Supply chains for bulk commodity businesses are very different from those of consumer goods and require special expertise.
Also, in bulk commodities, transportation is often a major component of the delivered sale price of the product, making logistics a key battleground for market share and competitive advantage.
Market participants often have to pay attention to special aspects, such as hazmat and shrinkage, and be able to track and manage inventory across units of measure (barrel, tonnes, kilograms, litres, etc.) that might vary as different modes, terminals, and package forms are used.
Then there is the issue of special equipment or requirements that are unique, such as silos, tanks, transloading, and other customised configurations.
Configuring such supply chains to get the most from the multiple logistics assets involved has been a long and sometimes tortuous road. Nevertheless, asset optimisation in bulk logistics has moved on significantly in recent years.
For more than a decade, tank container owners, for example, have been fitting sensors in order to provide real-time data on the whereabouts of each piece of equipment which they could then convey to their clients.
But this ‘track and trace’ approach has morphed into much more, and disruption to operations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has, if anything, accelerated the process. Today, many logistics operators are looking beyond just coping with supply chain snafus to anticipating and reducing the potential for disruption before this happens.
In the middle of the first major UK lockdown in 2020, road tanker haulier Abbey Logistics analysed the journey metrics for its fleet of 550 drivers, 400 trucks and 550 bulk liquid and powder trailers.
It found that as a result of quieter roads, the company had experienced an improvement in customer service as well as savings in repair and maintenance. There was also an increase in fuel efficiency and a near 6% increase in the average speed of its fleet.
Despite the extraordinary circumstances of the lockdown, Abbey believed it learned an important lesson: it is entirely possible for a given fleet to do more with less and use assets much more productively, requiring less repair and maintenance thanks to more consistent driving.
For example, longer delivery windows and more night-time deliveries could provide for a more cost-effective and reliable customer service. The data can also be used to support drivers to perform at their best, reducing stress levels and keeping them safer while minimising road traffic incidents and any resulting asset damage.
As the largest tank container operator Stolt Tank Containers (STC) has rethought its approach to digitisation and asset management.
The company realised early on that much of the prior work done across the logistics industry on developing online tools had effectively been used to get customers to do work which was formerly done by logistics providers’ personnel. This approach did not actually improve customer service; it just shifted the workload.
But STC believes that genuine commitment to better customer service entails deploying tools that make customers’ jobs easier. So, the operator asked its customers and vendors what they needed; then set about using tools that really benefit them.
Fast communication, access to real-time information and automated administration is now the norm in many industries. So it wasn’t much of a surprise to learn that this is what the bulk liquid logistics industry wanted, too. Even simple things like getting an immediate booking confirmation, instead of having to wait days, had largely not yet been achieved.
So STC now uses a wide range of digital tools and partnerships to make booking, tracking and managing shipment administration fast and easy. These include openly accessible web-based facilities, like track and trace, integration with third-party platforms, and even direct system-to-system integration via EDI.