Towards a system-level view of supply chains

The Port of Antwerp is Europe’s second-largest seaport, handling 235 tons of maritime freight per year. Over 140,000 people work at the port, either directly or at the 900 companies that occupy its 12,000-hectare site. In recent years, the Port of Antwerp has been driving dozens of innovation and digitalization initiatives to create the port of the future.

We spoke to Erwin Verstraelen, Chief Digital Information and Innovation Officer at the Port of Antwerp, who is driving much of the work on key innovation topics, including the need for real-time data, predictive operations and sustainability for better supply chain ecosystems.

What did 2020 reveal about the world’s supply chains?

The pandemic put the world in crisis mode and made the lack of visibility in supply chains very obvious. This issue has been known about for a very long time. If there is a positive outcome from COVID-19, perhaps it is the realization that it needs to be fixed.

At the end of the day, stakeholders across global supply chains – from the terminals, to shipping lines, to freight forwarders, you name it – need the willingness to collaborate in new ways. That includes data sharing and using common data platforms. The issue has never been technology itself, but the need to shift mindsets towards collaboration, change and finding new solutions.

Why is it important to improve visibility?

Greater visibility creates operational efficiencies, whether it is by doing more with less, optimizing the capacity you have or creating higher value through innovation. Once you have the basic data flows optimized, harmonized, and made transparent and secure, then you can get enormous value, even from a single data field.

For example, knowing the next mode of transport for every imported container would help a terminal increase turnaround efficiencies and its capacity significantly. That is just from making a simple data field visible for one stakeholder.

If you can anticipate incoming and outgoing nautical traffic, you can predict what's going to happen next. You can see potential roadblocks and gain the time to prevent them from becoming a problem.

We can see a ship coming in four hours out. Based on historical data, we can predict that the captain will ask for three tugboats and not the usual two because the wind is beyond seven Beauforts. Now we have a time-frame of four hours to prepare and can optimize staffing and demand across the port.

What sort of benefits would this bring?

What we actually have at the port is a collection of capacities: the terminal capacity, tug boat capacity, crane capacity, storage capacity, road capacity and so on. Today, all of these pockets of capacity are optimized within their own scope. This is suboptimal. We’re going to evolve to more of a system-level approach, powered by real-time data flows, where each step becomes part of the big equation. That's where the huge potential is.

How can digitalization better support business ecosystems?

There is not a homogeneous group of stakeholders in the port. You have the petrochemical industry, the bulk community, the shipping lines, the freight and logistics companies, the terminal and so on. And then you have the extended stakeholders, for example: Customs, the Food and Drug Administration and other legislative authorities at a local, regional, federal and European level. From a digital perspective, there was an enormous need for better data flows, much more in-depth information and prediction models.

Digitalization will also help customs, police and criminal investigators tackle issues like drug trade with an audit trail of data for each individual container and details about who did what at each moment. At this very moment, we and our affiliate Nxtport are preparing the launch of Certified Pick up, an application that will do exactly that: digitize the import flow of a container and provide an audit trail.

What is stopping greater visibility today?

I graduated 25 years ago as a maritime economist. When I look at the entire maritime and supply chain industry today, it’s almost as if nothing has happened. This entire industry has become globalized, but we’re still using technology from the last century, for example, EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). We’re not leveraging common data standards. There is a huge opportunity for a technology overhaul.

There is a need for real-time data to start orchestrating entire supply chains. Today, everybody is using outdated information, and when problems occur, everybody is informed far too late.

How would you describe your approach to innovation?

Our innovation strategy is very clear with four fundamental pillars. The first is that we do a lot of “proof of values,” not “proof of concepts.” We don’t need to determine if the technology works – most technology these days works, and if it doesn’t, we will just try it again in 12 or 18 months. Technology evolves exponentially, and usually it is not long before something that failed will advance and start to work. Proving value is different. It is about proving to the organization that a solution is worthwhile and will make a positive difference. That is what we focus on.

Second is that we allow people to experiment. In the past, we were a risk-averse organization, but today we embrace opportunities, and we are willing to fail and to learn. That is crucial. Third is that we have an open port. We make it so that – within all this enormous complexity and all the hundreds of companies here – there are opportunities to use the port as a collaborative innovation platform. It is a testbed to demonstrate technologies that have emerged and matured.

Finally, we believe in an outside-in approach to innovation. We do not believe that everything starts with an internal problem, for which you go out to find a solution. You turn that around. First, you surround yourself with ecosystems, academia, knowledge centers and individuals who inspire you with ideas and technologies. Then you match those with a use case. More often than not, that marriage is triggered by something that comes from a totally different angle. For example, a smart camera in agriculture that we use to detect oil spills on the water.

How do you think sustainability goals have been impacted by the disruption of 2020, and how do you see these goals advancing for the Port of Antwerp?

The pandemic will stop, somehow. But climate change and sustainability, those trends and risks are here for the next few decades. The European Green Deal is going to put more pressure on all stakeholders to identify the origins of emissions and minimize their environmental footprints. The supply chain is an important element of that.

At the Port of Antwerp, we want to be part of the solution. Antwerp is the second largest chemicals cluster on the planet and is at the crossroad of the world’s biggest supply chains. We can be a catalyst towards a sustainable future, in terms of more efficient mobility, lower emissions, advancing the energy transition, and so on.

This also helps the port attract better organizations: the innovators, the leaders of the pack, the ones who want to evolve. We want to work with those organizations across all aspects – from improving regulations to opening up the port as an innovation platform to demonstrate technology. Together, we can pave the way for others so they, too, can join and move their own organizations to the next level.

How do you see the future?

There are a lot of new things on the table because of COVID. A lot of things were discussed theoretically before now. But everybody said, “Ah, but that's not going to work. That's not possible.” All of a sudden, innovative ideas have proven themselves because of the crisis, for example, remote education and remote healthcare. The same thing will happen in the supply chain. You don't have to take one step forward – you have to take a quantum leap forward.

Find out how you can optimize your global supply chain by using real-time data to create a more agile and responsive ecosystem.

Helen McInnes
Helen McInnes

As Director of Thought Leadership, Helen works at the intersection of business, society, economics and technology to help firms anticipate and address the rapidly changing needs of consumers. A systems thinker, she enjoys connecting the dots to help digital businesses solve problems and create better futures. In her spare time she loves gardening, nature and reading.