Belgium region of Wallonia is hotbed of logistics innovation and direction
By Karen E. Thuermer, AJOT
There's a battle going on in Northern Europe between certain locations to become Europe's premier logistics location. Vying for the position is the Netherlands, Nord Pas de Calais (Northern France), and Belgium's two regions of Flanders and Wallonia.
This AJOT reporter has toured all of these locations in depth, and most recently, Wallonia, in mid November.
With a height difference of 240 feet between the upstream and downstream reaches, the Strepy-Thieu boat lift in Le Roeulx, Hainaut, Wallonia, is the tallest boat lift in the world, and will remain so until the Three Gorges dam boat lift in China is completed. (Photo by Karen E. Thuermer)
While Wallonia often goes unmentioned in North America when speaking about logistics in Europe (for those who do not know it, it’s the French-speaking region of Belgium), the Wallonia Export and Investment Agency (AWEX) maintains that the region will become one of Europe’s most attractive logistics hubs in 2020. This claim is reinforced by a recent study by commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, which places Belgium, and specifically Wallonia, at the top of its list.
Belgium, itself, fared well in the World Bank’s 2012 Logistics Performance Index, where it ranks seventh.
Helping Wallonia is the fact it sits in the middle of what is termed the “blue banana” – a phrase coined by Frenchman Roger Brunet in 1989 to describe the economic backbone of the European Union. The term was inspired by satellite pictures showing a glowing blue banana-shaped conglomeration from London to Italy via Belgium, Frankfurt, Munich and Paris.
Over 56 million consumers within a 155-mile radius are accessible from Wallonia. Over 60 percent of Europe’s purchasing power is within 310-mile radius.
But the region is taking concerted efforts to achieve its place among European logistics offerings. AWEX officials contend that their region offers multiple advantages.
With the exception of landlocked Wallonia, all of the mentioned locations offer a valuable asset: a major seaport. Lacking this asset, Wallonia’s claim is that its Liege Port Authority offers inland port access that is ranked No. 1 for Belgium and No. 3 for Europe. In fact, the Liege Port Authority, which manages 32 ports located along the Meuse River and the Albert Canal in Liege Province, has direct links with major European seaports of Northwest Europe.
Antwerp is 14 navigation hours from Liege’s inland ports; Rotterdam, 24 hours; Dunkirk, 48 hours, and Zeebrugge, 24 hours.
The land mass of the region’s port areas stretches across much of Wallonia.
In a presentation by the Liege Port Authority, Helene Thiebaut, spokesperson, pointed out that authority’s 32 ports encompass 914 acres, with the largest being Monsin – a 247-acre port in the municipality of Liege.
Much of the traffic is via barge. Top commodities are building materials (40 percent); oil (20 percent), and coal (16 percent).
A benefit for some of these commodities, such as paper, is the Port Authority’s covered trimodal dock, a facility rare in Europe, It allows for the handling of materials in any weather conditions. In addition, the Port Authority operates the Strépy-Thieu boat lift, which lies on a branch of the Canal du Centre in the municipality of Le Roeulx, Hainaut. With a height difference of 240 feet between the upstream and downstream reaches, it is the tallest boat lift in the world.
Over the last five to six years the Leige Port Authority has seen an uptick in containers business via short-sea shipping that offers direct shipment to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Russia. In 2011, the container business at the Liege Port Authority weighed in at 30,000 TEUs.
“Containers represent only 2 percent of the commerce at the Port Authority, however,” Thiebaut revealed.
Among the top shippers shipping via container are Nike and SPA (bottled water).
“We are also seeing some business in motor engines,” she added.
Container traffic is via two container terminals at Renory and Monsin, which provide container shuttle services to the ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Zeebrugge in addition to offering a series of container handling and transport-related activities: packing/unpacking, storage, repair, cleaning, fumigation, washing, maintenance, and customer services.
“Our objective is to increase the container traffic business,” Thiebaut added.
