Technology is beginning to solve some of the challenges associated with information sharing and building trust and co-operation between the various parties of the air freight chain, reports Will Waters
Technology is now finally beginning to help solve some of the key challenges associated with information sharing and co-operation between the various parties of the air freight chain − including the key issue of trust and the reluctance among some members of the chain to contribute information for the benefit of the wider community.
Freight forwarders in particular have been well known to be resistant to sharing their data, in part due to concerns about their suppliers or competitors approaching their clients directly or other parties seeing sensitive or confidential pricing information.
But data-sharing platform Nallian, whose technology underpins the Brussels Airport cargo community’s highly regarded BRUcloud initiative, says it is now possible to overcome these concerns by demonstrating that the information will only be shared with those holding the necessary permissions. Confidence that this will be maintained can be strengthened by demonstrating who will see the data, including showing retrospectively who has had access to it – and who hasn’t, says Alex Driesen, co-entrepreneur at Nallian.
For stakeholders at Brussels, the opportunity within the Air Cargo Belgium community for companies and individuals to meet face-to-face has also been important, he notes. Even with the technical assurances that the right technology platform can provide, building trust through real-world connections provides an important additional layer of reassurance.
But the technology – the data-sharing platform and collaborative apps – can also be a key factor in helping to build the community, says Jean Verheyen, CEO of Nallian. The different stakeholders meet initially to discuss finding a solution to certain key shared issues or challenges, talk about their needs and requirements – and if the technology or the community delivers some kind of improvement for them, they then meet more regularly to discuss feedback and possible next steps.
That’s the theory, and to some extent that has been what happened in Brussels. Although there was already a community of sorts, it wasn’t an established, highly cooperative group of stakeholders from across the air freight chain like that which has existed for some time at Schiphol. Instead, there were various associations such as the Belgian Airfreight Institute (BAFI), along with organisations representing airlines and cargo handlers − each, to a large extent, with their own particular agendas.
There was also cooperation across stakeholders for certain special-interest projects, such as the CEIV Pharma initiative. But the level and nature of the cooperation has picked up significantly since the BRUcloud project, launched in 2014, led users to appreciate the potential value of cooperation, leading to the formation of Air Cargo Belgium (ACB) in 2016.
Verheyen notes: “Many airports think you first need a community to get such a project started, but the BRUcloud project has shown that it can be the other way around: the technology driving the creation of a community – starting small, with a ‘coalition of the willing’, and then growing and building the community based on the first successes.”
Key within this process at Brussels has been the Slot Booking App, a truck-scheduling system that has already seen significant efficiency improvements and savings for companies. That went live with seven companies on 15 January, and by the end of March, eight other companies had joined. And by September, 26 freight forwarders and ground handling agents at BRUcargo were using the app in their day-to-day operations.
Steven Polmans, head of cargo at Brussels Airport, observes: “We started fairly small: our motto is ‘start small, fail forwards’. If we wait for a global solution, global standards, it is never going to happen.
“With our truck-booking app, truck waiting times for those using the app have been reduced by 90%; so there is almost no waiting times now for those companies using that app.”
That level of success, and the obvious benefits it generates, has clearly accelerated interest in co-operation and membership of the community.
So, did the technology help build the community? Polmans says the airport did already have a community, “but it does help if you have a common aim. And the data sharing is such a big topic that it has required the involvement of the senior people in those organisations.”
He continues: “Now we have 150 members (of Air Cargo Belgium), and there are only 120 companies at the airport. So we have companies from elsewhere that are interested.
“So now, we have people coming to us, pushing us along.” The airport had various aims for the first three years of the community project that it has already fulfilled, much earlier than anticipated, so it has needed to develop new aims and targets – which is a good challenge to have, Polmans observes.
He notes that other airports now seem to be very interested in what BRU has been doing, in building a community. “I say to them that it is much easier if you can have a topic, a shared interest, to coalesce around.”
Verheyen agrees that a shared focus is what drives participation, and also signs of the collaboration’s success, noting: “Once people saw the benefits (of the slot-booking app at BRU), we went to 90% use (across the airport community) in just six months.”
That increased level of participation also brought in additional income to help develop the project, and also led to new ideas from the participants on how to take things to the next stage. “And then the whole thing builds,” he says. “But it is difficult in the early stages.”
