Open source software and the Open Logistics FoundationOpen source software and the Open Logistics Foundation
In Dialogue with Logistics

Open source software and the Open Logistics Foundation


Pooling resources to achieve common solutions

The time is ripe for a revolution in the world of logistics: shifting away from many small, individual solutions, which each company has to work out for itself in isolation, and moving towards greater simplification by cooperating with others. At least that is the approach being adopted by the Open Logistics Foundation, which was established in 2021. Markus Sandbrink, the Rhenus Group’s Chief Information Officer, and Andreas Nettsträter, the CEO of the Open Logistics Foundation, use the new podcast episode of Logistics People Talk to discuss the benefits provided by this method of resolving problems and what they have to bear in mind so that competitors can confidently and successfully share ideas.

The main aim of the Open Logistics Foundation is to identify problems within the highly diverse and fragmented logistics sector, highlight the interfaces between the many partners involved and organise processes more efficiently and more simply by adopting the digital solutions that they have developed together. Open source tools play an important role in this process – that is to say, software, which is often published free of charge and – as the name suggests – whose source code is openly accessible and can be freely used. This enables users to continue developing the applications and consequently tailor them to their special needs. The Open Logistics Foundation aims to develop these kinds of applications to cope with the requirements and problems that they have jointly identified. These applications are then available to all companies and can be adapted for their own processes. Listen to the new podcast episode and discover which specific projects the Open Logistics Foundation is launching and why deciding to cooperate with your direct competitors can definitely pay off.

Please note: This episode is currently only available in German. You can find the English transcript below.


Logistics People Talk | Episode 15

Andreas Nettsträter and Markus Sandbrink talk about the cooperation between various logistics companies within the Open Logistics Foundation; the goal is to find common solutions to provide even more efficient processes based on open source software.

Transcript of our podcast episode

Gwen Dünner: Welcome to a new episode of Logistics People Talk, the official Rhenus podcast for everyone who is convinced that you can never stop learning about logistics. We are your hosts:

Andrea Goretzki: Andrea Goretzki.

Gwen Dünner: And Gwen Dünner.

Andrea Goretzki: Today, together with our guests, we want to take a look at how logistics professionals can shape their industry together in the future, and we’ll take a look at the IT sector. We want to focus on this and talk about what opportunities and risks open source solutions offer in this context. We have been joined by Andreas Nettsträter, CEO of the Open Logistics Foundation, and Markus Sandbrink, Head of Corporate IT at the Rhenus Group. Welcome, both of you.

Markus Sandbrink: Hello.

Markus Sandbrink: Hello, thank you very much for inviting us.

Andrea Goretzki: Nice that you are here.

Gwen Dünner: Very nice that you are here. Instead of putting a lot of words in your mouth: What makes you experts in the field of open source? Why you of all people? Why now of all times? Andreas, why don’t you start?

Andreas Nettsträter: I think the point of saying: ‘Why now of all times?’ – that’s a good way to start. I think the time is now ripe for logistics to take a turn from ‘we do everything on our own, we differentiate ourselves through our software’ to ‘maybe collaboration is a good idea after all’. And I think that’s a fundamental turnaround in the whole industry right now: that more and more realisation of that is coming or setting in, where people are saying: ‘Okay, let’s do things together.’

Andreas Nettsträter: I think open source and that would be the transition, open source is simply also the beautiful thing. Open source doesn’t just mean publishing things, but also looking for an opportunity to do things together. How can we find ways to actually meet our objective together and also together in the sense of ‘everyone can participate and everyone can use the results in the end’ and I think this combination of open source offers it, the time is somehow ripe for it in logistics. That’s actually the reason why we’re sitting here today and want to report on the Open Logistics Foundation.

Gwen Dünner: Very nice. Markus, as we have already said, you are Head of Corporate IT. What points of contact do you have with this topic?

Markus Sandbrink: Yes, we will certainly talk about the ‘why’ at some length in a moment. Why me? We were just talking at Rhenus about how and whether we support the establishment of the Open Logistics Foundation, and the connection to IT is, of course, very obvious and we were also clear that this requires a certain amount of personal commitment, and that’s why I then agreed to support the Open Logistics Foundation on the board of the association.