To do this, the Liege Port Authority is developing its “Liege Trilogiport” multimodal platform. To be located along the Albert Canal in Hermalle-sous-Argenteau, the future multimodal platform is set to become a fully-fledged “logistical village” in the heart of Europe.
“We want it to be operational by mid-2015,” Thiebaut said.
The project is a $207-million public-private partnership and has the potential of handling 200,000 TEUS per year.
The Liege Trilogiport will encompass a 37 acre container terminal, to be operated by Europorst and Dubai Ports World; a 103-acre logistical area to be operated by Deutsche Lagerhaus Trilogiport and Warehouses De Pauw; 54 acres of port land with direct access to the Albert Canal; a 2-acre tertiary services area; and a 61-acre environmental integration area.
“The goal is to create a network strategy in collaboration with other ports,” said Thiebaut.
Already the Liege Port Authority works in close cooperation with the Port of Antwerp on various cross technologies and communications schemes, thanks to a Memorandum of Understanding signed in September 2011.
“In February 2012, we signed a letter of intent with the Port of Rotterdam to create new traffic,” Thiebaut added. “This is significant given Rottedam’s Maasvlakte 2 expansion. Liege will benefit from this.”
Multi Transport Advantages
Wallonia offers additional assets: a good road and rail network and airport facilities at Liege – all, for the most part, uncongested unlike its competition. In fact, Liege Airport, which operates 24/7, ranks seventh in Europe for air cargo largely because of TNT Express, which uses the location as its hub; and Southern Air and Kalittla , U.S. carriers that primarily make fuel stops there for flights between the United States and Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other air carriers using the airport include CAL Air Cargo and El Al, which maintains hub status there, and Ethiopian Airlines. FedEx also calls on Liege Airport. Recently, the carrier handled a shipment of 500 horses via Liege.
Most noteworthy, Liege Airport is the first European airport to have built its development strategy around full cargo and secondarily on passenger charters and low-cost scheduled flights.
The future of TNT Express in Liege is critical for the area, however, given its pending takeover by UPS that is slated to close this year. TNT Express executives underlined that it did not expect the airlines’ ownership transfer to impact activities at the group’s Liege hub for at least a year, following completion of the proposed UPS-TNT Express merger. For their part, UPS officials said they have long term plans for the hub, which, if true, would be good news for Liege. TNT Express is a large employer for the Liege area.
Christian Delcourt, spokesman for Liege Airport, expressed to this AJOT reporter concern for lost jobs.
“UPS is a big company,” he said. “We are talking with European Community (EC) and UPS representatives to show them the assets of Liege.” He believes Liege has a 50-50 chance in retaining TNT Express’s business, but adds that UPS is looking toward cost cutting measures and consolidation.
“But Liege represents a little fragment of their business,” he added.
Meanwhile, Delcourt described how Liege Airport could benefit from the its location on the edge of a motorway node that encompasses seven European motorways directly connecting it to France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. In addition, numerous available industrial sites are available for logistics and distribution operations in the airport area.
In just a few years, several new well-equipped multimodal platforms have also been developed in all corners of Wallonia that enable transfer of cargo from one mode to another. These new terminals complement those platforms that are already operational in bulk and container transport, but also add their own specific characteristic. AWEX officials regard them as the lungs of quadrimodal Wallonia.
The airport benefits from a direct connection to the Paris-Brussels-Cologne railway line via an equipped multi-modal platform, and is ready to welcome the European Freight TGV line introduced by Euro-Carex as soon as it is commissioned.
The railway station dedicated to the freight TGV will be situated on the edge of the airport runways and will have two tracks, with one situated in the airport area and the other in the "landside" area. This will allow the Liege Rail Port to operate simultaneously in fully secure and non-secure mode outside the airport area.
“The high speed rail freight network could link with Lyon, Paris, Frankfurt, London and Amsterdam by 2017,” Delcourt said. “All have the TGV.”
He admitted that cultural, financial and technological differences between the countries may cause some impediments to the project, however. “But the European Community sees this is an interesting project,” he said. “We have a lot of room to expand, and are multimodal with excellent rail and road connections.”
