Trains are poised to be the next big thing in sustainability. Belgium startup Ovinto fills the industry’s technology void to make rail cargo sexy again.
Egypt, 2006: A freight train crossing the country’s Western Desert never arrives at its destination, a port on the Red Sea. Rumors circulate that thieves stole more than 93 miles of tracks and the vehicle, unable to move, was left stranded somewhere in the Kharga oasis region. Investigators have no communication with the driver and the train is quickly forgotten, lost in the desert’s shifting sands for eight years.
By the time Egyptian authorities announce that they have spotted the missing train and a plan to recover it, the rail industry was experiencing increasing pressure for massive transformations.
“Everything in rail cargo is still being handled like 100 years ago — by manual actions, no integration, and minimal monitoring,” says Belgian innovator Frederick Ronse. “When we talk about supply chain logistics, everything is completely connected and automated today: road, air and maritime transport. Everything except for trains!”
Ronse never considered himself a train fanatic and never thought his life’s work would be defined by disrupting an entire industry. But he knew it was time to act when he realized that some of these challenges could be easily addressed with a little help from technology. “Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to optimize a Henry Ford factory, but in 2019,” he says with a smile.
The Case for Train Transportation
Temperatures are rising, roads are overcrowded, and resources are becoming increasingly strained. But trains, which first made their appearance in the 19th century, may be just the answer to some of these 21st century pains. Trains are arguably the greenest and most sustainable form of transportation, burning less fuel per ton-mile than other vehicles. Ronse explains that if we were able to put more cargo on rail, we’d immediately — and drastically — lower the amount of trucks on our roads, easing traffic congestion and lowering carbon emissions.
As sustainable as it may be, many moving pieces need to fit together seamlessly for trains to make business sense. Rail logistics today is still riddled with blind spots that can cost companies billions of dollars annually. Planes, trucks, and ships all rely on sensors and automation for tracking and monitoring. On the other hand, rail transport frequently relies on human action and analog processes. Critical information often comes in too late, filled with errors and quality issues.
Benjamin Twisk from INEOS Oxide says that whenever a train leaves a production plant, they know for a fact it has left. “However,” he says, “we don’t know when it’s going to arrive, and today we receive quite a lot of complaints that the train hasn’t arrived on time.”
Making Rail Cargo Sexy Again
According to consulting firm McKinsey, advanced analytics in the rail industry can quickly reduce maintenance costs by 15 percent, adding up to global savings of more than €7.5 billion per year. Answering the call for automation, Ronse founded Ovinto in 2010 with the self-proclaimed goal “to make rail cargo sexy again.”
Ovinto is a Big Data, predictive analytics platform that integrates the Internet of Things (IoT) and telematics capabilities into a company’s business management software. That translates into a rail operator being able to monitor the exact position of a wagon across the globe, at any time, even if the train has no power or Internet reception — like in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Developed together with the European Space Agency, the technology uses satellite connectivity instead of less reliable communication methods like GSM or GPRS, working as a bridge between logistics track and trace systems and an organization’s back office.
Companies using the solution can also predict maintenance needs, optimize routes depending on weather and idle time, and monitor the internal temperature and pressure inside a wagon in real time. This can be particularly helpful when transporting hazardous materials such as explosive chemicals. Ronse explains that automating the rail industry is not only about saving dollars; by making trains safer, accidents can be avoided and lives can be saved.
The Engine Under the Hood
SAP is one of Ovinto’s key partners, helping the startup to process massive amounts of data in real time and infuse machine learning capabilities into the code. “If we’re tracking millions of wagons across the world and enriching the data for predictive analytics, we need power. I mean real data power,” says Ronse. “With SAP HANA, we were suddenly able to do incredible calculations that we just couldn’t process before to get answers to questions we haven’t even imagined. SAP HANA really is the power, it’s the engine under the hood.”
By addressing a market need that was ignored for a long time, Ronse expects to make it easier for companies to see the advantages of trains over the long run. And to help ensure flexibility, Ovinto is fully integrated and deployed on SAP Cloud Platform, the backbone of the Intelligent Enterprise.
According to the European Commission’s Shift2Rail initiative, a four percent increase in rail shipping would result in a 10 percent reduction in road cargo, which is good news for the environment and cities plagued by massive traffic jams.
“We’ll only get more and more people on the planet, so we need to think in more efficient ways,” Ronse says. “Trains may not be the answer to all of our 21st century challenges, but this is a great example of how technology can help us get on the right track.”