Andrea Goretzki: Now, with the establishment of the Open Logistics Foundation, a closer cooperation has been started, even between competing logistics companies. How did this initiative come about and what is the goal? Andreas, maybe you as CEO would like to start.

Andreas Nettsträter: Exactly. I’ve just said the goal very briefly. It’s about achieving results together, solving the current problems of logistics together, and I think that starts with very small problems. We will certainly come back to that later. eCMRs, electronic transport documents, these are very concrete things, where we can do something together. But this goes far beyond that. When we think about sustainability issues.

Andreas Nettsträter: In the end, how can we make better use of the existing infrastructure, the existing things that we have, and I believe that these are things that we can only seriously tackle together, and the reason why we have now founded the Open Logistics Foundation has to do with the fact that we have seen that many initiatives in the past lacked a kind of neutral space. Where can this joint development take place and who actually offers you the possibility to ensure that it runs neutrally, that it runs fairly, that everyone can participate, that in the end one of the participants doesn’t step out of line and say: ‘I’m doing it differently now and everyone is out of luck’?

Andreas Nettsträter: In the end, I think it is also nice when there is a common umbrella that is not dominated by one of the big logistics companies or by one of the small logistics companies, but when you can really say: ‘This is a joint activity,’ and I believe that the Open Logistics Foundation wants to offer the umbrella for this, to be a bit of a figurehead for this, so that we can say that joint activities that are to take place in an absolutely neutral way also need an absolutely neutral home, and that is actually the Open Logistics Foundation. This was also recognised by our founding members, Rhenus is thankfully one of our four founders of the foundation, along with DACHSER, Schenker AG and the Port of Duisburg, and they said: ‘We would like to do something together, but under a neutral umbrella, which cannot be assigned to any one of us, but which actually stands for all of us.’

Gwen Dünner: Markus, maybe you can bring in a little bit of an internal view and say what motivated Rhenus to say: ‘Okay, we are also committed to this as a founding member.’

Markus Sandbrink: Yes, we also discussed it intensively. Should we be involved, should we join forces with competitors, should we work together? We have a lot to do ourselves, but in the end we see a lot of positive things in this. We hope to reduce complexity and simplify cooperation between market participants as a result of the cooperation in the OLF. The logistics market is very diverse and very fragmented. As a logistics service provider like Rhenus, you almost inevitably work together with many partners, with airlines, with shipping companies, with freight forwarders, with the authorities, with customers, with other IT platforms, and nowadays with all these partners you have to exchange data and documents in order to digitalise these interfaces, to simplify them and to make them more efficient, that is very important and you can do that much, much better if you work together, create joint standards and launch even better joint solutions.

Gwen Dünner: You just mentioned the exchange of data. Normally, when it comes to your data, you have to take a close look at where you are giving it, what you are publishing or what possibilities you are giving your competitors to get an insight into it. What is the advantage for logistics companies to say, okay, we’ll do it anyway and give away one or two things in order to achieve our goals?

Andreas Nettsträter: There are probably two factors. Firstly, it is very, very important that all companies that participate can be sure that this data is protected, that not every competitor can see it. That is quite clear. I exchange data with my business partner, with whom I have to exchange it anyway, via a common platform. But that’s where data protection comes in, where confidentiality is very, very important, that only I can see the data and not anyone else. What is Rhenus doing there? With whom does it negotiate and with whom does it travel and along which routes? That is very important. There are quite naturally some individual applications where it’s possible to anonymise the data and then obtain new insights together to help promote sustainability and enable us to optimise loading conditions, capacity at ports and the like.

Andreas Nettsträter: That would be a use case where you have to say: Yes, it makes sense for many to work together. But it is extremely important that there is trust, that this data is anonymised and not used for competitive purposes or something like that.

Gwen Dünner: Yes, we have already used the word open source three, four, ten times, but let’s delve a little deeper. Andreas, what I as a ‘layperson’ think of as open source are programmes that you don’t necessarily have to pay for, like the Firefox browser or Open Office, which I, of course, use very often as an editor. Does that come close to the topic or what exactly do you as an expert understand by open source? Where are these solutions used?

