You might not expect this, but the past two years have been very good for tires. Van den Ban sold almost half a million tires more last year during COVID.
It's quite impressive when you compare Van den Ban’s supply chain seven years ago with where we currently stand with automation. Getting to this point was not simple, though. When I started in 2014, we had so many spreadsheets for different divisions and uses. It was slowing things down, and it was clear that it was time to figure out a way to automate our systems.
A big part of what helped us get to our current level of success is the investment we made in our warehouse over the past 10-15 years. At this point, we have a fully automated warehouse operation that's quite unique. You can compare it to the airports but instead of a suitcase going on the conveyor belt, it's a tire. The only points where people handle the tires is when a container is unloaded at inbound or when the container or trailer is loaded for outbound. It’s really something to see. Our central warehouse encompasses more than 1.4 million tires, from about 35 different brands—an enormous availability for our European customers.
Back in 2014, the warehouse automation was underway, but our back office was still held together by manual processes. Let me put it this way: we had 10 to 15 different spreadsheets with mostly the same information: the same container numbers, the same vessel numbers — you name it. I calculated how many times in one day the identical container number was entered into one of those spreadsheets — forty-five times on a daily basis!
When you multiply that by 10,000 containers a year from multiple carriers, well, you can see the workloads we had. Every ETA change was done manually; we’d check carrier websites and if the ETA changed, we’d change all the spreadsheets. You can imagine, one typo and we were set up for trouble.
That has changed, by the way. But it wasn’t easy. When I first put a request into our I.T. department, asking for automation support, they looked at me and said, "everything is working fine, why change what isn’t broken?" It took me almost a year to convince them but we agreed to support a new digital mandate to improve our supply chain.
Today one of the key technologies we use is TradeLens. We have all our shipments with key carriers such as Maersk, MSC, CMA - you name it - connected to the TradeLens Platform. I believe it’s ninety-five percent of all our import shipments. So instead of having connections with all those carriers separately, we now have one platform which provides us much of the data we require, directly from the source.
We’ve also connected our document management software with TradeLens and all the data is coming in, flowing into that system automatically 24/7.
During my first years here, we would receive a copy of a bill of lading from the supplier with all the container numbers, vessel name and bill of lading number on it, and then type all that data into the spreadsheets. Nowadays, from the moment a supplier arranges a booking, their booking number with the ETA, vessel name and discharge terminal is automatically uploaded into our system. When an ETA changes, the ETA in our system changes automatically because of the connection to TradeLens.
The fun part is that at Van den Ban, we now have the opportunity to plan well in advance of shipments arriving. In 2014, we only had a forecast of 14 days. With the current process and the link to TradeLens, we have a forecast of almost three months regarding bookings and inbound containers.
The visibility helps us solve some of our customers’ key logistics challenges, like having optimal supplies of winter and all-season tires during peak demand.
The benefits of automation and visibility extend to our customs processes as well. Using data from TradeLens and working with a services team from IBM, we were able to build a declaration adapter that we’ve configured to work with our biggest supplier from China. Before, every container number was entered manually. It took us at least an hour for one shipment — each with about ten containers — to be manually entered it into our customs system. Now, with our custom adaptor, we upload the invoice into TradeLens and one or two days later, the import declaration is uploaded into our customs system with all the data in that declaration ready to submit to the appropriate customs office.
It's also made it quite easy for customs to review. As a result, we now know approximately twenty-five days before discharge in Rotterdam that our cargo will be released by Dutch Customs.
It's quite impressive that nearly 4-weeks before discharge, customs can execute a proper risk assessment. It’s a testament to the use of technology and collaboration occurring across our world’s supply chain these days. To be honest, if we didn't start the automation, and especially the customs declaration work, I think we would have been overwhelmed with all the manual administration required to operate at this size.
When you first start automation, it costs money, of course, but as you make progress you begin to see the investment pay off. I feel like we’re only just beginning to see the benefits of TradeLens. We’re just starting to leverage the data from the platform to our benefit. How we’re automating our customs declarations is an example of this but we’re looking forward to doing much more in the months ahead.