Intermodal Europe 2018: What I Learned

I learned about Intermodal Europe 2018 while scrolling through my LinkedIn newsfeed. It was two days way – I knew I had to register!

I was only able to make it to one of three days of the conference, but I thoroughly enjoyed the the panels I attended. As someone who doesn’t currently work in the industry but wants to serve the industry, it was quite enlightening.

Intermodal Europe 2018 Review

Change Is Coming to the Logistics Industry (or at least it should be)

I constantly heard that one of the main factors slowing progress is the resistance to technology and change.

Today, we can download an app to hail a cab and watch it approach our location, while also turning the heat on before we arrive and ordering food to be delivered to our home. In contrast, logistics companies can’t tell a customer where their shipment is or how it disappeared.

One speaker noted that one of the highlights of last year’s conference was a type of tracker that goes inside the shipping container. That was 2017.

Why hasn’t the industry progressed? Why does the supply chain seem to encounter the same problems it did 100 years ago?

The resistance to technology is not just a change of inertia – it’s also a fear of job losses. People are constantly afraid that artificial intelligence will replace them, rather than approaching it as a tool.

And this resistance to technology has ripple effects. The Women in Logistics panel highlighted not only the absence of women in the industry, but the absence of any interest from the upcoming workforce. Logistics and supply chain has not proven itself to be a forward-thinking industry compared to other fields currently embracing the unknown technological frontier.

While there is some innovation is coming from within the industry, other fields are also developing solutions for the inefficiencies of logistics.

Digital Platforms: Baby Steps into the 21st Century

I still find it shocking that the logistics industry hasn’t, as a whole, made the shift to digital platforms. How does anyone trust that their items will get from point A to B? How is anyone held accountable? How do companies stay competitive if they don’t have a user-friendly interface or website? Who has the time?

Companies like FreightBro offer great solutions for customers and freight forwarders to reduce their paper use, communication delays, and time spent connecting the dots. By centralizing all their freight operations in one application, companies and customers  waste less time searching for solutions and create a better workflow.

But while digital platforms may help streamline administration, they do not address all the challenges facing the logistics industry.

Blockchain: Take the Plunge

Another universal sentiment seemed to be the need for collaboration. No one functions alone as part of the supply chain.

Dr. Rolf Neise echoed an idea that the Blocklab white paper also suggested: players in the logistics industry need to specialize or focus on what they do best.

Being really good at administrative tasks isn’t enough. Shouldn’t everyone be able to file paperwork correctly and communicate efficiently? By specializing in a field or aspect of the supply chain, a company can secure its position in the industry and prove its value as a partner.

Nico Wauters from T-Mining, Tom van Dijk from CGI, and Clinton Senkow from ShipChain were all passionate advocates for using blockchain to improve the supply chain. By implementing its technology, companies can shift their focus from “fire fighting” to providing premium customer service.

Currently, blockchain trials are being conducted in small, private networks. If (and when) the technology takes off and becomes commonplace in the industry, transactions and payments will be visible to everyone on the blockchain.

Building Trust within the Logistics Industry

Change isn’t easy for everyone. Blockchain is not only a change in a company’s workflow, but also its mindset. You have to trust others in the industry that they will make good choices, too.

Van Dijk said that blockchain is disruptive by creating a layer of trust between points on the supply chain. It seems like such a strange definition of “disruption,” but with the lack of visibility in the industry – another universal complaint – it’s easy to see how that trust between partners is not easily earned.

Sharing is Caring

As part of trust-building, some people call for data sharing. It feels risky – why would anyone want their competitors to know how well they move product?

Currently, everyone operates based on the information they are given and the data they produce. This, however, is an incomplete picture of the supply chain.

Thomas Bibette demonstrated how DCBrain is helping companies put their own data to practical use. But with more data available, new trends may reveal themselves, which may lead to better solutions, which may lead to less churn for you.

Without sharing data, it will be increasingly difficult to pin-point issues in the industry so that everyone can improve. Remember: no one functions alone in the supply chain. (At least, if you don’t want giants like Amazon and Alibaba putting you out of business.)

How to Get Decision Makers on Board

It’s the million-dollar question. From what I saw, it seems that many leaders in the industry are focused on making today’s sale, or on the number of shipping containers lost last week. It’s hard to plan for the future when there’s a fire that needs to be put out today.

