We touched upon these and other questions with Ulrike Höffken, Head of Logistics at thyssenkrupp Steel Europe, and Luc Arnouts, Chief Commercial Officer of the Port of Antwerp, during their meeting in Belgium.
Ms. Höffken, are thyssenkrupp Steel Europe products delivered to all corners of the world?
Höffken: They certainly are. Our customers are always opening up new plants around the world where they want to use our products, and we often follow them – no matter where they go. We inspect the various regional ports available to us and our employees appraise the conditions on-site.
What conditions do they have to meet?
Höffken: Well, they need to have all-weather terminals for our short sea shipping, so we can transship goods even when it’s raining. This is very important, as our products must not get wet. We determine which companies to contract for logistical services and make sure that they have the necessary experience with steel products. We check which ships the different carriers use to make sure that there is adequate storage and that they are safe for transportation.
Mr. Arnouts, what kinds of advantages does Antwerp have to offer in that regard?
First off, there’s the high shipping traffic and the well-developed transportation network, both for containers and general cargo. Also, the ratio of import to export is relatively balanced. That makes for a healthy cycle for senders and receivers, because transportation costs drop when both incoming and outgoing ships are full.
What advantages does the port have to offer steel companies?
Arnouts: Our terminals are specialized in different types of freight – from the specific wharfage equipment we use to the dock workers, who have decades of experience handling steel products. We also have seven different training centers housed in our facility. Knowledge and productivity ultimately form the basic pillars of our business.
Höffken: That’s true. And in all other areas, we also leave nothing to chance. Only flawless products that have been packaged by our own technicians or by specially contracted sea freight experts are shipped out. There are also precise loading regulations governing both the transshipment of products as well as how products are loaded on the ship.
This applies to shipping in Duisburg and Antwerp, but, of course, the journey doesn’t stop there...
Höffken: That’s right. We always check our goods wherever they are transshipped. In fact, we employ quality assurance experts at all of our ports of entry worldwide. They check the condition of the products before the next point of transfer. As long as we are responsible for transporting products to the customer, we take great care to ensure a smooth delivery process.
Container transport is a growing sector. How does that affect your work?
Arnouts: It has a huge impact. We are currently Europe’s third largest container port. Container transportation makes up 55 percent of our total business – and that number continues to grow. However, general cargo still makes up a large part of our freight.
Höffken: We need to continue to develop in this area, but it does not make sense to use containers to ship coils. We use wood and steel girders to fasten the coils into the containers, and the girders ultimately have to be shipped back to us. There are also ‘coil-tainers’ that are used to standardize the process of coil shipping, but they are generally more expensive than conventional shipping, so we normally use containers only when we stand to save money, for example, when shipping flat steel in packages or on pallets – or when there is no other way to ensure that our customers will receive the materials they need on time.
How do you both see the future of transportation by ship?
Arnouts: In Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, there is a need for massive investments in roads and railways. Transportation by ship is more cost-effective and there is huge potential for growth.
Höffken: I’m not worried about sea transport either. We have been very successful in transporting finished products from Antwerp to our customers around the world. I see more problems when it comes to rail and road transport, for example, when shipping goods between different plants. It is high time that measures be taken to maintain and modernize bridge structures, rail lines, and roads.
Where do you see room for improvement?
Höffken: We are in desperate need of a standardized track and trace system so that every sender, supplier, and customer can track their shipment at any time. To do this, we’ll have to employ cloud technology so that all of this data can be made available to those who need it. Currently, everyone has their own system and nothing is compatible. We could track changes far more quickly and make the impossible possible. This is a challenge for the entire logistics sector – everything could be made far more transparent.
Arnouts: That will take a lot of coaxing. Many companies aren’t keen to share their information and insist that this helps to maintain their competitive advantage. It has to be made clear that the advantages are much greater when everyone is using the same system.
Who is responsible for doing that?
Höffken: Everyone. The whole industry – across all sectors – has to band together.
How does environmental protection and sustainability play a role in sea transport?
Höffken: We’re looking at a cost hike for sea transport in the wake of the new emissions standard for ECAs, effective as of this year. From a business perspective, this is naturally a bit problematic because many of our competitors, for example in China, have far lower environmental standards to contend with when it comes to transport and production. Personally speaking, I welcome this initiative, so I suppose I am of two minds when it comes to this matter.
Arnouts: As for our role, we were the first port to publish an environmental report. In this report, we shed light on numerous different aspects related to sustainability at our port. We have to be responsible for the effects of our actions, and in such a densely populated area near a major city and in close proximity to Germany and the Netherlands, we need to make sure that we have everyone’s approval if we wish to expand – and that remains our goal.
Do you ever long to travel out to sea on one of your ships?
Arnouts: The desire is definitely there, but I have a far greater passion for the things we are doing here on land. We’ve got local roots and a global vision. A former port councilman once said: “Hold your hand in the Scheldt and you’ll be connected with the entire world.” I think I can do more here than I would be able to out at sea, and if I were ever to venture out, I’m pretty sure I’d prefer a yacht to a freighter.
Ulrike Höffken is Head of Logistics, and as such, is responsible for the organization, management, and implementation of freight traffic. This includes the purchase of transportation, storage, and transfer services as well as the maintenance of rail and port facilities.
Luc Arnouts is the Chief Commercial Officer at the Port of Antwerp, where he is in charge of development. Antwerp is currently Europe’s third largest port and the world’s largest port for general cargo. It is home to the second largest chemical business park worldwide after Houston.