Andrea Eck

Future logistics - harnessing the power of advanced IT solutions

We report from Bremerhaven port, with comments from Andrea Eck of BLG, and from the US with Mario Cordero, Executive Director of Port of Long Beach and John Heimann of IT providers Acertus on how OEMs and logistics providers are prioritising the adoption of advanced IT systems

Andrea Eck (main photo) is a member of the Board of Management of the Bremen-based BLG Logistics Group AG & Co. KG, with special responsibility for its automotive network. She knows the industry inside and out, having spent many years in charge of vehicle logistics for the Volkswagen Group before joining BLG in 2017.

Bremerhaven is one of the world’s largest car ports, it handles millions of vehicles a year. Andrea Eck is now modernising its transport chains. One of her main priorities is digitalisation.

A member of the Board of Management of BLG Logistics, she is the director of its Automobile division. She recently talked with Porsche Consulting about how advanced IT is powering the very heart of this global logistics company - the car terminal in Bremerhaven.  

Andrea Eck walked reporters through a hall built in the 1980s with a surface area of five hectares. New Porsche cars in white protective covers are lined up in precise rows to her left and right, ready to embark upon journeys across the seas. They are shipped from the port of Bremerhaven to customers in the United States, the Middle East, and Asia. 

Europe’s largest parking lot

Eck loves cars, whether they be large sedans or small sportsters. And the terminal in Bremerhaven is a veritable paradise for automotive fans like her and her team. It can accommodate 95,000 cars, lined up precisely in space saving rows. In fact, its grounds, which are about as large as 330 football fields, are known as Europe’s largest parking lot. Thousands of new vehicles pass through here every day, around the clock and throughout the year. Managing Director Sören Krüger and Head Operations Director Thomas Rech supervise the everyday routines. “More than 2,000 employees move eight million cars a year here,” says Krüger, a Bremerhaven-born mathematician who loves his job. “Every day at the port is different and exciting,” he adds. “That’s because we always have to contend with the wind and waves—and because car makers have been expanding their product ranges and raising their requirements.” Meeting these challenges in economic ways is one of the strengths of the BLG car terminal.

An excellent place to see how this works is from the top floor of one of the eight enormous six-story parking garages. Trains loaded with cargo from automobile manufacturers roll up to the garages on delivery ramps. The brand new cars are driven off the carriages in convoys, checked for possible damage, and lined up for their voyages across the seas. Twenty-six freight trains bring 5,000 cars a day from the factories to the loading facilities in Bremerhaven. The new vehicles then proceed like columns of ants into the bowels of the ships on the nearby quays. Sometimes several of the world’s largest wheeled cargo ships are docked at the port at the same time. Known as roll-on/roll-off vessels, their innards resemble multi-story parking garages. Cars can be driven on board quickly through their rear and side doors. Deck guides ensure they are parked very closely together. Around three quarters of the cars are exports headed primarily for China, North America, and South America. Around one quarter are imports, mainly from the US, Japan, and Korea. Most of the cars are cleaned, inspected, and fitted with special options in one of BLG’s three technical centres before being dispatched to truck, trains, or smaller boats.

Streamlining and simplifying logistics

In order to modernise these transport chains for the future, Eck is now going a step further. She is setting up something like a terminal network 4.0 for this seaport, which is more than a century old. “We started standardising and digitalising our process chains last year,” she says. All of the parts of BLG’s car network - from car production to customers, with 20 sites throughout Europe - are to be incorporated into one IT network that covers orders, customer data, car and transport status reports, space utilisation, and timetables. “This data pool will give us an enormous level of transparency for all the processes in the network,” says Eck. “We can monitor our needs and capacities, and make our processes both more stable and flexible.”

In the future the network is even expected to encompass external factors, such as weather data, traffic advisories, and changes to shipping schedules. Plans call for establishing an AI-based, self-learning early warning system that can identify potential disturbances such as hazardous weather conditions. By 2020 BLG’s planning team expects to have a multi-touch table that models the complex car terminal and can be used to control its processes and simulate different scenarios. The driving crew will receive their instructions via smartphone. As Eck explains, “We are guided by the vision of simplifying the logistics for our customers, which means making the processes more transparent, streamlined, and robust—which in turn will make our customers themselves more successful.”

Putting priority on progress

Some of the digitalisation ideas have grown out of a project with Porsche Consulting. “For predictive planning it’s important to consider the entire process chain,” says project director and consultant Carsten Kahrs. He and his team helped to develop the farsighted plans as a basis for future software solutions that will improve networking with ship owners, optimise parking space, and reduce car movement. “Productivity at the terminal has been noticeably enhanced,” says Managing Director Krüger.

