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IE-SMU MBA Students’ Project Kick-starts Deployment of Driverless Truck Technology in Singapore

31 Oct 2017

Driverless trucks, like driverless cars, were once considered a dream. Today, driverless trucks are a reality in Singapore, made possible by the pioneering efforts of Katoen Natie, a company that worked closely with IE-SMU MBA students to design and test the implementation of this new technology.

"Young people have no desire to become a truck driver," says Mr Koen Cardon, CEO of Katoen Natie Singapore. According to him, the role of a truck driver is a fairly challenging one to fill, especially in a developed society such as Singapore today. The ability to revolutionise truck driving relieves the burden on the company of finding truck drivers. On 24 October 2017, Katoen Natie, a Belgium based industrial logistics group, started operating its first driverless truck at ExxonMobil’s world-scale integrated manufacturing site in Singapore, transporting products between the company’s packaging and intermediate storage facilities. 

Katoen Natie is a leading service provider for the petrochemical, and specialty chemical industry. In its drive to continuously innovate and bring new solutions for its customers and its own operations, Katoen Natie has been conducting studies to further automate its material handling process.   Mr. Cardon said, “The pilot driverless truck project is not an endgame but a milestone in a wide range of innovative solutions that we are introducing for our customers worldwide.  Our Singapore operations have become a centre of excellence for Katoen Natie which will enable us to create value for our customers across the world.”

It was a perfect fit when SMU approached Katoen Natie in 2015 to discuss possible areas of collaboration for its MBA students. Katoen Natie had sponsored SMU-X projects on process improvement before over the past five years and was receptive to the idea of working with the IE-SMU MBA class of 2016, on an innovation-oriented initiative which would form one of the projects in the capstone course of the MBA programme. The project is now known as Katoen Natie’s successful implementation of driverless truck technology in Singapore.

The team of six IE-SMU MBA students of different nationalities comprised Wazee Ajani (Nigeria), Fauziah Tranchand (Singapore), Buan Teck Tommy Teo (Singapore), Pongsathorn Luke Boongird (Thailand), Yasuo Watanabe (Japan) and Alvaro TUDANCA (Spain). Working on the capstone project under the supervision of Prof Anne-Valérie Ohlsson-Corboz, from January to October 2016, the team was instrumental in designing the solution and in identifying and linking the right vendors (VDL, Götting) to design the driverless truck pilot project.

Prof Lieven Demeester, SMU’s Associate Professor of Operations Management (Practice), who is instructor of the capstone course commented, “We are proud of our MBA students.  They helped Katoen Natie identify the technology partners, initiate a productive collaboration between them, and assure the financial viability of the project.”

It was no walk in the park for our MBA students over the course of the nine-month project. Working very closely with Mr Wallace Tay, Katoen Natie’s project manager, the team tackled the challenges that came with setting up and coordinating the pilot implementation of this new technology in an enclosed heavy industry area. The team also engaged senior stakeholders such as Mr Cardon, who was Executive Champion for the project, for multiple presentations that delved into the concept, commercial framework, and issues on regulation, safety and quality. The team worked with Katoen Natie Finance department on a comprehensive costs and benefits analysis as well.

Mr Cardon said, “Katoen Natie engaged the team to study the feasibility to introduce driverless trucks in one of our Industrial Activities. The team was tasked to conceptualise the project, shortlist the technology partners and define a strategy to engage the many stakeholders in this project. This project created a new direction for our management teams and was an eye‐opener for our own organisation. The project triggered an interest to bring innovation into our company and helped our teams to understand the value of innovation.

The SMU‐IE MBA team contributed by using a methodology for a structured approach. The co‐operation with this SMU MBA team did result in a concrete project for our company to pioneer driverless trucks in Singapore. This could not been achieved by our own management teams as they were busy to run their day to day activities. Furthermore the project helped our company to build a framework for innovation.”

Pongsathorn elaborated on the team’s efforts in tackling the challenges of the project: “To ensure a successful outcome, we had to overcome several challenges; learning about the cutting edge technology, screening for the right vendor, finding the one that is capable, making sure that the project makes economic sense and convincing the chosen one to commit on the project, just to name a few. We worked really hard and our team did very extensive research. We evaluated and screened more than 50 vendors from all over the world. Once we found the right ones, we had to do a lot of convincing to get them on board.”

According to Pongsathorn, teamwork played a huge role in contributing to the team’s success: “I learned about teamwork and how a team that shares the same goal and works toward it can be really powerful. We were supportive of each other’s ideas, which created a great environment. As a team, we kept our focus on the priorities that needed to be completed, and getting them done the right way. We had a lot of ups and downs throughout the project, and we would have not made it this far without the spirit of good teamwork.

My experience with the programme, especially the project success with the driverless truck technology, has boosted my confidence for taking on challenges in the "outside" world. I am really grateful for the opportunity that the programme has given me. I believe there are not many similar programmes available that allow their students to work on projects that are as interesting as this was.” 

The IE-SMU MBA programme is a 13-month blended learning MBA programme that SMU runs jointly with the IE Business School in Spain since 2014. It is a part-time programme that attracts a very international student body, largely because with 19 days of face-to-face instruction spread over five residential periods and the rest of the courses online, students can attend the course from many countries in Asia and beyond. All projects in the capstone course take place in collaboration with external partners where students need to deliver real value in a consulting-type project under the guidance of an SMU faculty member. 


[Featured photo: IE-SMU MBA students worked closely with Katoen Natie, a leading service provider for the petrochemical, and specialty chemical industry, for an innovation-oriented project on driverless truck technology.]

Last updated on 06 Nov 2017 .