With its bold mission of ensuring that the Netherlands has the world’s best logistics sector by 2020, TKI Dinalog – known more descriptively as The Dutch Institute for Advanced Logistics – is responsible for sourcing government funding and allocating this to logistics research projects, which it sets up and oversees. In partnership with government research agencies NWO and TNO, its aim is to improve the cooperation between industry, knowledge institutions and government, with an emphasis on innovation and on the sharing of knowledge, experience and results.
The TKI Dinalog structure was finalised in 2016, having evolved from the Technologisch Topinstituut (TTI) and the Top Consortium for Knowledge and Innovation (TKI). The TKI had been created in 2011 to facilitate the national research agenda of the Top Sector Logistics, one of nine so-called top sectors identified by the government as areas of focused excellence for the Netherlands. Although it has changed form since its original inception in 2009, TKI Dinalog has maintained its focus throughout on stimulating innovation in logistics.
Albert Veenstra, Director of TKI Dinalog since 2015, is an enthusiastic researcher, whose academic and commercial background stretches across a wide range of logistics-related disciplines. He received his PhD from Erasmus University Rotterdam in 1999, with a dissertation titled “Quantitative Analysis of Shipping Markets”, an area of study which has proven to be an ideal preparation for his current role.
“The maritime world is a very global one, and it automatically ushers you into the sphere of global logistics, international trade and customs. It also helps provide the framework for looking at the role of the Netherlands as a world-trading hub and logistics centre – which happens to be the core focus of our work at the Institute”.
“Filling the research agenda and deciding where to place the emphasis, is a really interesting part of the job,” he says, explaining that the overriding theme of the numerous research projects which he and his team oversee, is to push the boundaries of logistics, to develop new concepts and to integrate different areas of expertise and technology.
Overseeing national logistics research from Breda
Veenstra notes the symbolic relevance of the location of the TKI Dinalog offices in Breda, which is also home to a number of logistics companies and regional distribution centres: “We are on the Rotterdam-Venlo corridor, which is the backbone of the logistics sector in the Netherlands. Most of the modern warehouses, advanced planning systems and trucking companies are based on this corridor”. It is also midway along the route between Rotterdam and Antwerp, another major corridor, and close to many of the inland waterway terminals in the Netherlands.
The users of these national and regional corridors represent some of the key stakeholders to whom Veenstra and his colleagues communicate their research findings, which are themed around roadmaps including the planned development of an open ICT infrastructure for the logistics sector, the promotion of integrated multimodal transport, the facilitation of freight bundling through cross-chain collaboration centres, and building human capital in the sector through education and training.
TKI Dinalog helps its various research consortia to disseminate and validate their findings in practice; but, state aid guidelines strictly limit the role of TKI Dinalog in implementing findings. “We help to create the knowledge and proof of concepts, and stimulate parties in the project to pick these up and market them in the industry, but we cannot really support them further in helping individual companies to bring tools or concepts to market”.
Instead, the Programme Secretariat for Top Sector Logistics is tasked with promoting the implementation and acceptance of new knowledge and tools. “We work very closely with them to fill our innovation pipeline from fundamental research, all the way to practical implementation”.
An example of research overseen by TKI Dinalog is a recently completed study on the development of sustainable logistics for inner-city residential and utilities construction, through the use of cross-chain collaboration centres, referred to as 4C control towers. Based on observations from nine living labs, the study found that by setting up conveniently located hubs, from where multiple inner-city building sites could be serviced with supplies, a significant reduction in project costs, building time, disruptions and construction-related environmental emissions could be achieved.
Commenting on the findings, one of the researchers, TNO’s Jannette de Bes, says “innovations are desperately needed to successfully apply the sustainable building logistics concepts across the entire chain”. Her reference to the importance of change across all points on the value chain touches on a key element of the coordinating role played by TKI Dinalog: Veenstra explains that traditional logistics optimisation is only a “very small part” of the problems being solved. “It is not so much a matter of practical planning, but of trying to get all the parties to work together”.
A research agenda that accommodates complexity
Using the example of package deliveries in the Netherlands, a sector in which about six or seven large service providers are represented, he says there are significant challenges in coordinating the many parties in this scenario, each of which has different requirements. “City governments get involved because they need to come up with a vision before you can do something that has practical consequences. Then, say, national government may step in and insist on harmonisation across cities in the way that the solution is designed. When you really start looking at how to change logistics systems in a country, to truly be ready for the future while adhering to the global climate accord, things quickly become very complicated”.
The Netherlands’ long history of success in logistics is grounded in its expertise at organising global logistics chains, in its knowledge base, its IT systems and its geographic location. “We are a country of choice as a base for many companies, from where they organise their global or European or EMEA logistics”.
“As a nation, we have a very good track record in working together, across disciplines. So, with the knowledge base that we have, we can tackle almost anything that the world throws at us”.
But Veenstra warns against complacency about this top position in world logistics, citing the dwindling Dutch performance in the World Bank Logistics Performance Index – the Netherlands moved from fourth place in 2016 to sixth position this year – and calling instead for a measure of vigilance. “We need to maintain our strong points and ensure that we have people who are well-trained, that our logistics systems are modern and that everyone invests in the right IT”.
He believes that one of the main reasons for the declining performance in the World Bank Index is the role of customs, where the Netherlands faces some particular challenges: the brunt of the logistics problems generated by Brexit will fall on the Netherlands, which is a key trade gateway to the UK, largely via ferry transport. Although there are some good solutions in the works, such as automated monitoring systems to facilitate smooth cross-border flows of goods, the logistics industry doesn’t know yet what the specific problems are that need to be solved. “I have no doubt that we will be able to solve these problems, once we know in 2019 what they are, but in the meantime, there is a great degree of uncertainty”.
Perspective and optimism: The Dutch can tackle almost anything
Veenstra, a father of two, spends one day a week at the Eindhoven University of Technology, where he holds a full professorship for the chair of International Trade Facilitation and Logistics. This provides a healthy balance of perspective, with a more contained, narrower focus compared with the responsibilities of building and monitoring large research consortia and disseminating findings in a way that is worthwhile for the industry.
Looking to future projects at TKI Dinalog, Veenstra says he has every reason to feel optimistic, given the excellent quality of Dutch research. An ambition for the next few years is to establish the organisation firmly as the logistics knowledge provider for the four-fold Mission Agenda which the national government has set for innovation policy. The agenda covers climate change, mobility, life sciences & health, and security – and has strategic technology as a cross-cutting theme. He is already in talks with his counterparts in the other top sectors to develop ideas for relevant research and to foster cross-sector research collaboration.