“We continue to innovate on many fronts, in many countries,” says Kevin Drinkwater, CIO at Mainfreight.
The company’s technology-enabled projects range from Shipment Centre, the global online booking system for air and ocean freight in Asia, to a KPI Reporting system for its European operations.
The latter saved the company 200 hours per month that were needed to send Excel reports, by using cloud technologies to feed the information from their source systems Trex and Mainmove, into the data warehouse. The customers get real-time information on performance of the services provided by Mainfreight.
Close to home, Drinkwater’s team launched one of the company’s largest projects, Mainstreet, which resulted in having operations in New Zealand, Australia and the United States running on the same transport management system.
Drinkwater explains Mainstreet is the company’s most used and important system. But they had to undertake important modifications before introducing it in Australia.
Despite this and the significantly more complicated rollout, due to multiple time zones and the geographical reach of Australia, Mainstreet went live in April 2018 at over 30 branches for 800 users in Australia.
“In fact it went so well we thought the telephone lines to the helpdesk must have failed,” he says.
“The completion of this has meant we can now have a very modern platform from which we can introduce even more innovation and this has already begun.”
Drinkwater, however, says some of their smaller projects can have significant impact on a crucial area of the business – ensuring health and safety of both their team, customers and responding emergency teams.
For instance, if a truck carrying hazardous goods were to meet an accident, the responding emergency personnel need to have information on the materials that it was carrying.
Traditionally this information has been held in a pack in the driver’s door. However, if the truck is lying on its side, the document pack is most likely to be inaccessible, or it may be too dangerous to retrieve.
“An incident of this type pushed me into looking for a better way as I was concerned the safety of emergency service personnel was being compromised with this traditional method of conveying key information,” says Drinkwater.
One option they considered was to put the plans and manifests of the trucks in PDF format, in the cloud. But discussions with target users said the emergency personnel would have difficulty using PDF views.
Thus, working with an animation company, his team produced a prototype app that will enable emergency personnel to input a vehicle or registration number and download interactive displays to show the vehicle’s actual configuration. This visualisation, using industry standard symbology makes the technology much more usable for the emergency personnel.
They can also see a full PDF listing of the hazardous goods that were loaded, and other key documents related to the load such as the manifest and full documentation on the dangerous goods.
“So in essence, we have digitised all the paper documentation into PDFs and overlaid that with a graphical interface that emergency personnel can instantly understand in the cab of the truck on the way to the incident.
The system, he says, will run on a phone, tablet or PC devices, pulling data from the cloud.
In another related project, Mainfreight uses the Internet of Things (IoT) asset tracking service from Spark to monitor the segregation bins used to transport hazardous goods.
Before this, locating these assets was a manual process. The team undertook stock takes around their depots, counting bins and sending reports back to the office. By the time this happened the data was already out of date.
Drinkwater says now, their teams see GPS locations of bins mapped to one dashboard and are alerted in real-time when something is where it shouldn’t be or has been stationary for too long.
“In normal circumstances, our IT spend is driven by two fundamentals – to increase revenue and/or decrease cost,” he says.
“Our innovation is driven by the opportunities that the business presents to us or we find in visiting our global businesses regularly.”
“For innovation we look for two key factors,” he says. “What are the pain points within Mainfreight’s, or our customers’ businesses, and/or opportunities to create a higher level of intelligence to enable smarter decision making?”
In the case of the transport of hazardous goods, the project was entirely driven by the need for the safety of emergency responders.
The key to this application is that it has the ability to save lives and prevent injuries, he says.
It will also improve the time it takes to deal with an incident, whether on the rail or road, thereby reducing the inconvenience of other travellers.
He says Mainfreight is investigating and trialling how other disruptive technologies can provide value to the business.
“We are part of the project with Maersk to utilise blockchain for the sharing of shipping documents and information to multiple parties throughout the complete supply chain,” he says.
He says Mainfreight has been using wearable devices to enable voice for picking, inventory counting and other warehouse functions since 2002. “We continue to expand the utilisation of this technology.”
The company also uses drones to record progress with many of their building projects around the world.
At the end of this financial year, the company will have spent NZ$105 million on building projects, he says.
The footage of the final building, internal and external, is added to their global reach video which uses Animation Research technology to map their 257 branches worldwide and interlacing the drone footage for significant branches.
Open for innovation
Drinkwater sits in the executive team’s open plan office in Auckland with the CEO, global CFO, New Zealand country manager and the general managers of the company’s three New Zealand business divisions.
“This allows instant knowledge and discussions as to what the businesses are currently working on and dealing with,” he says.
“Similarly, these managers all get the opportunity to discuss any IT matters with me and vice versa.”
Drinkwater travels to their other regions, spending one to two weeks per visit. “We help these regions with their projects but also to gather knowledge of the non-NZ businesses,” he says.
“The above environment enables me to voice various new concepts and opportunities with the key people in the business as well as those from the warehouse floor all the way up.”
He applies this approach to his team.
The first and most important aspect of inspiring our teams is to have them understand the Mainfreight culture, he says.
New IT team members attend a week-long training, where they join the operational team members to understand the beginnings of Mainfreight and how that created the core of everything the company believes in, he says.
At the end of this course, they also get to learn the practical aspects of the business and will come away with a forklift driving licence.
After this course, Drinkwater says many of the IT team members then start in the business to gain a fuller operational understanding before they transfer into an IT role.
“If they start in IT, we arrange for them to work in the business, in an operational role, for two to three days a week, for at least six months,” he explains.
Drinkwater recruits tertiary students to work as interns. They work during holidays and are often offered a graduate role, he says.
He always encourages the IT team to also work in other parts of the business where there is an opportunity they are interested in.
Many have made this move and become very successful managers of a branch or higher level. One such person, he says, is now general manager of their Australian logistics business.
Drinkwater notes that globally, 33 per cent of Mainfreight’s IT team are females.
The number of females in the New Zealand IT team has risen to 29 per cent and will continue to rise as we find more females willing to join the logistics industry, says Drinkwater.
More than half of their local team are non-European, predominantly of Maori, Pacific Islanders and Indian descent.
“We give everyone an equal chance if they have the skillset,” he explains.
He says a number of their Pasifika team members started on the floor and showed an aptitude for IT.
“We encourage them to spend some time with us looking at what we do and to apply for vacancies when they occur,” he says.
And, whether one is working with local or overseas teams, Drinkwater shares one thing that has always worked for him: communication.
“Always talk to the team in the operations – they know better than anyone else what is going on and what needs to change as they have the practical knowledge,” he says. “This often presents excellent opportunities for innovation or training.”
“As a result, I constantly push our IT team members to spend time with people in the business, especially those that complain.
“There are only two reasons why people complain – either the system needs to be improved or they need to be trained better.”