Once a month we spotlight one of our mentors at PortXL, who will share an industry challenge.
Deeply passionate about startups, Edwin Ebrahimi has been extensively involved in Vopak’s innovation projects and takes a hands-on approach toward bridging the gap between new technologies and industry needs.
In this interview, Edwin sheds light on what it takes to build a culture of innovation within MNCs and create scalability for startup solutions within the sector.
How did you embark on a career in Oil & Gas, and what are some major milestones you have achieved?
Being an Organic Chemist by training, I realised early on in my career that I enjoyed interacting with people far more than watching molecules interacting!
After several technical commercial roles, I joined Vopak in Singapore as a sales manager in 2008, serving customers at one of our chemical terminals.
Soon after, I started a service excellence program for the Asia Pacific region, as Vopak realised the importance of excellent service to distinguish ourselves from other players in this conservative industrial B2B space.
It was great to see how we steadily moved our satisfaction and loyalty ratings into the top quartile within our industry, by building a true service culture. This really changed my view on ‘continuous improvement’ and our classic focus on hardware and processes.
In 2011, I moved back to the Netherlands, where I headed the logistics department at our Europort terminal. In Vopak’s biggest pressure cooker, we created value by breaking down silos between departments, aligning commercial, customer services and operations teams.
After leading one of the operations shift teams at the same site for 1.5 years, I joined the global digital innovation team in 2018. As Innovation Engagement Leader, I try to bridge the gap between the problem statements at terminals with innovations and solutions in the market.
Having spent 10 years within the business, mostly in the heart of our Front Line Execution, I have gained a pretty comprehensive picture of pain points within our service offering to our customers. And internally, we often still think that solutions require SciFi and are years away from becoming reality. But that’s no longer the case!
What are some use cases that Vopak has implemented or are exploring?
After presenting these problem statements to startups that often even have no previous connection to our line of work, I quickly realised that there are plenty of solutions out there that we can adopt to improve our service delivery or the way we maintain our assets.
For example, McNetiq is a PortXL startup we have mentored and now work with – their magnet anchoring solution has helped us decrease cost and hazards when it comes to scaffolding for inspections and maintenance.
With the current PortXL Singapore cohort, we are exploring technologies like drones for tank wall inspection, as well as solutions that complement our visual inspections for underwater structures.
We’ve also looked into other IoT solutions like wireless vibration monitoring sensors for condition monitoring. Another major part of our operations is asset inspection and maintenance, where we deploy robots for in-service floor scanning, tank shell scans and paint removal and cleaning.
In addition, digitalisation in supply chain is a major part of streamlining operations and processes. We are currently developing solutions such as digital time stamps, email scraping for automated order processing, and bringing other Vopak services to e-platforms.
What are some challenges working with startups?
We’ve seen the power of startups, but from their perspective they need to overcome some hurdles in order to work with MNCs effectively on a long term basis.
Firstly, many lack of understanding of the business. Their technologies are often used in the B2C environment, not in an industrial environment dealing with hazardous and flammable products. This is why the adaption to specially Oil & Gas and Chemicals is a big challenge.
I would advise startups who are keen to work with corporates to first gain a deeper understanding of the overall business and operations, then think about how to adapt their technologies to specific use cases.
Secondly, even if we’ve established that there is a clear use case and run a successful pilot, scalability is the next big challenge.
Oil & Gas companies are typically MNCs with operations all over the world. When a trial is successful, we will immediately want to deploy this solution in more locations, and we want it done quickly.
We’ve seen in the past that it can be challenging for some startups to do pilot deployments in other parts of the world, mainly due to resources and sometimes language barriers.
But if we see high potential in a startup, the discussion is usually about what’s next – should they be introduced to other partners who can co-develop a holistic and scalable solution? How can we ensure that they grow with us? In 2018, we’ve started Vopak Ventures, which allows us to actively participate in and support promising startups and scaleups.
What are some challenges when it comes to corporate innovation?
Change is accepting that parties from outside the company and industry can bring in brilliant ideas. Appreciation of new ideas is always there, but it takes time for people to fully accept them.
In particular, the new agile way of developing solutions and concept of ‘fail fast, learn fast’ can be a challenge in an industrial environment, where success is often defined by delivery of the complete solution in time and within budget. In addition, stringent safety measures make ‘quick and dirty’ trials more difficult.
Becoming a service leader did not happen overnight and required support from all leadership levels, as well as ambassadors in all departments.
With the obvious megatrends relevant for Vopak nowadays, Digital Transformation and Energy Transition, we see a similar challenge. As already widely reported, the availability of technology is no longer the limiting factor. It’s the shift in mindset that is required to truly make a step change in the way we are working today.
And similar to our ‘service revolution’, the shopfloor is not the hardest group to convince. They understand that innovation is here to stay, and more and more people are starting to realise that technology will not ‘take over their jobs’, but help them do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. Our focus is therefore directed to educate middle management.
With an increasing number of successful deployments of new technologies, we see the first signs of an innovation culture taking shape – it is both extremely rewarding and exciting for the future of the company.