Andreas Nettsträter: These are exactly the examples that I think people know from their personal environment. Firefox from the Mozilla Foundation, Chrome from Google. These are many areas that I know as a private user. It is also very, very widespread in the business sector. I also suspect that at Rhenus probably 80 per cent is open source, namely everything that runs on the servers and works in the background in some way. And these are simply programmes that have developed over the years, where a community has arisen which has said: Okay, we have a common problem or we want to solve something together, and with Firefox it was a matter of finding a browser as a free alternative that, for example, also handles certain data differently or simply has no clear connection to a manufacturer.

Andreas Nettsträter: That’s actually exactly the motivation behind it, to say: OK, we have a community of people here. They have all identified one common problem or several common problems and are now looking for a way to resolve them. There are, of course, different ways and I think open source is the one where you can go the furthest given the current way of thinking. Of course, I can also just sit down and discuss things and arrive at a common way of thinking. I can also sit down and say: OK, I’ll go ahead and document this. In that case, I am very close to a standard, to standardisation. I write down how we want to do it together and everyone agrees on it, and open source goes one step further and says: We need this. Both make sense, but now we also sit down together and implement it together.

Andreas Nettsträter: Of course, very different things can come out of this. Either a complete programme. We’re back to a Firefox browser that can be used independently, that anyone could download and use. I think that in many cases, however, it’s more a matter of libraries, of individual components. That means that I have a certain problem or I want to work together in a certain area, then I develop a component. We have already discussed the eCMR, the digital consignment note. There won’t be a ready-made app for it, but rather a collection of tools, a construction kit, a library, where I can simply say: Okay, I want to use a digital waybill.

Andreas Nettsträter: Then I download this library, which is actually how every software developer does it today, where I don’t start and think up every little thing myself from scratch, but I use existing frameworks, I use existing libraries that have simply proven themselves and have been used thousands of times, and then build on them. I think that is also the further motivation for the Open Logistics Foundation to say: Open source is the basis. We don’t want to replace existing solutions or displace commercial providers or anything like that, but we want to create a basis. On this basis, we can then offer market-differentiating, individual services, and we will not do this as open source.

Andreas Nettsträter: The Open Logistics Foundation will not do that either, but there are the individual companies again where Rhenus says: Okay, on this good common basis we are now building services that we can offer to the customers, from which the customers have an added value. And that will continue to be this differentiating feature. In other words, we develop a good, solid common basis together and then build on it to create quasi individual services, offers via the individual companies, as is actually the case today.

Andrea Goretzki: Markus, Andreas just said at the beginning of his answer that a lot of open source solutions are already used in logistics, probably also at Rhenus. Is that the case and, maybe once again from the logistics service provider’s point of view, why?

Markus Sandbrink: Yes, it is indeed the case that we also use open source software in logistics, also at Rhenus. However, it is usually the components in the basic software such as Linux or Java or Angula, for example; the software developers know about software development frameworks that can be used. Often, the companies are perhaps not so aware that this is open source, and the actual core applications, the actual logistics applications, are very rarely completely open source. The advantage of open source is that you are basically independent of manufacturers. The use is usually free of licencing costs.

Markus Sandbrink: Above all, you have access to the source code. That creates transparency and trust, and you can also develop the source code yourself if necessary, e.g. if others no longer do it, which is sometimes difficult with other software packages because the manufacturer discontinues the product. You have to be aware of a few disadvantages, such as support, liability and warranties. These are also the disadvantages or at least the factors that have to be taken into account with open source software. Cooperation in logistics makes sense for multiple reasons. The focus is mainly on wanting to solve problems by joining forces. Otherwise, everyone would have to solve them on their own.

Markus Sandbrink: These are solutions, above all, that we do not consider to be competitively differentiated. We also call this a commodity solution, and Joint solutions save effort, time and money for each partner that becomes involved. We can then achieve standardisation too and ensure that the common solutions are more widely accepted and circulated. We all know this. There are examples of great individual solutions that don’t catch on, that they tend to eke out a marginal existence due to a lack of dissemination and then often disappear from the market altogether.

Gwen Dünner: Let’s take another look at the work of the Open Logistics Foundation. You have already mentioned a few things. What applications are you already developing that will be available to logistics companies as open source solutions?

