Only possible because the established standard size & types of containers enabled development and investment in handling equipment for various steps in the supply chain. Because of these ‘physical’ standards, the entire transport chain could work more efficiently.
Nowadays, physical standards are well in place and container handling equipment is not the major bottleneck anymore. Today, it is all about using the available infrastructure and assets in the most efficient and sustainable way and enable seamless flow of containers through the supply chain. This means that the information that is needed for planning and monitoring becomes critical. And similar to the container, where standards were needed to prevent inefficiencies, planning and monitoring needs (digital) standards to prevent miscommunication. Unfortunately, too much of the lead time of containers is currently waisted as waiting time due to lack of available information or poor data quality.
Every port faces these issues, whether it be Rotterdam, Antwerp, Singapore or any other port. If we can identify and agree to a minimum set of standardised information to share about planning and status throughout the supply chain, it would be beneficial for the entire maritime ecosystem. And this also enables the investments in the required IT system adjustments and makes sure that the ‘handling’ of information can be done in the most efficient way.
Solution, thy name is digital
We believe that, through the use of digital solutions, we could create a global standard for procedures, which would immensely simplify operations worldwide. Each company has their own modus operandi – way of working – which significantly complicates operations when you are dealing with a lot of companies. Streamlining the process would make everyone’s life much easier. It is like talking the same language. Naturally, it is not feasible – yet!
Traditionally, ports offer their local solutions to a global industry, which is a mismatch. You cannot realistically expect to offer a solution of significant scale for a global company to adopt it. Inland, each company has different methods of working. Our question is: can we find a way to unlock the data that is needed to optimise inland and port logistics and share it in a common way? You don’t have to unlock all data in a standardised way, but if we can agree to the basic minimum required dataset to be standardised and this data is presented and shared in a way that everyone can understand it, then we have made great progress. It is just like the container standards, we agree to size and type but for example the colour and contents can be different per container.
With the use of an intermediate “translator” that ensures everyone is speaking the same language, such a system could work. It is challenging to strive for a global “one size fits all” type of solution, the times call for flexible systems with multiple languages and as long as you have a universal “translator” service parsing all this data, then it could work. In logistics there is no need for everyone to work the same way and follow the same procedures, but as long as everyone understands how and what the others are doing, then we all prosper. To use a historical comparison, this “translator” solution would be the modern version of the pidgin trader’s languages that developed organically in ports in the centuries past, to facilitate trade among sailor coming all across the seven seas.
The Port of Rotterdam’s quest for digital solutions
Digital solutions have been on our table for quite some time already, it all started when the Port of Rotterdam realised that they don’t offer only infrastructure, but also connectivity which enables companies to do their business efficiently in the port. At times you connect them physically, but more often it is about communication (e.g. with customs, terminals, or the port authority). Hence, we created this port community system – it’s like a digital infrastructure of the port, where all the companies can communicate through one platform.
The investment into this digital layer of infrastructure started years ago and we see that from a port perspective, digitalisation has such a huge impact on customer performance and for the position of the port itself. Therefore, we want to be proactive with it and facilitate the digitalisation of logistics.
The Rotterdam Logistics Lab was set up in 2016 to see if there was a model or added value that the port could offer by starting to experiment with digital solutions in logistics. The results came rapidly, the role was there to be played and the lab was rapidly incorporated into a bigger department in the port authority. At the end of 2017 the Digital Business Solutions department was established and now numbers about 70 people. The digital transition is in full force in the Port of Rotterdam.
These digital services are also offered to other ports, where the Port of Rotterdam has a management or consultancy role. For example, the Port of Rotterdam has a sophisticated harbor master system, for traffic management, inspections and port coordination. A lot of other ports also want to ride the digital waves, partly encouraged by their customers – plenty of whom have called to Rotterdam and were impressed by the services provided there. The Port of Rotterdam can therefore help other ports by being a more connected port, moving from local solutions to connected solutions.
(More information can be found here.)
The impact of digital solutions & the future of ports
The big corporate companies who do large investments are quite distant from the startups – which is part of the reasons why PortXL was established – so they need to be more innovative and agile. But how to connect and select the startups?
Furthermore, from the other side it is challenging for startups to breach the corporate culture. What I see is that by creating a setting where these companies meet and address the industry-wide challenges, we facilitate a joint working and learning space where you can accelerate these developments in innovation.
From a digital perspective, the amount of data that will become available will increase dramatically in the upcoming years that it will be extremely challenging to cope with. Can I trust the data – is it secured and validated? And can it be scaled? Sometimes a concept performs well in the pilot stage but cannot cope with an upscaled version. The adoption part of digital is the hardest part, how to prove the value and scale up.
There are waves of startups approaching the port industry, many of which were not previously involved in maritime or logistics, but they see the opportunity to develop and implement new technologies. And before you know it, these companies know the business better than the port does and can run it better, so we must be prepared.
The backlash against digitalisation
The uncertainty that encompasses many people about their current job and how is it going to change in the future because of the introduction of technology is the hardest challenge we face in this regard. In the current way of working a lot of people are faced with recurring daily issues, which makes their job less motivating. A day-to-day problematic puzzle that they must solve. Their problem is how to make management see that problem and prioritise it.
Part of what we can do in the innovation department is funnel those ideas towards the higher-ups. If you talk to the people in the field, they have so many ideas and suggestions and a dialogue with them is necessary to develop solutions that are helpful. Instead of just developing a solution without the input of those that will ultimately utilise said solutions.
In the Port Authority, we always look ahead – Infrastructure development 20-30 years into the future. But we also want to be close to the day-to-day business, because that is where you create value and immediate impact. The approach we want to take is “we have data that is interesting to you, could you share your data?”, creating a win-win sharing system situation, instead of forcing a solution that might be unwelcome. These solutions will help to make supply chains via Rotterdam even more efficient and with that also the competitive position of the port.
The biggest problem is how to translate the strategy into practical things. This is where startups and innovations play a key role, because they can focus an enormous amount of energy onto a specific problem and add value there quite rapidly. For us, this highlights the importance of being close to startups.
Digital trust & welcoming aboard the new generations
For me, it is all about the people. Digital is about trust. It is easier to share data if you trust the person you are sharing with. Younger people are more accepting of digital, but they do not always have the industry knowledge yet, so there is a gap developing there. Every year I am mentoring students for the Port of Rotterdam and you can clearly see that there is a gap from what they learn at University and what is required by the outside world. I believe we need these bright young minds, but this also requires a good onboarding approach. Plenty of young energy is needed into the maritime sector, but how do you bridge the gap from the universities and pour it into the port area?
That is the human factor, everyone is talking about innovation but how do you get the people you need? My personal challenge is “how can I help with bridging this gap and help the new generation of students and startups come through?”