With its location in the heart of Europe, the Netherlands is the center of distribution and logistics for the Continent. The Dutch have over 400 years of logistics experience behind them. Since the days of the Dutch East India Co., which was founded in 1602, the Netherlands has made international trade an art form.
The Netherlands has the infrastructure to match the expertise. The country's system of ports and canals, for instance, provides fast reach to most major European markets.
The World Economic Forum in 2013 rated the Dutch infrastructure among the best in the world: first in the world for maritime, fourth for air, and 11th for rail. That kind of infrastructure is key to reaching large population centers quickly (500 million people live within a 24-hour drive of Rotterdam, the country's main logistics entry point). It's no surprise that half of Europe's distribution center operations are located in Holland.
The Dutch government recognizes the vital economic role played by trade and logistics—the logistics sector accounts for approximately 9 percent of the nation's jobs—and has worked hard to position the country as a gateway for trade. Customs clearance, for example, is among the most streamlined in Europe. Supply chain management is recognized by the government as one of a handful of significant industries that must be nurtured. Coalitions of government, industry, and university representatives are working on initiatives to expand trade, ease restrictions, and promote innovation.BELLY UP
As the main gateway to Europe, the Netherlands handles imports from all over the world, but in particular, from Asia and North America. Most of these goods arrive by sea or air. In fact, one-third of all imports into Europe pass through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport or the Port of Rotterdam.
Schiphol is one of Europe's largest and busiest aircargo hubs. Nearly 80 percent of the airport's available capacity is in the form of lower-deck "belly space" in passenger planes. As with most air freight, these shipments consist mainly of perishables or high-value items. For example, Schiphol handles more shipments of cut flowers than any other airport in the world. Freight forwarders and third-party logistics service providers (3PLs) have set up shop in 17 business parks near the airport, providing logistics services to support the food, flower, aerospace, fashion, and life sciences markets.
Most products arriving at the airport pass through a streamlined customs process that requires only one stop. The majority of the cleared freight then leaves Schiphol on trucks, although some of it is offloaded to rail and canal barges for transport to distant destinations.
Outbound freight is handled equally quickly as well as securely. About 80 percent of security checks for outbound freight are performed remotely, with local shippers scanning their freight at their own facilities using devices that produce two-sided X-rays of outgoing containers. For companies that don't have their own scanning equipment, the airport has a program to bring mobile scanning vans to their sites. Nuclear detection vans are also employed at the airport to scan outgoing cargo.MAIN PORT OF CALL
The Port of Rotterdam is the largest seaport in Europe and the ninth largest in the world. It alone accounts for 4 percent of the Dutch gross domestic product (GDP). The port's customs area clears more than 7 million containers each year.
With 75 feet of draft, the Port of Rotterdam can easily handle any ship currently on the water. It offers 80 terminals for handling bulk, breakbulk, containerized, liquid, and roll-on/roll-off freight. Last year, it processed 466 million tons of freight, 29 percent of those containerized. Investment in the port continues each year, with 190 million euros (approximately US$203 million) invested in infrastructure this past year alone.
Strategically located in the heart of Western Europe, the Port of Rotterdam offers easy access to transportation and fast reach to major markets. It is here that most intermodal operations begin. Some 53 percent of received goods depart by truck. Another 36 percent are loaded onto barges at adjacent docks, where 200 barge connections take products farther into the Netherlands as well as to more distant markets in Germany, France, and Switzerland. Some 11 percent move by rail via 250 weekly rail connections, mainly to destinations in Germany.
Some containers are transferred from giant vessels to smaller feeder ships that serve other ports in Europe, including ports in Ireland, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as ports along the Mediterranean.
New automated systems in the Port of Rotterdam's terminals expedite processing and reduce the time a container spends in the port area. The European Container Terminal (ECT) at the port is one of the busiest, with 54 cranes handling about 30 ships each week and between 80,000 and 100,000 boxes per week. The cranes used to unload containers from vessels are still operated manually, although the terminal is experimenting with having operators control them remotely from an adjacent building.
Once the containers have been deposited on the dock, fully automated cranes take over, gathering up the containers and loading them onto large automated guided vehicles (AGVs). The AGVs transport the containers to stacking areas, where other automated cranes gather the loads and place them in stacks based on their projected mode of transit (feeder ship, canal boat, rail, or truck) and time of departure. About 1.5 percent of containers need to be scanned upon arrival, based on their risk assessment. The AGVs drive these containers through a security scan tunnel before taking them to the stacks.
When the boxes are ready to be loaded onto a truck chassis, the stacking cranes automatically gather the containers from the stack and take them to the truck. The automated process stops just short of placing the box onto the chassis. At that point, a worker in a remote building takes over, directing the process with a joystick.REACHING THE HINTERLANDS
The European Container Terminal also operates an intermodal service to feed containers by barge and rail into more remote areas, or the hinterlands, of Northern Europe, Germany, and Austria. Known as European Gateway Services (EGS), this operation consolidates freight for delivery using a method known as "synchromodal transport," where algorithms determine the optimal way to transport each container based on mode, route, and leadtime.
Many of these containers move by barge on Holland's extensive river and canal system. Waterways connect the Port of Rotterdam to the Meuse River, which also connects to the Rhine to feed points in Germany and beyond. About 7,000 vessels ply the Netherlands' inland shipping lanes, the largest such fleet in Europe. According to the Holland Logistics Library, 79 percent of all containers transported on inland waterways within the European Union (EU) pass through Dutch territory.
Inland ports within the Netherlands receive containers originating in Rotterdam that require further intermodal handoffs. For example, the Trimodal Container Terminal in Venlo acts as an extended gateway for the Port of Rotterdam's ECT terminal, with facilities for transferring boxes from barges or railcars to trucks. Located just a few kilometers from the German border, the city of Venlo has become an important border crossing. Many U.S. and international distributors have set up shop in the area to process fresh foods destined for German markets (see the photo infographic on Fresh Park Venlo in this issue).INNOVATIVE LAST-MILE DELIVERY
Other delivery modes are being deployed in the cities to help ease congestion and pollution. In Amsterdam, couriers use the extensive canal network to ferry packages by water. Bicycles are also common in Amsterdam, and it's not unusual to see couriers out making deliveries on electric bikes towing wagons filled with parcels.
Amsterdam is currently looking to establish plug-in stations around the city for refrigerated trucks. This would enable trucks to use electricity to keep cargo cool during delivery stops, instead of running their diesel engines. Smaller electric and natural-gas trucks are also being deployed in the cities to reduce noise and pollution while deftly navigating narrow streets. When possible, deliveries are made at night to further reduce congestion. Autonomous vehicles are also being looked at as a potential last-mile delivery method, all with the aim of reducing the use of larger trucks.
The Netherlands' history of trade- and transport-related innovation is no accident. The country was created out of an area once occupied by the North Sea, and it has little in the way of natural resources other than water. To survive, and ultimately flourish, it needed an avenue by which the world could efficiently move its commerce. If history, and the present, is any guide, it has certainly met the test.
A version of this article appears in our January 2017 print edition under the title "Europe goes Dutch."