Andreas Nettsträter: I believe that the biggest and most prominent project that we’re working on now is actually the electronic consignment note, which is also known as eCMR. This is particularly interesting because Germany ratified the eCMR Convention at the beginning of this year – this means that the law enables operators to use nothing but digital documents for domestic transport services from now on. This means that this is an issue that is really very topical right now, and it is also just one electronic transport document among others that are widely used. In other words, an eCMR is used somewhere in all road transports, even in different functions, and this makes it very clear why it makes sense to do this together because I want to exchange these documents with others.

Andreas Nettsträter: I might get them from someone else and I would like to hand them over to the customer in the end. This means that developing an individual solution of your own, one which is different from the others, is not at all expedient. If that is the case, we will probably stay with paper documents for the time being. That’s why this is actually a very, very good example. But it also shows, beyond the purely digital things, that we still need a lot of coordination. We notice this in our work right now. We have set up a working group for this purpose, so to speak, in which companies discuss things together and also try things out and develop things together.

Andreas Nettsträter: That it goes beyond this pure, let me call it technological problem – how do I have to implement it now, how do I design it – there are also a lot of organisational problems. In other words, how do I ensure that both sides can read this document when it is handed over? How do I make sure that both sides somehow trust each other? How do I make sure that in certain cases, for example, it is court-proof? That I don’t merely have a signature on a piece of paper like I do today, which is first of all basically very highly regarded in court. How can I create similar comparability with an electronic document without having to go to unbelievably complicated lengths, which are somehow not feasible in practice, in logistics, and in the end the document may not be used anyway?

Andreas Nettsträter: This means that it is actually a very exciting interplay between a lot of organisational coordination and considerations and technological development. This means that we are trying to get to the implementation stage as quickly as possible, so that we can actually pilot the solutions together with the companies, so that we can really get the feedback. In my opinion, there’s no getting the drivers involved fast enough, who can then give some honest feedback and say, ‘Okay, I can use that or that definitely doesn’t work.’

Andreas Nettsträter: I think that’s also one of the strengths of the cooperation, that we don’t just get feedback from one company, but from different companies, which increases the chances that it will be widely accepted in the end. The work has been going on for a few weeks now. It will continue for a while. But we simply notice that a very constructive exchange has already taken place in the group, which meets every Friday for an hour, for example. This also shows the high motivation of the companies, which have said of their own accord: Yes, we want to do this once a week so that we can simply make progress.

Andreas Nettsträter: In this group, there are typically representatives, often logisticians, who know the process. Now there are also more and more software developers who know, okay, what does the TMS look like at home? What do I have to do to integrate it? What is the best interface to the driver? Do we put it in our driver app? Do we make something of our own for it? This means that we can make this decision relatively quickly and the companies can also make it for themselves in order to actually implement it, and I believe that this is also a bit new for logistics. It’s clear to everyone that what we have as a status right now will never be the final status.

Andreas Nettsträter: But we are going down this path together and I believe that the further we go together, the more likely it will be that we will find a solution that not only one, but three, four or five will use and that we will actually arrive at this kind of de facto standardisation, which we can then use to really arrive at a sensible solution. To add to that: everything that we develop there is actually made freely and is publicly available. This means our repository is already at I can actually see everything there. There is the eCMR working group, and below that is the eCMR project. There have already been some initial developments.

Andreas Nettsträter: Fraunhofer IML has contributed a great deal to this, they simply did the preliminary work and said that we would make a first attempt like this. And, in addition to the eCMR, we have very specific applications that were often contributed by individual partners. This is a matter of very concrete development. VDA 5050, for example, is one such interface. You can look at all of this in the repository. Our role here is not only to make this platform available, but also to make sure that the quality is appropriate, that only tested things, only reasonably documented things are published. Open source doesn’t just mean that I publish the source code, but it also involves making everything available so that others can pick up the content, take it on board and use it.

Andreas Nettsträter: The unpopular topic of developer documentation is definitely part of it. This means that all the solutions we have are also documented so that I can look at them and understand how I can develop my own solution from them or try it out.

