Extraordinary times require rapid, innovative responses
11 Jan 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about some of the most significant societal changes and restrictions that modern populations have even seen, but within this, the wheels of economies are still turning, requiring business to respond and adapt.
The universality of this shared experience means that everyone understands the restrictions that are in place, but businesses still need to continue operating and customers still need support.
The very nature of the dry bulk handling and processing markets mean that these sectors are critical; transporting the materials for life’s essentials. So, for port terminal equipment, how has Bruks Siwertell ensured that these continue and that customers get the help they need? Furthermore, has the crisis raised any opportunities for positive change?
Importance of a hand-shake
“We operate in a business where practically all contact and discussions have historically been carried out face-to-face, during physical meetings,” says Axel Dahl, Sales Manager, Bruks Siwertell. “As most of our machines are custom-made, a great deal of time and energy is spent in technical discussions with customers to ensure that a final solution is the most effective for an individual operator’s needs.
“The pandemic changed this almost overnight,” continues Dahl. “Today, they are instead held remotely via internet link, with people joining from either their home or their workplace.
“For customers where we have an established relationship this works fine, even though it is not optimal. However, with new customers, it is a bit more of a challenge as we have not had a chance to establish a relationship and understand the nuances of their operations,” he says.
Bruks Siwertell’s dry bulk handling operations are coordinated from its offices in Bjuv, Sweden, which stands out as a country with a different approach to the pandemic to many. Although restrictions are in place, it has not seen the national lockdowns familiar in others and extremely tight travel restrictions. “We are aware that we are operating a bit differently as a country,” Dahl points out. “Each country has its own travel restrictions, which can make it complicated, but from our point-of-view, we just have to adapt to the situation.
“I think the main challenges to our way-of-business-life is habit: we are used to having physical meetings; we are used to being able to travel at ease. We are in an industry where meetings held through video conferencing is a new concept, where other industries have operated like this for many years. Change can be difficult, but we are transforming.
“In fact, this change was actually easier than we first thought, particularly because what is happening is a common experience; customers and suppliers are of the same opinion, let us make the best of the current situation,” he says.
Restrictions bring rewards
“There are also benefits; schedules are more open, as you can have meetings with different customers from different countries in the same day. Many customers are focusing more on the environment and their return on investment; these are some of our key strengths as a company. Restrictions on flight travel are having a positive environmental impact, and once these have been lifted, some customer meetings can definitely continue to be held via internet links, and some things might never return to the way they were.
“Except for the environmental impact of traveling, however, face-to-face physical meetings offer something that online ones do not. We are social creatures after all, we respond to each other’s presence and build relationships more quickly. A handshake has always been a gesture of trust. I cannot see it losing this importance, but at the moment, it is not worth the risk.
“The pandemic has of course affected and impacted the entire world, and our market is not an exception. Some projects have been affected, whilst others have carried on with little interruption. The way we interact with customers has been completely reshaped.
“Even though we cannot rely on visits and conferences to make new contacts and get our messages out to the industry, I think that this is a good opportunity to take a step back and focus on the core strengths of our business; maximizing the efficiency and minimizing the environmental impact of handling dry bulk. It is our responsibility to help customers find the best solution for their terminals. In times like these, this is more important than ever,” concludes Dahl.
Projects managed remotely
Connecting with operators and finalizing equipment and terminal designs presents a specific set of challenges during these times, but surveying, building and delivering equipment reveals a whole new array of considerations.
When asked: what has been the biggest change in how you are able to deliver and commission an unloader installation during the pandemic? Per Hansson, Project Manager, Bruks Siwertell, replied: “Everything.
“As most borders were closed, and some still are, travel is restricted so sending out supervisors and commissioning engineers is difficult. The current situation means that our ordinary work takes longer and new site visits, to evaluate and study them, have been difficult to achieve. We solved much of this by relying on our local representatives and colleagues, establishing group ‘chats’, and internet-based communication platforms. We also had to dictate more subject-specific documentation and additional information to help guide people on how to carry out work,” continues Hansson.
But, like Dahl, Hansson notes some positives to this change. “We have witnessed our strengths as a team and company, and have discovered new ways of working and communicating. We have been forced to look at our operations from another perspective, driving a resolve to consider better alternatives. This is a good thing, and has a positive environmental impact.
“A face-to-face discussion can never be replaced by a computer and a monitor, and for much of our work, we are needed ‘on the ground’, but for sure some project meetings and different follow-up functions, can absolutely be done remotely and was something that we had already started to implement,” he says.
Staying on track
Working, at times, from what he calls his ‘command-centre’ at home, Hansson explains that some projects naturally found themselves mid-way through and needing input. “This has been a challenge, but like us, customers are open and understanding, focusing on solving issues. They rightly want us during ongoing commissioning work. Because of an exemption for specialist assistance for essential business, we have been allowed to travel to some sites without having to quarantine upon arrival. However, for others, in fact most, we have to quarantine for 14 days, before work can commence. It is also difficult to keep track of all the changing restrictions around the world; but we do what we can to stay on our toes.
“To highlight one ship unloader assembly project in China, a primary task that we had to undertake was a risk assessment; evaluating the situation that Covid-19 put us in and assessing all elements that needed to happen to keep a delivery on track. This included local and technical, commercial considerations as well as the project’s execution.
