Working Out the Kinks in the Cargo Chain

The complex cargo chain is full of challenges. So Schiphol regularly engages young, inquisitive minds to explore them, and develop potential solutions. Such was the case for Nicole Schutte, graduate student at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). To complete her Master’s degree in Transport, Infrastructure & Logistics, Nicole explored an issue that is likely to be familiar to most of the Cargo community.

Tackling the challenge

‘While most freight forwarders are closed in evenings and on weekends, ground handlers are busy 24/7,’ Nicole explains. ‘Bottlenecks occur during peak times, when many trucks arrive at the ground handlers’ simultaneously. Those bottlenecks mean delays, uncertainty and high costs for the entire chain.

‘My thesis project scientifically investigated various options to determine an optimal configuration that would allow truck drivers to pick up or deliver goods when freight forwarders are closed, with or without staff present. This would ease the bottlenecks and create value for the whole chain.’

Addressing the complexities

‘Schiphol selected this topic for my thesis project, and my contribution was the approach,’ Nicole says. ‘I developed a methodology to study the quantitative and qualitative effects of various solutions, and to determine the optimal solution.’

But given the complexities of the Cargo chain, Nicole knew that refining the parameters was an important first step. ‘With so many different actors in the chain, it wouldn’t be possible to develop a single solution that works best for everyone.’

While many other studies start by exploring alternative solutions, Nicole first identified stakeholder interests and incorporated those into possible alternatives. ‘In this way, the solutions address the issues that each stakeholder finds important,’ she says.

Conclusions to build upon

Nicole says that one of the things all actors in the chain have in common is a concern for risk. Ensuring that goods are safe and secure, and having a transparent system to prevent theft, attacks or disruption is one thing all members of the Cargo chain can agree upon. But how to enable that most efficiently, effectively and affordably is where perspectives can differ.

‘Perhaps one of the strongest conclusions from my research has been that objectives-based innovation leads to solutions that are more aligned with industry interests, and to higher adoption rates. Sometimes, a solution that is sub-optimal for everyone is still the best for the group, because “wins” are equally distributed among them. That’s why it’s crucial for all stakeholders to work together and compromise. If each is willing to sacrifice a bit of what they want, a strong and viable solution can be developed.’

More than just quantitative

In her investigation, Nicole identified a proposition that could reduce operating costs by 65% for freight forwarders and 57% for logistics service providers. The scheme could also reduce the hours waiting at ground handler gates by up to 63%. A huge benefit, for example, in terms of Schiphol’s goal to reduce CO2 emissions by reducing the number of idling trucks.

‘But improvements to the chain aren’t just about the quantitative figures,’ Nicole explains. ‘The complex needs and requirements of each member of the chain mean that this is not the ideal solution for the chain overall. What it proves, instead, is that there is definitely room for improvements in efficiency, costs and emissions. But the entire chain will need to work together to find the right balance between quantitative improvement and qualitative satisfaction. Only then is innovation possible in this very complex sector.’

Making the grade

Nicole successfully defended her thesis and has now earned her Master’s degree, in part for the work she conducted for Schiphol. Her insights will be used to further explore the possibilities she uncovered. ‘It would be ideal if my findings are used to spark a discussion among all the actors in the chain,’ she says. ‘This is certainly not an “one solution fits all” industry, and the Cargo community will need to get their hands dirty to find the right balance between improvement and acceptability.’