Gwen Dünner: You said just now that it is only since this year that it has been permitted to process things completely digitally in Germany, so to speak. Of course, this is not only a topic in Germany, but in Germany especially it is a topic with many standards, norms, we know all these, DINs, ISOs. It is also about the framework conditions that are perhaps also set from a European or German perspective, that you then perhaps also develop something together with them or for them, or get something underway?

Andreas Nettsträter: Yes, we are definitely in contact with the corresponding authorities or standardisation bodies. In the case of the eCMR, this is specifically the UN. It is a UN/CEFACT standard. We have a good exchange with them and there is also great interest in ensuring that hundreds of solutions are not developed at European or global level, but that we develop together in a certain direction. At the same time, of course, we are also in contact with the national authorities, where it is also about very specific questions.

Andreas Nettsträter: How can a truck inspection be carried out in the future if the inspector no longer sees a piece of paper and can look at it; how can it be done digitally instead? So that it is now not only permitted by law, but also actually implemented in practical roadside checks in some way, and that, in the end, it is not another case of the driver suffering, who then has a solution where the inspection officer says: ‘Yes, I’m sorry. Unfortunately I cannot accept this. Now we have a bigger problem.’

Andreas Nettsträter: This means that our role is to channel the communication and to make sure that what we develop conforms to the framework conditions that come from the national or European committees and authorities.

Gwen Dünner: Yes, thank you, Andreas. You mentioned the eCMR as one example. Are there any others beyond that? What else are you working on?

Markus Sandbrink: We are in a process where we exchange ideas with members. Personally, I think this driver app for lorry drivers is a great example. It’s a good example of how joint solutions make sense because small and medium-sized companies often find it very difficult that their drivers have to download a different app onto their mobile phones for almost every one of their customers. A joint solution would help all sides. It makes life easier for the drivers, and the clients usually get better data quality because the drivers can then really use it and operate it better. So it’s a nice, simple example.

Andrea Goretzki: Yes, we hear that you are already in the middle of the work. There are many, many parties involved in this work. Cooperation has to be well orchestrated on a higher level. How do you proceed within the Open Logistics Foundation? How does an idea become a project and how do you manage the processes so that all aspects regarding which the member companies see a need for action are taken into account?

Andreas Nettsträter: Markus has already mentioned it a little bit. We have a kind of idea-finding process that runs continuously, where we either actively consider what other problems there are together with all members. Quite often there is a nice question: How is it that it’s impossible not to earn money in logistics, but it still annoys me every day? This is a good time for me to mention open source solutions. There we are in this commodity area, which Markus has already mentioned, where you can say: These are things that don’t differentiate me, but I deal with them every day. We actively try to identify these problems together with the companies. Markus has already mentioned the driver app. We also have issues like that.

Andreas Nettsträter: Track and Trace is mentioned again and again. Now we also have customs clearance, where somehow a common solution is being sought, especially since the UK left the European Union. These are things that come up again and again, and on the one hand we have this process, which is very much driven by us, where we really actively question companies and together immediately try to find allies; who else is interested in this? On the other hand, and this has already happened, every member is free to say: ‘I have a good idea and I would like to get some feedback. What do the others say? Is that a problem for you too?’

Andreas Nettsträter: And so we try to collect ideas and at the same time bring companies together because in the end it’s about doing something together. That’s what we’re advancing very methodically and continuously all the time.

Markus Sandbrink: Yes, Andreas said that there is a structured process. But not all participants always have to work on all the topics. It can also be the case that three or four companies say: That’s a topic for us. We are operating in this niche. Let’s put our heads together so that they can work out a solution to their problem together. That’s what makes the whole thing so beautiful, that it’s very diverse, and when everyone contributes something, then sometimes you take or sometimes you give, and that’s really the point of the idea.

Gwen Dünner: So it’s a scalable process?

Markus Sandbrink: Yes, scalable also because many people participate. If a lot of people contribute something, then there is a good chance that I will also profit from it because someone is solving a problem that I have and would otherwise have to solve on my own.

Gwen Dünner: That’s right. We have already heard a lot of promising things today. A lot of things are in the pipeline and I think it’s clear to us now that open source will continue to play an important if not even more important role in the future. If you now look at tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the next few years, what do you see as the most important topics for the Open Logistics Foundation? What will be your core?