As step one of his value-based 5-step method, van Dijk suggests starting with creating awareness among key stakeholders before experimenting and creating a pilot.

But how do we create awareness that will change the mindset of this ancient industry?

Maybe start with a few examples of how blockchain has proven its positive impact on the supply chain. The ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam have shown interest in it. Companies like Walmart have experimented with shipping lettuce using the technology, and IBM and Maersk developed a blockchain partnership:

Through better visibility and more efficient means of communicating, some supply chain participants estimate they could reduce the steps taken to answer basic operational questions such as “where is my container” from 10 steps and five people to, with TradeLens, one step and one person.

One step with one person. The efficiency is almost unimaginable. Why would your company want to be left behind in this technological advancement?

These, however, are industry powerhouses. They have the resources to invest in this type of research and experimentation. The blockchain infrastructure doesn’t fully exist yet – it is still only comprised of private networks.

But even so, ShipChain is running pilot programs with Perdue and CaseStack, and has had its work recognized in the DHL white paper on blockchain and logistics. While these names, again, are heavy hitters, the growing investment and interest in the technology cannot be ignored.

As Senkow said, this is just the “dial-up” stage of blockchain. It has so much potential and there’s no denying that it will be here to stay.

Final Thoughts

At the moment, it seems that offering services at the lowest cost is everyone’s priority. With giants like Amazon and Walmart offering free shipping, it’s no wonder people expect low costs, regardless of quality of service.

But that just can’t be the case.

At the moment, clients may be willing to pay a low price for the risk of the item getting lost. But if you could guarantee that their product could be tracked all the way from point A to B with your stellar customer service, wouldn’t that be worth the risk of investment?

And, as I mentioned before, the future of logistics is also dependent on the type of talent that the industry attracts. Don’t you want the best and the brightest? Because as the logistics industry strands, it’s not looking very attractive.

Logistics is the backbone of the global economy. Why isn’t it a leader in advancement?


Interested in nerding out about supply chain logistics? Talk to me!

Follow Friday: BlueCity

One of the hardest changes I’ve had to make since moving to Rotterdam is not having a compost bin. It breaks my heart to throw away my egg shells, my juicing scraps, my week-old flowers – anything that can be naturally broken down into soil, rather than trapped in a plastic garbage bag.

To the chagrin of my husband (and possibly my neighbors), I am experimenting with making a compost bin on our balcony. Alternatively, I am also tempted to casually scatter my bio waste among the green spaces in the city. (Just kidding…mostly.)

While it may be difficult for me as a resident to dispose of my green waste in a responsible fashion, businesses and entrepreneurs throughout Rotterdam are working towards creating a new economy, also known as a circular economy.

Sterling Schuyler BlueCity

About BlueCity: The Circular Economy

Set up in an abandoned water park, BlueCity is working towards “Bringing Back Balance” by creating circuits of earth-friendly practices. Even its initial choice to re-purpose an abandoned water park set the tone for this incubator for innovation.

But it’s not your run-of-the-mill co-working workspace or collaborative offices. (Did the abandoned water park tip you off?)

Their vision is to create a no-waste economy, one that finds alternative uses for an industry’s waste, ideally coming full circle through various businesses. They want innovators – and the world – to produce waste that can be a building block, rather than unused potential.

BlueCity offers their space as a breeding ground for imagination. Here, businesses can test prototypes in a collaborative environment without fear of failure. It’s a space for trial, error, improvement, and eventually development of scalable solutions.

Environmentally-Friendly Innovation

BlueCity’s space and resources have allowed a variety of businesses flourish. Rotterzwam designs countertop mushroom kits that use coffee grounds so that users can grow oyster mushrooms at home. Their materials are recycled plastic, cardboard, and used coffee grounds from their partner Moyee.

KEES makes clothes from residual and renewable materials, while also employing people who may not be considered “useful” otherwise. They fight fast fashion with their thoughtful designs and uncommon uses of materials. KEES then makes an effort to hire people who have been recipients of social assistance for long periods of time – those who may not have the skill sets to secure a long-term job, but have the drive to work.

Better Future Factory offers prototyping and design with recycled materials. It can be challenging to make upcycling sexy and practical, but if anyone is winning at it, it’s Better Future Factory. From perfume to tiles, they are quite literally reshaping industries. They’re even making glasses frames from pogs (or as they’re called in the Netherlands, Flippo’s).

