Corona crisis confirms need for digital breakbulk platform

According to product manager Steven Schutter of NxtPort the crisis has demonstrated how the Bulkchain breakbulk platform, the digital data sharing platform, operated by NxtPort and Port+ can supercharge the sector.

The official launch of Bulkchain on 5 March was attended by 120 interested people from more than 40 companies. The platform operated by NxtPort is intended to link up all the breakbulk players so as to streamline the logistical process. By concentrating all relevant data in a central hub for the benefit of forwarders, terminals, ship's agents, customs and other stakeholders, time and money can be saved throughout the chain, with gains in transparency and efficiency. 

"Bulkchain was officially set up at AntwerpXL last year," says Steven Schutter. As product manager at NxtPort he has now been working on the platform for two years. "Before that moment we had carried out analyses, developed the platform and gained support from the breakbulk sector." 

The breakbulk world is not the most innovative when it comes to digitisation and transparency, to put it mildly. Piles of paperwork and databases running on Excel are the norm. Breakbulk companies seeking more advanced solutions tend to do it on their own, without knowing what their neighbours are up to. 

The time is now

At the launch event the central message from customers of the port was clear: "The time is now." But at that moment none of those present could have foreseen the chaos that the coronavirus would bring with it. "The breakbulk sector suffered heavy blows," Schutter admits. "Companies switched into survival mode and weren't prepared to invest in a new solution such as Bulkchain."

While this is understandable, in the longer term it is probably not the right move to postpone investments in digitisation. "If we could have held the sessions three months earlier and got the system up and running before the pandemic came along, then Bulkchain could have helped the companies to survive the crisis," Schutter maintains. "It would have eliminated a lot of manual work and exchange of paper documents, with consequent safety benefits for everyone. The gains in efficiency are clear to all stakeholders, and the entry costs have been kept low from a community point of view." 

At the beginning of March the intention was to extend the project to other interested companies, but corona put a stop to that. Instead the platform was further improved with the ten participating companies that joined the pilot phase last November, including ArcelorMittal Logistics, PSA Breakbulk, Katoen Natie and Haeger & Schmidt Logistics. The Katoen Natie and Mexiconatie terminals joined in the data exchange at a later stage.

"We're now putting the finishing touches to the exchange of data between forwarders and terminals," says Schutter. In the pilot phase the ArcelorMittal Logistics and PSA Breakbulk IT departments teamed up to send the considerable administrative flow between the two companies via Bulkchain. The platform recently went live so that all operational data is now exchanged between the companies via the NxtPort platform. 

Track your consignment

The partners in the pilot project are already keen. "Now that the big volume users in the breakbulk sector have rallied behind Bulkchain, the other players are showing more enthusiasm," says Dennis Verbeeck, general manager at PSA Breakbulk. "There is a clear need for more enthusiasm."

William Moyersoen, CEO of ArcelorMittal Logistics, is categorical: "If we don't ensure greater transparency then our customers will look for other channels." He understands that breakbulk still has a long way to go: "If we order something from an online web shop such as Bol.com, we expect to be able to track its progress every step of the way. But in our own sector we can't even specify a time of delivery. That's crazy in this day and age. Even we as internal forwarders can't explain this to our own production plant."

The expectations for Bulkchain are therefore very high, after the pilot phase that was seen by the participating companies as very promising. "We expect a moment will come when we will have to say: 'It's Bulkchain or else, otherwise you can't work with us,'" says Moyersoen. The times when breakbulk mainly depended on individual relations between two companies seem to be at an end. "But simply abandoning this way of working can't be done from one day to the next," Verbeeck admits.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sent a shockwave through breakbulk that has delayed the take-up of Bulkchain for several months. On the other hand the crisis has made the need for innovation and digitisation clearer than ever. Will more breakbulk players take the plunge and join Bulkchain, once they have recovered from the heaviest blows?

See also the video 'Redefining Steel Logistics': William Moyersoen, CEO ArcelorMittal Logistics, is convinced that data sharing will benefit the entire community. 

Jonas van Boxel

These are the other articles in the dossier ‘Breakbulk’:
Breakbulk revival in Antwerp: preface to all the stories
Catrien Scheers: “Covid-19 will never undermine my faith in breakbulk”
Zimmer Staal operating at full capacity at terminal operator Euroports
Rollit Cargo anticipates growth in wind turbine market
Victrol carries bridges, machines and parts for offshore wind farms
Biggest lifting job in Port of Antwerp in many years by Mammoet
Muriel Marquet (HSL): “Breakbulk is our core business”
Rail&Sea: "Big increase in combined breakbulk and container"
CJ-ICM Logistics: “We do the craziest things”
Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions invests in resources for breakbulk
Oldest port company Stukwerkers sees the sector changing rapidly
Van der Vlist Belgium expands its European hub at Zeebrugge
Jacques Vandermeiren: “Antwerp and breakbulk, a hole-in-one”