“All of this was discussed with the customer and together we presented a solution for the four different scenarios, resulting from the impact of Covid-19; all of which we now had a solution to. With this as a basis, we carried them out accordingly, and in the knowledge that we had a bounty of back-ups if the situation shifted,” he notes.
“We also established specific chatgroups for assembly personnel, so that for us in Sweden, we could respond quickly when a question from the site arose. To further strengthen back-office support, we had weekly project meetings, both internally as well as with the owner, monitoring not only the project but also the evolution of Covid-19,” says Hansson.
“We are used to having our own people on site, so for this assembly case, we really did have to step out of our comfort zone. Information and communication are everything. Our Chinese co-workers not only needed enough information, but good information to ensure the quality and outcome of the work. It is a fine line, as too much detail is confusing and has the opposite effect to clarifying something.
“Our communication network, with all relevant experts, was reviewed regularly. Thanks to our colleagues in China, who know our equipment well, this was a very successful approach. As a collective they are very strong and I had no concerns about their ability to undertake the work.
“The ship unloader has now been successfully assembled and is currently on a vessel bound for its final destination. Once ready at the site, our physical presence will be required for commissioning,” Hansson notes.
We do it together
A key player in the successful assembly of the ship unloader came from support from Bruks Siwertell’s offices in Shanghai, headed by Stephanie Dong, General Manager, China.
Commenting on the project, Dong notes that it was a “vivid example of our capabilities to ‘do it together’. Through working remotely, but closely with colleagues from Sweden, we assembled the machine and completed its shipping as a team.”
Like her colleagues, Dong says that the biggest shift in recent times is moving face-to-face meetings to internet-based platforms. “Currently, we have had to rely on our own local personnel for China-based installations, which is fine, but it is always good to have all the relevant experts on-the-ground for projects.
“For us, the main challenges of the pandemic are that potential customer visits have been postponed due to travel restrictions, and it takes a little longer to send service personnel to help with any technical issues. Also, delivery schedules are having to be extended and spare parts need to be ordered with a bit more lead time,” Dong says.
A digitalization boost
“On a positive note, I think this pandemic has pressed the ‘fast-forward’ button on the digitalization keyboard. We are adopting advanced technologies faster and are embracing this change, which will definitely bring competitive opportunities in the future,” she notes.
“Remote offices and online business styles are more and more widely used. We have realized the efficiency and convenience of these online collaborations, which is vital in turning a ‘passive’ position into an ‘active’ ongoing positive choice for the company. The communication tools that we now have at our finger-tips, if used correctly, can prove extremely helpful and also reduce the number of some costly, both financially and environmentally, travel.
“Besides, through the continuing integration of Bruks Siwertell’s resources and a well-built contingency plan to reflect the best advantages in the change of operational procedures, we have been able to gather the efforts of the whole China team. We have learned that, with the support of the wider organization, some essential work can be performed by local staff, which benefits customers and the whole company,” highlights Dong.
Keeping it interesting
Another area of change is in operator training, needed not only once a ship unloader has been delivered, but throughout its lifetime to ensure peak operating performance years down the line.
Not being able to visit customers has brought about some unique challenges for training experts like Daniel Nilsson, Project Leader Electrical Systems, Bruks Siwertell. “Remote training has to be more detailed, but even more interesting. Engagement is key in an online setting, where you lose some of the dynamism that is naturally present in face-to-face sessions,” he says.
Bruks Siwertell is already moving forwards with its digitalization portfolio, capitalizing on the benefits that augmented reality can deliver to its customers. The use of these platforms and other practical and theoretical training methods is helping to bridge this current gap in travel.
“Once we understood that this was the direction that we needed to go in, we were quickly able to move to online training portals. But we know from our extensive experience that making these sessions interesting is essential to embed learning.
“People naturally ease-off their concentration over time and it is our responsibility, as trainers, to help maintain it and ask the right questions. This helps to ensure that important information is being absorbed.”
Mixed approaches bring benefits
“There are also benefits to having a change in approach to ‘live’ online training, as trainers are more accessible; the downside, for us, is the difference in time zones. As to whether they continue after, or if the travel restrictions can be lifted, I think a mixed approach needs to be taken.
For clients that already have a good working knowledge of their Siwertell unloader, then this can definitely be a successful approach. However, for those who are completely new to our systems, I would prefer to carry out on-site training. There is a lot to learn, with many different interlocking procedures that we need to demonstrate. This is a lot more challenging when working through an interpreter as well.
“There is also a great deal of value being with an operator, and carrying out training using their unloader. New operators naturally have a lot more questions and we can answer them as they crop-up,” notes Nilsson.
“Saying this, the online training sessions that we have had to conduct through the initial acute phase of the pandemic have been really successful. For example, an operator in Mexico was thrilled that we were able to do the training online. It was reaching its deadline for the project, and today the ship unloader is up and running.
“Like many things, it was a challenge at first, as this way of working and set-up was completely new to us, and for the project team, but when everyone put their efforts into it, we managed to train the operator and they now have a fully functioning ship unloader in peak operation,” concludes Nilsson.