BLG places a priority on progress. The company therefore invests in its own five-member innovation team. It tests new technologies such as drones, data headsets, 3-D printing, scan gloves, and robots in 100-day projects. The logistics company is also preparing for the advent of self-driving new cars. “We’re sure we’ll be seeing autonomous cars that can also communicate with each other,” says Eck. She explains that the industry has a vision of new cars automatically navigating their individual logistics paths onto freight trains and ships. So BLG is already making relevant test spaces available to manufacturers. After all, the port grounds are a uniquely protected space without any traffic lights or children at play. “Our grounds are a superb place for manufacturers to test many new developments,” says Operations Director Rech. The many possibilities include control models, big data applications, and power supply options for electric cars.

The view from the provider
John Heimann

John Heimann

John Heimann, associate vice president of information technology at Acertus (formerly Metrogistics) is uniquely qualified to talk about the importance and influence of IT in automotive logistics and particularly the business of finished vehicle. He spent 20 years in transportation, working for Union Pacific railroad then moved to the healthcare industry for eight years and returned to the transportation arena with Acertus. 

Acertus, formerly known as Metrogistics offers multiple ways for customers to track their vehicle shipments through its AutoTrack App, automatic nightly reporting, text updates and the website. I ask John Heimann explain the background to these and how they were created and what they offer, in comparison to the competition. Heimann explains Acertus's business as being composed of three 'buckets' of customers, starting with the OEMs. "With the big carmakers, everything in their system is EDI from their system to us and back, with very tight Service Level Agreements (SLAs). The next bucket is companies that have the technology in place - they use our technology but brand it as theirs. We have various Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) that these customers can plug into; they look like their site but behind the scenes, it is our transportation management system.

"The third bucket is the smaller website for one movement at a time where the customer can live track one vehicle at a time. We send the customer a refresh every 24 hours but the customer can have this information more often by pulling the status manually."

Finished vehicle IT lagging behind other industries

Many industry people feel that in the finished vehicle transportation space, IT is lagging behind other sectors; a parcel being shipped by UPS, for example, can be very quickly tracked online, as Heimann says: "We have not caught up with these shipping companies on the vehicle side. We are investing heavily in catching up; we are not there yet but we are all heading in the right direction."

Mario Cordero, Executive Director of Port of Long Beach talks of the maritime side being a bit behind the curve: "The maritime transportation industry has been rather slow in moving to new IT, when compared to other industries but clearly, in the last couple of years, we have seen the leaders in the carrier community, marine terminal operators (MTOs) and ports like ourselves, really moving to invest in new technology for two reasons; one is for our operation to be more transparent to our customers, and number two is to help drive greater efficiency. For example at one of our terminals here at Long Beach an MTO has invested a great deal with an IT company called Advent, in what we call predictive analytics. As a port authority, we are presently in a pilot project with General Electric to develop a portal to put as much maritime data in one platform, for the stakeholders to see easily and quickly."

Bringing the new IT into the truck cab
Mario Cordero

Mario Cordero

I was interested to know how these systems 'mesh' with information that truck drivers are getting in their cabs; Heimann explains it thus: "Yes, they do interact with truck drivers' information streams. What is new is the electronic driver logs. These are required for all drivers and the next big advance will be to ensure that our transportation management systems mesh with those electronic driver logs and ask drivers questions such as: where are you? How many hours do you have left to drive? Direction heading? This will help organisations line up freight with transport. The freight industry generally is more mature in investment in IT than the automotive side of the business."

For owner-operators, it is different than for large carriers and it needs to be made clear to the small operators how they can 'get on board' with the new software integration systems and thus onto a major transport 'rota' to win loads as Heimann says: "These small guys would have to be able to produce an electronic proof of delivery as their OEM customers do not want to use paper."

Push and pull

I ask John Heimann about the balance between push and pull reporting and does he see preferences for a 'push' system where the customer gets updates or does the customer prefer to have the power and decision process have to 'chase' updates, ETAs and so on. He says that there is a strong element of personal preference. "The default setting is for all the information to be pushed to the client but some customers do not go for the Big Brother aspect of this and IT companies have to be able to support a greater element of choice. The trick is understanding your customer and the carrier's preferences and this informed attitude will mark the difference between successful and ordinary IT providers."

Acertus's clients include VW, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, BMW, Kia, Hyundai Glovis, Sonic Automotive, Group 1 Automotive, Enterprise, Hertz and Avis. I ask Heimann if there are significant differences in IT integration with these different companies, particularly are OEMs different to resellers and rental companies. He says that all users have long adoption processes and all require a dedicated standard data format to be created. "We might spend 30 days setting up and testing an AS2 connection and then sending test messages, correcting and re-sending information. This can mean the setting-up delays sending out the first live order by several months." These delays are confined to setting up the initial relationship with the customer and when plants and other facilities are added, this is a lot faster, just requiring a new unique ID. Heimann says that there are some challenges in making OEMs understand that there are standardisation techniques that can help them install IT systems. "Each of the OEMs believes that they are using a standard format but each of those standards is different. It is amazing how those legacy systems cause complexity as one has to deal with different systems."  

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