Meanwhile, efforts are being made to further Wallonia’s logistics links with the biotechnology/pharma industry.
Wallonia is already home to huge distribution sites operated for or by Baxter Healthcare, Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, Medtronics, and others. Janssen Pharmaceutica recently expanded its presence in Wallonia with the opening of a new European center dedicated to the distribution of pharmaceutical products.
That distribution center, part of the Johnson & Johnson distribution network, is a major hub for the distribution of Janssen medicines to patients throughout Europe and other Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries worldwide. The 753,000 square foot site of the distribution center is expected to process 385,000 orders annually, equivalent to 160 million pharmaceutical packages of medication. The company also hopes the new European DC will help to reduce and possibly eliminate some of the logistical burdens and administrative costs that hospitals are faced with today.
“We are using logistics as a facilitator to attracting biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to Wallonia,” stated Hughes Van Espen, project manager of Brussels-based Biolog Europe.
Wallonia particularly benefits due to the fact it fosters the highest level of clinical trials in Europe. Consequently, Van Espen revealed that he is working hard to encourage pharma and biotech firms use of Liege Airport for its shipping needs.
“We are working to identify links in logistics whereby pharma and biotech firms share data to consolidate freight for better air cargo prices and shipments,” he said. “We can offer quick loading and unloading, particularly since night flights are allowed here. We want to see which airlines will take orders and who will coordinate the shipments.”
According to Van Espen, Baxter and Pfizer are really pushing for this option.
He also stressed how Frankfurt Airport no longer accepts night flights and Cologne, hub to UPS, has no extra capacity to grow its freight business.
“Chances are Cologne will align with Frankfurt in banning night flights,” he added.
A number of logistics operators have found their home in Wallonia. Among them is Allen, Texas-headquartered PFS Web, a company that was first focused on logistics, but now includes e-commerce.
From its operations in Liege, PFS Web has added end-to-end e-commerce solutions for shipments all over Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA).
“We have found Belgium offers the best place for a centralized warehouse and solution,” stated Anabelle Kinet, PFS Web sales and marketing director.
Making its services unique is PFS Web’s inter active marketing schemes that help clients sell products. This includes utilizing the web and mobile devices.
“For example, if a buyer reserves their selection on-line, but prefers to try it on or see it in the shop, we can arrange that,” Kinet explained.
PFS Web uses software available from US-based Shopatron that provides e-commerce solutions to branded manufacturers and retailers of consumer goods products.
“The point is a store doesn’t want to have big stock,” she added. “Instead they are seeking the right stock at the right place. We are in the business of building solutions for the right connections for replenishments or situations where a retailer wants to eliminate stock.”
In addition, the company offers interactive marketing whereby it makes sure a company has effective traffic on its website.
“We analyze traffic and build building solutions with them,’ Kinet explained.
PFS Web can also handle the value added tax (VAT) for clients and manage fraud lists.
“Essentially, we are the brand behind the brand.”
A key factor for Wallonia today is its Green Marshall 2 Plan, the region’s overall economic development plan for stimulating the Walloon economy. Substantial budgets have been earmarked under this plan to support several innovative projects.
“This project combines the dynamism of private enterprises with the expertise of research centers and universities, to bring about patentable technologies and high level training courses,” wrote Jean-Marc Nizet, President of the Board, Logistics in Wallonia in the brochure “Expert Logistics Files.”
Forem offers one example. Forem is charged with training individuals for tomorrow’s careers in logistics in several emerging professions: logistics engineering, sustainable innovative projects, logistics analysis, and process performance.
Logistics in Wallonia has also approved a program entitled Executive Master in International Supply Chain Management.
A host of other programs geared toward training, software support systems such as voice-insight (VOL) technology, translogistics, traceability and technology for the foodstuffs industry, the development of technology to fight again counterfeiting, and Greenrail are also available.
The total package shows how Wallonia is working toward being the innovative and futuristic logistics hub of Europe.