by Thomas Macaulay

Eddie Stobart CIO John Court on how IoT, blockchain and AI are transforming transport and logistics

Mar 21, 2018
IT LeadershipTransportation and Logistics Industry

Eddie Stobart CIO John Court’s digital transformation of the transportation giant extended from the back office of the business to the inside of its trucks in 2017, when the company overhauled the telematics system used by its vehicles.

Recognised in the 2017 CIO 100, Court said that Internet of Things technologies, sensoring and mobile technologies were reaching enterprise maturity, while he also discussed the impact he expected artificial intelligence and blockchain to have on the logistics, distribution and transportation sector.

“Every one of our over 2,500 vehicles was equipped with technology that needed a significant upgrade,” Court told CIO UK.

“So we refreshed all of that technology and switched it on all at once across the whole fleet in April last year. It was extremely well received by the drivers as well as enabling us to further drive efficiency and offer service insights.”

Features on the new system include driver performance analysis and online safety checks, which the driver can conduct on a custom-designed Android tablet dubbed the “Eddie Stobart DriveTab”.

Each vehicle is now equipped with one of these ruggedised tablets. It provides the driver with journey information and communication back-to-base through messaging and hands-free calls. It also comes with an app installed that lets drivers digitally assess vehicle safety and another that warns them when low bridges are approaching and guides them away from the obstruction.

The technology opens the door to a vast range of granular information from the vehicles and analyses how individual decisions made by the driver, engineers and route planners can affect the business.

The power of data

Eddie Stobart has recently invested heavily in analytics. The company is discovering new insights from the growing number of IoT devices connected to the business that can benefit its operational efficiency and the service it provides to customers.

“There used to be a perception more from outside our industry that supply chain was about sheds and trucks, and that’s certainly part of it, but it’s also a hugely information-intensive industry where great use of technology really can be the difference between success and failure,” Court said.

“If we rolled back the clock five or 10 years, you’d see vehicles were connected to a level. So you’d have reasonable visibility, you would have some mobile workforce, iPads and so on, but what’s happened particularly in that timeframe is that the diversity of items that are now connected has expanded rapidly.”

This means that now Eddie Stobart can monitor forklift trucks that are connected to the internet and refrigeration units with embedded temperature sensors.

The company is also monitoring all aspects of the vehicle and security on site through a video connection.

“There’s a whole range of connected activity that captures a huge volume of data that we’re able now with current analytics toolsets and techniques to assemble and analyse in ways that were either challenging or impossible in years gone by,” Court said.

“Traditionally it used to be about the here and now of what’s occurring, and are all the vehicles performing on track and on schedule, but increasingly we’re looking more deeply into the data at the how and why and what if type analytics.”

This creates a deeper understanding of the how every decision affects the business, from changing the location to refining how the driver’s using it.

Working with vendors

Data also helps evaluate the benefits of taking on a new business and how to best deliver the service provided by any acquisitions, which in 2017 included the e-commerce company iForce.

“One of the reasons that we acquired that business was that its technology was market leading,” Court said. “It was a great platform for further growth and to extend our overall e-commerce offering.”

The company works with a wide range of providers, from vendor giants that provide hardware to smaller suppliers who are market-leaders in their field such as Quintiq, a producer of optimisation software.

“The work we’re doing with them is to look at our overall supply chain network and model it and look at how we can make it even more efficient, by driving further efficiencies into the network,” Court said.

“We have quite a broad spectrum of providers, from the generic IT providers such as IBM and BT, through to specialist niche providers who help us deliver differentiation in the market through technology.”

Transforming the business

Court has also made big changes to Eddie Stobart’s core operational systems. He’s led a complete refresh of its warehouse management technology estate, and back office systems from HR and people-related technologies through to financial systems.

The 48-year-old haulage company wasn’t known for innovation when Court joined in 2014, but it has since become integral to business. Court has helped achieve this by communicating the potential benefits of technology and then providing the evidence.

“You need some early successes in technology just to show that the team are capable of delivering and can add value through the solutions,” he said.

“And it’s asking for a bit of trust and confidence that the investments will benefit the organisation and become an intrinsic part of us as we grow and diversify.

“It’s a combination of factors, and the more success that we’ve enjoyed, the more trust that’s been placed in us as a team.”

IT in IPOs

Eddie Stobart’s enhanced technology estate was a big factor when the company listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2017.

“When we took the business to the market, part of our proposition was the fact that we were improving the business through targeted investments in technology,” Court said.

“We were able to demonstrate to potential investors that we had great technology and also that we had the potential to further improve that technology.”

The company embarked on a series of presentations and forums for investors to understand who they were and how they operate as a business.

Technology was discussed in the majority of those, a reflection of its growing value to a business. Investors have become tech-savvy and expect companies to have a credible technology strategy and investment plan.

“In the vast majority of businesses today, potential investors expect businesses to be investing in their own digital agenda,” Court said.

Future plans

Court’s strategy for the future is focused on transparency, control, detailed insight into operations, simplifying and streamlining of processes, and “keeping the lights on” through the provision of secure, scalable and reliable technologies.

He also has his eye on some emerging technologies. Eddie Stobart is exploring the opportunities in blockchain through discussions with a number of potential partners and customers.

[Also read: CIO UK podcast episode 3 – Blockchain and distributed ledger technology]

Court says that it’s too soon to reveal any concrete plans, but he believes the tech is here to stay. Before it becomes part of the company, he wants to find some solid business cases in the areas that will add most value to the business, and partners he can work with to conduct some trials.

He envisions an even bigger role for AI in Eddie Stobart’s future.

“Our optimisation technologies utilise some AI, and whereas in years gone by there was a lot of hype surrounding AI, we believe it’s actually here now in a usable form and has sufficiently matured to exploit,” he said.

“It forms part of our go-forward strategy that we’re actively pursuing at the moment. It’s an exciting time to be in supply chain.”