BBAM2023: The Promise and the Pitfalls of Digitalization

Technology Offers an Easier Life – But We Are Not There Yet, Panelists Say

By Luke King

Breakbulk Americas 2023:
Mike Bhaskaran, group chief operating officer, digital technology, at DP World, struck an upbeat tone ahead of a panel session on digitalization in Houston.

In conversation on the main stage with Breakbulk’s Leslie Meredith, on Unlocking Commercial Opportunities Through Digitalization, Bhaskaran said: “I have a very positive outlook for 2024 – we see new markets, new opportunities across the board. We are particularly excited about Africa, as well as the GCC.”

The DP World executive’s comments preceded a Progress in the Digitalization of Breakbulk: Expectation vs Reality session, moderated by Bill Keyes, director of logistics at Fluor, and featuring an expert panel of forwarders, shippers and tech providers.

Shipper Jessica Bedoya, transportation and logistics regional manager for mining company Newmont, was quick to reveal her own frustrations: “When we work with suppliers in remote local communities, they don’t always have access to sophisticated systems – so how can we solve this visibility problem?”

Susan Evans, vice president of customer solutions at Logiswift, a supply chain software provider, also acknowledged that not everybody in the sector was reaping the benefits of digitalization. “Companies are moving to digital platforms, but many are still communicating by email – still passing POs by email. In some companies, what’s missing is a leader to drive digitalization, so they don’t take advantage of what technology can do for them.”

Payne Fischer, regional head of industrial projects, North America for forwarder Kuehne + Nagel, noted that many end users, such as project managers, held expectations that don’t “fall in line with reality”. He asked: “At what point can we meet Amazon-style tracking expectations? I don’t think we have met that expectation yet.”

The Amazon comparison was not lost on the other members of the panel. Moderator Keyes said: “Amazon is not a fair comparison for this industry – we’ve got some complicated cargo! We as an industry don’t use the same platforms – there are 15 different Amazons out there.”

One talking point was the coronavirus pandemic, particularly the way it impacted those who work in breakbulk. “Covid meant we had to be able to communicate better, had to have systems,” recalled Fischer. “Meetings changed – we were now virtual, so we had to be more flexible. The first step is getting past the fear – a lot of people feel that technology is a job replacement instead of an enhancement that can alleviate miniscule tasks.”

Philip Ovanessians, senior director of Koch Industries’ Logistics Group, KBX, stressed that “the most successful systems are those that integrate with others”, adding that there is a role for AI in the capital projects industry, though it may be some years yet before it can be harnessed for maximum benefit.

Closing out the session, he also revealed a personal anecdote about how digital tools helped him during the Covid pandemic, which disrupted his plans to relocate to South Africa for a client’s project. “I ended up working remotely from Houston, and I worked from 11pm to 10am for two-and-a-half-years. That’s something I never thought I could do – my thinking changed.”

Watch our post-panel interview with Philip Ovanessians: