Freight management in the COVID-19 era: fast response and even faster communication

Following on from the various ‘frontline reports’ that have been provided on a daily basis since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we’re now interviewing our freight managers, who are continuously working to keep supply chains running in these challenging times. For this interview, we spoke to Robert Mulders, one of the freight managers at IDS. He relieves the burden on customers in the chemical sector by arranging transport capacity. Every day, he and his colleagues work to ensure that loading and unloading can take place as planned, that any problems are resolved and that new routes are made available.

 

What changes have you noticed due to the coronavirus crisis?

“For us as a company, a lot has changed in the past few weeks. Right now there are only four or five people actually in the office; everyone else is working from home. That works fine – we call and Skype a lot. The biggest challenge for us is to respond quickly in the case of an urgent shipment or problem, because that has become a bit more complicated. We need to find out which border crossings are likely to experience delays, and which companies are still operating and which have shut down. After all, we can ship goods, but there also needs to be somebody to receive them. And that can be a problem sometimes, because the coronavirus crisis means that a lot of employees are off sick at the delivery addresses, or in some cases the recipient locations are closed by order of the government. Freight is still allowed through despite restrictions on cross-border movement, but extra checks regularly lead to substantial queues that can last hours and sometimes even days! That was very disruptive at first, but the situation is beginning to normalize again now.”

Robert continues: “Communication remains challenging, though, because drivers are no longer allowed access everywhere, for example, which means longer delays. We monitor everything closely and take swift action if anything looks like it might go wrong. In terms of our customers, for some of them it’s still business as usual whereas the crisis is really causing problems for others. That differs greatly per industry. In some cases panic-buying has played a role, and other sectors are facing a sizeable reduction in transport capacity. For April we’re already seeing a decline in volumes among a number of our customers but, once again, there are huge variations between product groups.”

Looking to the future, what do you expect? How will the ‘Great Lockdown’ change the face of the logistics sector?

“It’s difficult to make any predictions about the next four to eight weeks. I personally think that things will be quieter for the next few weeks, and then let’s hope that it will slowly start to pick up again after that. Parts of China are gradually starting to resume operations, and Austria plans to ease the restrictions. Even Spain has eased some restrictions now. But it will still take some time before the big factories are up and running again and the retail sector regains its momentum.”

Plus there is another challenge, according to Robert: “How many people already have immunity? And how long will it take until a vaccine is available for everyone? I think we’ll continue to feel the effects of this for a long time. The ‘1.5 metre economy’ could well become the new normal, and that will pose a considerable challenge for a lot of businesses. In my opinion, one lasting change will result from many companies in Europe now realizing just how vulnerable their supply chain is as soon as a country like China comes to a standstill. They will conclude that it makes more sense to source some products closer to home. There were already some initial signs of that ‘redundancy’ trend. Now, I really do expect companies to buy more goods within Europe itself or to take a different view of inventory levels.”