Final Thoughts

Reducing our impact on the environment can feel daunting, or even hopeless. But knowing that there are people out there working really really hard to curb climate change makes me want to contribute, too.

Sorry not sorry neighbors – my composting experiment is here to stay.

Follow Friday: Blocklab

In case you hadn’t noticed, I really enjoying writing about supply chain management. It’s a field that I didn’t know existed until I started working, and ever since, I’ve been interested in learning more about how goods move around the world.

Supply chain logistics affect everyone, from the raw material production to the end consumer. A single wrinkle in the chain can be disruptive to industries around the world. But as the industry’s inefficiencies have become an accepted evil, the world has allowed those wrinkles to accumulate.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we could eliminate the redundancies and errors and unnecessary delays in the process of moving something from point A to point B?

Ironing out those wrinkles and making clients happy with a smooth shipping experience is one of the reasons I came to Rotterdam: to find the perfect logistics company.

Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port, making the metropolitan area a global logistics capital. With over 2000 companies providing service in some form to the industry, it would seem that innovation here is constantly shaping and re-shaping the supply chain world.

That is, in fact, not the case.

Rotterdam has only stepped up its game on the international stage within the past ten years. The city has invested in a variety of projects in order to attract talent and persuade businesses to establish a presence. One such project is Blocklab.

Blocklab

About Blocklab

Blocklab wrote a great whitepaper explaining how blockchain can (and will) streamline the logistics industry. It’s thorough but easy to read. In addition to its overview of how blockchain can improve operations and finances, the paper also touches on the environmental impact of making the industry more efficient. (Spoiler alert: it’s a good impact.)

A point that is elegantly touched on is the idea that blockchain may level the playing field for all companies involved:

Careful analysis of successful applications in supply chain management shows that they are based on managing the supply chain as a single entity as a result of one dominant member being able to impose his will on the others. However decentralized supply chains do not have such a dominant member and as a result the potential benefits of supply chain management have so far been much more difficult to realize in these systems. However, using smart contracts in combination with new advanced planning algorithms the (dis)benefits could be fairly distributed among the supply chain members based on actual and immutable transactions.

While any single player may dominate the supply chain process, blockchain will decentralize that power. As a result, SMEs may have a greater opportunity to thrive by emphasizing the value they add to the customer’s experience, rather than the price tag:

Picking up a container, unloading a truck in a CFS, stuffing an export container, sending an invoice to a client, booking an incoming invoice, custom clearance; hardly stuff to get excited about. Your next door competitor does exactly the same and the only way you can differentiate yourself is by being cheaper. The end result: ‘a race to the bottom’. What if we would develop a shared system for all these kind of ‘non-unique selling point’ type of activities? One in which all trust issues are resolved and automated? One in which all processes have been redesigned, made simpler or even totally obliterated? This would significantly lower the transaction costs in and around the port of Rotterdam, making it more competitive – increasing volumes and efficiency and allowing LSPs to compete on value – added, not on price.

This is the kind of talk that gets me excited about supply chain management.

Blocklab’s Blockchain Solutions for Rotterdam

Blocklab has developed solutions for the Port of Rotterdam to increase efficiency through the application of blockchain technology. Its application, however, is easier said than done.

This adoption of Blocklab’s pilot program will shake up all aspects of logistics, from operation to finances to tracking, and everything in between. By implementing blockchain technology, these processes will – ideally – become significantly more efficient and therefore cost effective.

A transaction to move product from point A to point B involves dozens of interactions. According to the Port of Rotterdam’s CFO Paul Smits, a shipment from China to Rotterdam can involve up to 28 parties. With the implementation of blockchain technology, that transaction can move seamlessly through those companies with digital documentation, immediate approval of transactions, and fewer delays.

Final Thoughts

Previously I have questioned the plausibility of the entire supply chain adopting the technology. If not everyone agrees to be so transparent, how effective can the application of blockchain be?

And taking it a step further: if the platform doesn’t offer an all-in-one solution, how agreeable will businesses be to adopt it?

If, however, the largest port of Europe chooses to implement it, it may be in everyone’s interest to accept blockchain technology as part of their futures. I look forward to seeing how Blocklab’s project with the Port of Rotterdam unfolds.


Change (and growth) is inevitable and often times difficult. I can make it easier for you. Let’s talk about it.