Innovation

5 July 2018

Antwerp expands its chemical cluster

The success of Antwerp’s chemical cluster can be attributed to its port and the logistical role of Belgium as a gateway to Europe. Digitisation is one development that could help to pave the way for the cluster’s further expansion.

Antwerp is the world’s second-largest chemical cluster after Houston. What’s more, the range of chemical and petrochemical products found in the port of Antwerp can be described as unique in the world. The chemical companies in Antwerp deal in both general and highly specialised applications. “The port’s great advantage is its location”, says Jan Desmaretz, Senior Manager of Strategic Investment Decisions at PwC. “It’s a seaport with the benefits of an inland port, with a central location in Europe and a workforce that’s strong not only in number but also in terms of the level of education and the degree of specialisation.”

Productivity remains strong
"The other two challenges for the port are energy transition and digitisation"

Antwerp has grown to become a global gateway for the chemical and petrochemical industry. The infrastructure of the port is geared to this, with not only a link to inland waterways, roads and railways, but also an extensive network of pipelines. Every five years, the VUB conducts research into the competitive strength of the port. “We can observe that the productivity of the port workers is holding steady but not increasing,” says Professor Elvira Haezendonck of the VUB. “Today that productivity remains strong. But will that be enough for Antwerp to maintain its position even when we take into account the high labour costs?”

Over the past fifteen years, the port authority has invested in improving maritime access. In addition, the port holds another important key to the success of the chemical sector: the existing infrastructure for transport and logistics. “Antwerp is the only port that can carry out the majority of its activities with added value on site,” says Elvira Haezendonck. “It has all the requisite infrastructure and a labour force with the right profiles.” The professor does emphasise the importance of further expanding the chemical cluster in Antwerp, however. “Then the port can reduce the pressure on mobility. The other two challenges for the port are energy transition and digitisation.”

Strategic location

The American company Chevron Phillips Chemical established locations in our country in the sixties. Antwerp serves as the main logistics hub for its production sites in Tessenderlo and Beringen. “We are working in a highly competitive market”, says Koen Van Doren, Supply Chain Compliance & Projects Manager at Chevron Phillips Chemical. “The choice of location is thus crucial.” The proximity of the port of Antwerp offers Chevron Phillips Chemical the leverage it needs. “Antwerp is an inland port. That makes all the difference.” Chevron Phillips Chemical supplies raw materials via Antwerp – half of the production volume in Belgium gets to clients via the port. “Today we’re looking at how we can receive certain flows from the US or the Middle East in Antwerp, to then serve clients in North and West Africa from here.”

For Dow Chemical, Antwerp is the most important port in Europe. Although its production activities are based mainly in Terneuzen, all its logistic flows pass through Antwerp. “A large proportion of our customers are located within a five hundred kilometers radius of Antwerp,” says Annick Meerschman, Logistics Director at The Dow Chemical Company. “We are making optimum use of the available network of roads, railways and pipelines Antwerp has to offer.”

Both Chevron Phillips Chemical and Dow Chemical regularly re-evaluate the choice of Antwerp. “Antwerp remains the best option for the time being,” says Koen Van Doren. “It’s a combination of factors: the people, the infrastructure and the operational excellence of the services offered. The chemical cluster really provides a strong competitive advantage here.”

New opportunities
"Optimisation remains the general objective: to organise the process of a product as efficiently as possible"

Digitisation – with implications for the Internet of Things, among other applications – stands to bring chemical companies and logistics service providers closer together. It is a development that brings with it new opportunities. “The story doesn’t end at the port's perimeter”, says Xavier Vanrolleghem, Commercial Manager for the Antwerp Chemical Cluster at Havenbedrijf Antwerpen. “We like to focus on the bigger picture and we want to invest in it from that point of view.” Last year, for example, the port acquired the pipeline company NMP. “The majority of that network is located outside the port,” says Xavier Vanrolleghem.

Collaboration in the supply chain relies primarily on the exchange of data. Which is why the port participates in the NxtPort data platform. Xavier Vanrolleghem: “It is an open infrastructure where all stakeholders come together to make data available and to make use of it. The data platform is intended to boost innovation.” At the same time, the platform should not be limited to Antwerp. The port sees NxtPort as just one element within a larger network of connected platforms. Annick Meerschman: “There is still a long way to go in the chemical sector when it comes to digitisation. Optimisation remains the general objective: to organise the process of a product as efficiently as possible. Digital technology makes it possible to monitor this process effectively. “But of course, not every company has to create its own platform,” Meerschman adds. “A common platform on which companies work together is much more advantageous.”

Future success

“Antwerp’s chemical cluster will continue to grow”, says Elvira Haezendonck, “even as the energy transition and the circular economy continue to develop. Everyone is confident that the Antwerp-Rotterdam-Ruhr triangle will last.’ To ensure this, companies must take matters into their own hands, for example by sharing data through initiatives such as NxtPort. The development of a pipeline network – as a fully-fledged fourth mode – will also be essential for the future success of the cluster. “Belgium and Antwerp offer strong advantages for the chemical sector”, concludes Marcel Claes, Chief Executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium. “But we can’t afford to rest on our laurels. We have to maintain our competitive edge and continue to expand.”

 

This debate was held as part of AmCham’s ‘Year of Logistics’ programme, with support from partner ING.

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