Having grown from humble beginnings in the UK town of Lancashire in 1953 to become a world-renowned logistics company with more than 20 operational bases spread across Europe, P&O Ferrymasters is a key protagonist on the European logistics scene.
Yet, a rich heritage and proud name can only do so much to keep a business afloat in a volatile economy, which is why P&O’s management team is acutely aware that only continuous improvement will ensure long-term success. “It is what we do today and tomorrow, not what we did yesterday, that will ensure our reputation as one of Europe’s leading supply chain management specialists,” Managing Director, Bas Belder, explains candidly – indicating that the P&O of today is much more than just a cargo handling company.
Today, he says, the company is all about providing “complex supply chain solutions” that demand comprehensive resources and operational excellence, all backed by an extensive, 1,600-trailer-strong fleet. According to P&O, retaining such a vast asset base is one way in which it can add value to its clientele: “We can optimise your supply chain and give you a real competitive advantage by engineering cost-effective, innovative and environmentally friendly solutions, backed up by consistent and reliable service.”
In P&O’s case, the how is the true point of difference, though. The company has a reputation for pioneering intermodal transport, Belder says, be it through the use of 45-foot dry or temperature-controlled containers or so-called ‘huckepack’ trailers carried by rail on strategic intermodal routes across the continent. “We don’t have our own trucks. Instead, our trailers spend a relatively long time on ferries and trains. It is all ro-ro traffic, really,” he elaborates.
With a fleet so dispersed, Belder says tracking and tracing equipment has become key to the company’s success in the digital age. Telematics has therefore evolved into an important operational mainstay: “The more accurate information we collect, the more efficiently we can run our business. As soon as a trailer arrives at a terminal, whether on a ferry or a train, we receive a signal from it so we know where it is.”
If the customer wishes to, he says, they will be kept in the loop as well. “We have learned that our customers appreciate transparency, which is why we have developed a customer web portal. Here, they can see exactly where their cargo is and when it will arrive at the required destination. It made this company grow without having to invest in more staff.”
In 2014, P&O Ferrymasters decided to replace a significant part of its trailer fleet to cater to the new digitisation trend, with European powerhouse, Schmitz Cargobull providing a lot of 300 huckepack trailers equipped with its in-house telematics product. “At that point in time, given where we wanted to get as a fleet, we made a deal with Schmitz Cargobull. But, that’s no reflection on other manufacturers; we’re still doing business with everyone,” Belder says diplomatically, praising the versatility of the Schmitz system.
“Schmitz’ telematics system can be mounted on trailers produced by other manufacturers as well, [so we decided that] any new trailer in our fleet will be equipped with the system,” Belder says – pointing out he foresees an increase in efficiency in both planning and fleet operations based on more readily accessible Big Data.
Predictive maintenance is especially high on the agenda in that context – so much so that P&O has given up its own workshop in Britain and outsourced all maintenance and servicing to Dutch-based TIP Trailer Services. “TIP has its own people working at our offices, which has made our trailer maintenance much more flexible,” Belder says. “Trailers are now maintained when needed, which is a big advantage compared to the past. TIP is also able to execute maintenance at any of the terminals in Britain or on the mainland where you may find our trailers.”
The next step Belder has in mind is to optimise tyre management with the use of IT intel. “Tyres are a significant cost with our current working method. We’ve also noticed that they’re especially vulnerable and prone to blow out, which is why we’ve tested a number of systems already that could help us here. We haven’t decided on one just yet, but we’re leaning towards those that use sensors to measure the inside temperature too, not just tyre pressure. If we find one that appears to be sufficiently reliable, we can take the next step.”
Together with TIP’s expert maintenance team, Belder says P&O also investigates whether worn-out tyres can be renewed or not. “Our trailers are often manoeuvred on and off ferries and trains, which takes a lot of short turns. Tyres are not really made for that, so when the time comes to renew them, we assess very carefully whether that is possible. Our deal with TIP has been set up to ensure that a better performing tyre benefits us all.”
While Belder is a fan of using Big Data to streamline maintenance, he is little impressed with the young science of adapting trailers to make them more aerodynamically efficient. “Because of the varying circumstances in which our trailers operate, this could actually increase costs for us. When drivers work on fixed routes, we can see the advantages of such measures, but this is not the case at P&O Ferrymasters. These systems are vulnerable, and for now, way too expensive.”
A more tangible design tweak, he says, is the use of vertically integrated aluminium stanchions to secure cargo in accordance with German load securing law. “We combine these systems with newly installed, fixed straps to meet the strictest load securing requirements,” he explains. “Again, we’re seeing a direct cost reduction here, too. In the era of horizontal wooden stanchions, we also ‘lost’ a lot of equipment to theft. That problem is solved now.”
With cost reduction high on the agenda, Belder is quick to admit that the UK’s Brexit vote in June came as a shock and his since seen him keep a keen eye on the exchange rate of the British pound. “We haven’t seen many changes apart from the currency rate up until now. There’s been a bit of a change in the transported volume, but not all that much.
He adds, “At P&O Ferrymasters, we don’t fear change. People will always need goods – and looking at our cargo volumes over the past few years, there’s nothing to worry about. It will soon become clear that all parties involved need each other, and we think that volumes will drop a little first, but recover long-term.”
In line with that optimistic approach, Belder is already planning the company’s future growth on the mainland. He says P&O Ferrymasters is currently focusing on developing its footprint in Eastern Europe, all the way down to the Caucasus. “We have a facility in Poland already, so now we especially look at Turkey, which we might be able to reach from various destinations. We have our own hub in the north of Romania already, but we could also reach Turkey from the east, as well from Italy, so there are many options here. We also see potential coming from the newly realised rail connection between China and western Russia, the SilkWay Route. We also expect to win new business in Kazakhstan, which is developing rapidly.”
Again, Belder says the expansion will be backed by data directly extracted from the vehicle to ensure the company is able to build on its long and proud legacy – regardless of the mode of transport.