Markus Sandbrink: First of all, it is important for us to realise good initial projects. That we really show that something good will come out of this, that we create trust and that we use and expand the momentum we have. That it becomes a real movement, that we get more participants and thus increase the dissemination and can then really establish standards. That’s where we want to go, and I think we now have 21 members. In this respect, it’s growing and the topics that are coming up for us will, of course, remain very exciting, because that depends very much on the members and perhaps, Andreas, where do you think the journey is going?

Andreas Nettsträter: Based on the new members who have joined us and the many discussions and enquiries we have had, I think we will definitely move into other areas in addition to the eCMR, which is an area that involves a lot of road transport. Airfreight is probably a topic where something will happen. Rail transport is another topic. We are currently also working on broadening our scope so that this idea, which we have exemplified here with the eCMR, can actually be implemented across the board and, as Markus has already said, this is exactly how it works.

Andreas Nettsträter: We get new companies that say: ‘Yes, we also want to do something together.’ It’s a good idea to do something together. And who also have their own ideas or their own topics and say, ‘We see that we can’t do this at all on our own, and maybe we don’t want to tackle it on our own,’ and I think then the Open Logistics Foundation is the right place to say: I’ll come there, I’m motivated. Maybe I even have a topic that I can’t solve on my own, and I think that will shape the next few years, in addition to what Markus also said, of course, the very concrete work, that we now have to deliver solutions, deliver results. We are on the right track and that will definitely shape our next months and years.

Andrea Goretzki: Yes, it definitely sounds as if there is a lot of movement in there right now and also that the logistics industry can look forward to a lot of fresh approaches and digital solutions in the future. In any case, we wish you lots and lots of success and lots of committed members. And before we come to the end of today’s episode, we have a little treat planned for our listeners. namely, we would like to know this from you: If open source could be used, no matter whether realistically feasible or not, to solve an everyday problem in your personal life, what would it be?

Markus Sandbrink: Phew, that’s a really difficult question because there’s an app for almost everything. You really have to say that and most of them don’t cost anything. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s really open source. But it’s really amazing what you can find that doesn’t cost anything. For me, it’s more a matter of principle, I have to say, because I would like to see more independence from the big providers in the IT sector through open source. Because when you are responsible for IT in such a large company, you are in discussions and negotiations with a lot of companies. We are very dependent on the mostly American and Asian providers and sometimes we would simply like to have alternatives and we, especially in Europe, are quite dependent and open source is certainly another movement that will do us good.

Gwen Dünner: Nice.

Andreas Nettsträter: That’s exactly the right approach, because I think the question for me would be ... I think there are many things that have been solved in everyday life, but in a certain way that does not correspond to this open source idea. And we can see this in the current discussions about Twitter, to mention something very topical, where one can, of course, say: How sensible is it that such a truly critical infrastructure, which is used by many millions or billions of people, is somehow in the hands of a single company that can simply say: Tomorrow it’s all over, or we will now change our fundamental approaches.

Andreas Nettsträter: Personally, I would like to see us, just as Markus said in the business area, where we are also very focused on many commercial solutions, think a bit more about this in the social area: Where do joint developments make sense? Because they simply bring society forward, support each individual privately in some way, and where can I actually allow myself to do it, because it’s not so important that individual companies hold it in their hands. I think that would be my wish without a very concrete app or implementation, but I think everyone has enough examples on their smartphone where you could think about it, where it would somehow make sense.

Gwen Dünner: Yes, it’s nice that you’ve summarised it in this way, the business on the one hand and the personal on the other. Very nice. Yes, so as I said, thank you again from our side. It’s great that you were here today and that you explained this complex topic to us in a little more detail. Thank you very much again.

Markus Sandbrink: Yes, thank you for the invitation. It’s nice that we could be with you.

Andreas Nettsträter: Yes, very much.

Gwen Dünner: And with that, we’d also like to thank our listeners and close, as always, with a call out: feel free to like, comment and share the episode with your network. As always, you can find all episodes of Logistics People Talk wherever podcasts are available. Until next time. Take care of yourselves. Greetings from your hosts

Andrea Goretzki: Andrea Goretzki.

Gwen Dünner: And Gwen Dünner.


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