EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Swiss WorldCargo’s Oliver Evans looks to the future
22 / 09 / 2015
As he prepares to let go of the helm at Swiss WorldCargo on September 30, Oliver Evans is preoccupied with the future. Not just his own, but that of air cargo.
“My original idea was to divide my time between two or three lines in leadership development, new technology and change management, but now I want to spend more time in this world of new technology,” he says.
“I have become fascinated with it and the impact it will have – drones, smartphones and so on.
“The industry has still not understood this and my intention is to help it deal with such disruption and help it make change happen. It is very exciting to be on the verge of diving into this pool. It will be a fantastic way to round off my career.
”Quite what form this involvement in technology will take has not yet been confirmed. Evans says that he has been approached “by one or two people who want to work with me on a more substantial basis” but says he has not yet reached any decisions.
But the idea is to leap ahead from the current change agenda – e-freight and the like – and indulge in some true blue sky thinking. To look not just at present challenges, but further down the road.
Evans would be the first to admit that air cargo’s record on embracing new technology is not good.
“No, it borders on the appalling,” he says. “Our industry is complex and disjointed as there are so many players in it. Bringing these parties together has proved to be challenging and the regulatory framework is also disjointed.
”Rather surprisingly for one who has been a keen advocate of e-freight, he questions if it is really worth the effort, or whether we should be moving straight on to the next step.
“We should have smart cargo that can tell you what it is, where it is going, and whether it has been shaken or kept at the right temperature. All this data would be read by sensors so you would not have to send data to other parties at all.
”The failure of the air cargo industry to leap forward to this next level he partly puts down to the way the airline business has always worked.
“It was built around dealing with competition by developing secure and safe processes. We recruited the best people we could find and taught them how to do things.
“But we should instead be hiring people at ease with all the digital developments around them who can challenge the way we are doing things. We should learn from the way they do things in Silicon Valley, where they encourage people to try, and if they fail, then the next initiative may be a success.
“That is far from the traditional airline and transport mentality.
”Companies in Silicon Valley can of course come up with new ideas without having to persuade hundreds of supply chain partners around the world to adopt them."
Given the complexity of the air cargo chain, is it even worth individual companies trying to be innovative?
Evans agrees it is a challenge, contrasting the much better track record of UPS and FedEx with technology com-pared to that of the traditional airline-for-warder chain, but as he points out despite this the integrators have not overrun air cargo.
“You have to ask yourself why this is. Though we are a complex industry, supply chain challenges take on many forms, and shippers need the flexibility and creativity they find with the airline-forwarding pairing.
“So there is demand for what we do, and we can either accept the handicap of being a disconnected industry and see our share shrink, or try and redouble our efforts to work more closely together. If not new parties – Amazon Freight, maybe – will come with a different perspective and take our business."
Technological change is not just about IT, and in another area Swiss has been doing a bit of blue sky thinking of its own.
In June it did proof of concept trials with Swiss Post to use drones to deliver packages. In the second phase, which is planned for later in the year, live packages for actual customers will be moved.
Drones are just the kind of change that Evans is looking forward to exploring in the future. On the one hand they seem marginal to what air cargo does – the drones used in the trial, made by US company Matternet, can carry only one kilo payloads up to 25 kilometres, though 5kg and 50km have been mooted for the future.
That hardly sounds like it is going to have any impact on a business which moves tonnes of cargo between continents, but Evans says it is more relevant than first appears.
“Matternet determined that 1kg was a sweet spot, in terms of there being an explosion in shipments of this size due to e-commerce.
“At Swiss, five percent of our shipments are between 1kg-2kg, though admittedly this is high for the industry.
“Not all of those will be suitable for drone transport, so yes it is a limited area, but for some of our customers it is an extremely exciting one and one that Swiss would want to be involved in.
”The real point here is that if air cargo ignores drones, then it risks once again giving away a profitable slice of business to a third party.
“It is inevitably going to happen,” says Evans. “You can either wait for others to implement it and draw your own conclusions later, or jump in now, which is what we have done.
”The Swiss drone trials involve persuading the Swiss aviation authorities that it is safe to use them beyond line of sight, something that is currently forbidden in Switzerland and many other countries.
The involvement of the national airline in the project was crucial to winning the trust of regulators.
Evans has a vision of fleets of drones using automatic recharging points, and points out that their ratio of weight of cargo to weight of vehicle is better than in any other form of transport.
“I am convinced that unmanned vehicles will become commonplace and take a big share of smaller shipments, particularly for high value commodities such as medical and health supplies,” he says.
Further down the line, who can say? Slightly tongue in cheek, I suggest a swarm of drones building or breaking up pallets.
“You say this is futuristic, but all around the world people are experimenting on just such systems,” Evans says.
"Our human nature is to explore.
"We can be scared of new technology or we can embrace it and turn threats into chances.
”So is this the start of something big, or the whimsy of a man nearing the end of his career? Only time will tell, but Evans certainly seems rejuvenated by the prospect.
“When you are young, you have freedom to do what you want. Then you have financial and family commitments so you are tied to the corporation,” he says.
“But I am now at the other end when I have sufficient material comfort and can decide the time I put into work.
“I am targetting a maximum of four days a week, but it is a fascinating world and I might lose myself in it. “The temptation to work all day and night will be immense.”