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"Transparency and efficiency – we meet the needs of our customers"

Steffen Bobsien, Senior Vice President European Asset Management & Technology, explains why DB Cargo is going digital.

Mr Bobsien, DB Cargo has been transporting freight for customers across Germany and Europe for more than a century. Why is digitisation such a big topic these days?

BOBSIEN: Deutsche Bahn is a service provider. The main challenge for a company like ours is to meet the needs of the customer, right down to the last detail. We have a number of measures in place to help us do so, for example digital monitoring of the service provision and of the customer’s information. Let me give you an example. In car transport operations for customers in the auto industry, it’s important to know in which direction the train will be arriving into the customer’s sidings so that cars can roll off the transporter in the right direction. Digital monitoring allows us to do that and, if necessary, to plan a rotation so that the train arrives at the end customer’s site exactly as the customer wants it to. So you see, digitisation means improved controllability, more transparency, better quality and optimised production structures. One figure reveals how seriously we take this topic: DB Cargo is investing up to 500 million euros in digitisation over the medium term. DB operates an “Asset & Maintenance Digital Lab” in the “House of Logistics & Mobility” in Frankfurt am Main. 

Steffen Bobsien, Senior Vice President European Assets & Technology, and his team are optimising DB Cargo’s processes for a data-driven future.

What is being developed there? What do you expect from the lab?

BOBSIEN: A lot of ideas can be generated when you are actively working in a field, and that is particularly true about digitisation. That’s why we decided to bring together sales leaders, IT developers, data scientists and technology experts – creative minds from a range of disciplines – in the lab to develop and test ideas. We check how much scope for improvement there is in our processes and interfaces, and what additional services we can offer our customers. We then test and develop these ideas further in the lab. In that sense, the lab functions as a mix between a project room and a creative space. Up to 50 colleagues are active there. We’re continuously seeing a kind of domino effect, whereby users from various sectors discover new potential application scenarios when they start using the apps. These arise from the new level of data transparency and the smart utilisation of data. This approach – identifying possibilities – is hugely important to us so that we can build on a number of small ideas to arrive at comprehensive approaches that have the potential to fundamentally change products and concepts.  

Can you mention any examples?

BOBSIEN: Yes, of course. Our TechLOK locomotives, which independently report their current status on the basis of the data gathered. As a result of these accurate and reliable error messages, maintenance and conveyance times are cut, which improves availability overall – not just in Germany, but internationally. The 1,000th locomotive will soon be joining the TechLOK system. We recently signed a contract with GE Transportation that will see a further 250 locomotives going digital in Germany, Poland, France and the UK. We’re also fitting our wagons with sensors – to optimise dispatching decisions for damaged wagons, for example. On top of that, we’re improving the way we plan services such as collecting vehicles on the tracks, invoicing shunting journeys and delivering freight across international borders. We’re always working on developing services like these.  

How many wagons are being fitted with this technology?

BOBSIEN: We’ve introduced prototype fleets with a basic configuration in our system. By the end of 2019, we’ll have a total of around 65,000 freight wagons. The aim in the medium term is to fit the whole fleet with “intelligent” technology. During the process of fitting the first few fleets, we realised that our customers very often ask for data about the status of the freight, for example information about impacts and the geo-position of wagons. Depending on the sector and the needs of the customer, we’re fitting wagons with additional sensors that can precisely record the condition of the freight and the wagons, and which can therefore be used along the whole logistics chain. For us the question today is not when we will be seeing the first applications. The question is rather when the applications will be operational. Over the coming year, we expect the number of possible applications, products and service ideas to increase dramatically.  Are the lab and this approach what set DB Cargo apart from the competition? BOBSIEN: Our competitors generally take a similar approach for their workplace environments. But what sets our lab apart is that we only work on applications and topics that have a high probability – 50 per cent or above – of being realised in our service’s value-added chain. So we’re really engaging with the needs of the market and of our customers. At the same time, the fact that DB is bundling all its digitisation activity relating to asset management and maintenance in this lab is highly advantageous – the lab thereby becomes a nucleus for all of DB’s rolling stock when it comes to these focus areas.  

How far along this path are the customers?

BOBSIEN: It varies. Some major customers are already a step ahead of us. Companies such as Volkswagen and BASF, for example, digitised large parts of their logistics chains at a very early stage on their own initiative. With other customers we’re seeing a huge need for us to partner with them to introduce digital processes.  

What does that mean?

BOBSIEN: Customers are keen to work with us to push forward the development of ideas and concrete projects together. At the same time, they still need to stick to their own demanding profile of requirements. We’ve noticed that some customers rely on our opinion as a logistics expert. They’re telling us that they already have a huge amount of data, but they’re not sure how to use it in their logistics chain. For us, digitisation and our whole approach with customers obviously bring about the advantage that we gain a deeper understanding of the customers and their requirements, and we get to work more closely with them and their specific needs. As a result, we’re not simply working as a service provider, but can also increasingly take on the data-based management of logistics chains.

But how do you identify the needs of the market? How do you know what customers want?

BOBSIEN: We work very closely with our customers. We talk with them and other parties involved in the market. We discuss ideas with the sales divisions. We make available a huge amount of data, for example via our online customer portal myRailportal. Sometimes we also invite customers to meet with us so that we can develop ideas together – we’ve been doing that very successfully at the Duisburg Customer Lab. This intensive exchange with customers is very important to us. It helps us to develop technologies that meet the needs of the market.  

The success of digitisation also depends on your staff. How are you involving them?

BOBSIEN: A year ago I would have said that we’re inviting our colleagues to the lab on a rotational basis so that they can learn all about the latest developments and digitisation projects, and we work with them to develop the applications. That continues to be the case but the topic has now gone mainstream. Many staff members come to us and ask what’s currently happening in the lab. They often bring in their own ideas, too. By the way, in the area of digital transformation in particular, the problem of attracting young talent is minimal. Young people find the work we do in the lab so exciting that we don’t need to fight for junior staff. In other areas, however, there is a lack of junior staff, one example being technical fleet management. Future fleet managers not only need to have a thorough understanding of locomotives and rail processes, they also increasingly need to know about digitisation and data analysis. We’re currently working with TU Dresden and RWTH Aachen on how to train the next generation of staff in these fields.