Carmakers trying to raise the efficiency of their logistics networks are facing service providers that might not be able to rise to the challenge. And while OEMs make renewed calls for more open discussion with their providers, the reality is that they will need more than words when they meet a bruised group of LSPs at this year's summit of the European automotive logistics sector, being held near Bonn, Germany in March.
The stand off between manufacturers and providers is such that Emile Benaim, director of vehicle logistics for Toyota Europe, reported that not a single logistics provider had responded to his offer to provide assistance at the depths of the recent crisis. "I brought the message that if there is a risk, then they should tell us," he said.
"We were prepared to help them survive, even financially to an extent, but nobody said so. Everyone said they had counter-measures in place, from cutting sub-contractors to new arrangements with the bank. I was amazed."
Benaim fears that LSPs trying to survive by any means – including slashing prices and running services at a loss – may only have deferred the risk of financial and investment collapse. (Learn more about Emile Benaim’s concerns in the latest edition of Finished Vehicle Logistics magazine, here).
The opportunity for a new way of doing business will be given another chance as manufacturers and providers meet at the Automotive Logistics Europe conference in Königswinter, near Bonn, from March 2-4.
The conference is the 8th annual event, and this year has been moved from its traditional home in Montreux, Switzerland, to be located closer to the heart of European car production. Benaim will be speaking at the conference alongside many senior executives from across the industry. They include Dr Ernst-Hermann Krog, executive director of logistics at Audi, a company acknowledged as the logistics innovator within the Volkswagen group. Krog has high expectations of LSPs, but Audi does keep some logistics operations in-house. The carmaker has developed what it calls the Neues Logistikkonzept – new logistics concept – to better synchronise the supply chain from assembly back to the supplier base, and has plans to roll out a network of cross docks.
But Krog's deputy for inbound logistics at Audi, Jens Tilgner, said: "At the moment there are a limited number of logistics service providers in the market who really have (the) knowledge in practice."
And it is the same for outbound. For CKD exports to China and India, Krog said that "if we did not have one part of our activities operated by us, and only counted on a logistics service provider, we would not be so successful." (Read more about Audi’s logistics processes in the current issue of Automotive Logistics magazine).
It is not only at the hard end of logistics that OEMs are frustrated. Ford's recently promoted European director of material planning and logistics, Matthias Schulz, said he is trying to move towards greener logistics. But, he complained, "sometimes it feels like I am pushing harder than them [the LSPs]. There can be a lot of bureaucracy to work around in these companies when it comes to switching transport modes, for example." (Read an interview with Schulz here)
Perhaps the reluctance of LSPs to come forward is a result of recent experience. Franz Blum, chief executive of finished vehicle transport company Vega International, hit out at OEMs at last year's Automotive Logistics Europe conference. When vehicle sales began crashing – he cited European commercial vehicle orders dropping from 26,000 to just 600 in one month – logistics providers were not informed.
"The word 'partnership' is ridiculous," he said last March. "It's a sunshine friendship. There is no communication left with the manufacturer." (Read a summary of the conference here). 
But it seems that not only the carmakers have failed to communicate. Despite the world's largest carmaker having a strong reputation with suppliers, Toyota's Benaim said that "not one provider has come to us... and said that they could not meet lead times because volumes are too low. I would have expected this."
Road transporters are half full, yet LSPs have not proposed any revision to Toyota's pre-crisis requirement of outbound delivery times, he observed.
The Automotive Logistics Europe conference will gather together senior logistics executives from other major OEMs including Fiat, General Motors and Renault, as well as from tier suppliers like Bridgestone, Delphi and Magna.
The conference is supported by gold sponsors Gefco and DB Schenker, by global sponsor Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, and by silver sponsors Amports, Ballsystem, Chep, CKDpack, Evolution Time Critical, Geodis Wilson, Inform, ITD Hungary, Macro Plastics, Sovereign Business Integration, Tempark, Vehnet and Priority Freight. The theme of the conference this year is 'Reshaping and Recovery'. Much of it is needed, in every sense, it seems. More information is available here