In addition to the emergence of effective technology and the positive examples in the sector, Verheyen believes external conditions now strongly support the adoption of community data-sharing initiatives to help improve efficiency and visibility of air freight movements. “One of the reasons is the emergence of e-commerce, and the additional visibility and transparency that companies in that sector require. But the other reason is that with air freight volumes expected to double in the next 20 years, and the limited space available at many airports, the challenge is to use technology to make maximum use of that space.”
He says there is a lot to do, because it has been a neglected space. “But that is good for us; and we have won tenders against some of the biggest names in technology − so we must be doing something right.
Beyond Brussels, and outside of the air freight sector even, a Nallian data-sharing platform is being used by the community of the Port of Antwerp, where the initiative is “focusing on very complex data-sharing, for example in the chemical sector”.
And elsewhere in Belgium, two new projects have just been launched within Liège Airport’s air freight community. In early October, cargo handler Liège Air Cargo Handling Services (LACHS) unveiled its plan to streamline its air cargo delivery and pick-up processes using truck slot-booking technology provided by Nallian. LACHS says automatic matching of slot supply and demand and efficient information exchange would allow the ground handler to avoid peaks and idle times and eliminate waiting times for its customers.
The handler says until now, the planning of pick-ups and deliveries has been largely a manual process based on phone calls, which is time-consuming and results in fragmented information, with limited process visibility. That, together with a large number of unpredictable deliveries and pick-ups, results in peaks and idle times for the ground handler, long waiting times for its customers and regular congestion of the cargo zone. It expects that using Nallian’s Slot Booking application will allow all relevant shipment information to be “submitted in a structured manner via the online portal or a system-to-system communication”, with automatic matching of slot supply and demand, together with the pro-active data-exchange. That will enabling LACHS to better plan staff and resources and smooth peaks and idle times, the company says.
Pressures of growth
And just a few weeks later, Liège Airport announced that it was going to “take efficiency, transparency and reliability to the next level” using the ‘Nallian for Air Cargo’ suite of applications. The airport, which already handles an annual volume of more than 700,000 tonnes, in October signed an “historic” 10-year lease agreement with AirBridgeCargo Airlines (ABC) that is expected to significantly boost ABC’s air cargo volumes to and from the airport and increase traffic at Liège to 1 million tonnes by 2020 − placing it among the top five cargo airports in Europe, but also adding to pressure to ensure its cargo handling operations are as efficient as possible.
Liège says the cloud-based platform it is launching with Nallian will “enable its stakeholders to operate in a more collaborative, integrated way”. The aim is for “single data-entry and secure data-exchange in this innovative digitalization project” will replace “traditional, inefficient one-to-one communication and information silos”.
Single version of the truth
The airport says that by using Nallian’s open data-sharing platform, information that is uploaded once can be shared in a secured, controlled way with other parties. And a set of collaborative applications can “capture and share this single version of the truth in a wide range of processes”.
Liège is starting off with six applications: Slot Booking, Export VAT recovery, Freight Consolidation, E-commerce declaration, Cargo Performance Monitoring, and Track & Trace. It says these have “already proven their ability to generate significant benefits in terms of time savings, performance increase and process predictability in other implementations”.
And it says a “data lake” will be populated with information from these applications, allowing the airport to, among other things, analyse freight routes in much more detail, using parameters such as freight origin or final destination, commodities, airline, and transport mode. “Gaining better insights in its cargo streams will allow the airport to make strategic decisions based on real-world information,” the airport says.
Franz Heuckeroth Van Hessen, VP for air services, notes: “Nallian’s unique approach of an open data-sharing platform empowering collaborative applications allows us to immediately reap the benefits with our first set of applications in a range of processes, with the flexibility to quickly scale and add more applications in the future. We have been impressed by the proven performance of the platform, and are convinced it will generate significant value for the airport and our stakeholders.”
And the platform’s efficiency-building and community-building potential has also not gone unnoticed internationally. For example, Nallian is now also working with Heathrow Airport in order to help find solutions to address some of the truck congestion and efficiency issues suffered in parts of the airport’s cargo areas.
That Heathrow project has had some initial challenges, suggesting that replicating the Brussels Airport cargo community example may be harder in practice than it might at first seem (see article on page 40).
But Nallian’s data-sharing technology is also being used as the platform for an international initiative being trialled by the Pharma.Aero association, indicating that the platform and its principles can succeed well beyond the borders of its home country Belgium.
Indeed, Nallian is confident that other projects will soon be following. And with air freight having struggled for so long to achieve much meaningful collaboration on a communitywide basis, the highly visible success of the Brussels initiatives would seem to make that highly likely. nnn