Everything in its place
Alex Hughes finds out why equipment tracking is not yet a 'must have' port accessory
Used well, equipment tracking can boost productivity, but not all terminals view the technology as critical to day-to-day business.
The sheer number of mobile equipment units working in a modern terminal – not to mention their combined value – means that it makes sense to track them, says Marco Fehmer, contracted by Eurogate Tangier as IT director.
“The knowledge of the whereabouts of individual pieces of equipment, allied to the use of optimisation software, allows overall distances travelled to be reduced and unproductive movement in the yard to be cut out, making the whole process more efficient and economic,” argues Mr Fehmer.
However, John Arnup, DP World's director global engineering, says that he doesn't believe that terminals today view being able to track mobile assets as “essential” to how they run their businesses.
That said, tracking technology remains of interest to the Dubai-based group, although it has no preference for a particular type of technology. “The hardware and software used on the equipment for tracking is typically provided by the OEM, although there are after-market solutions that can be retrofitted,” says Mr Arnup, adding that trials are currently in progress at one of the company's terminals using OEM hardware/software, with data packaging managed through the GSM mobile network. This is not new technology and has been used extensively in other transport sectors.
Mr Fehmer prefers GPS as the main tracking technology, since it does not require any backbone or infrastructure, he says. Today, the reliability of the position given by an industrial GPS solution is more than enough for the purpose of path optimisation for equipment such as terminal tractors or straddle carrier, he adds. In his view, the best application is when GPS is connected to on board sensors or CAN bus (PLC). For automated container stacking, Differential GPS is mandatory.
In the past, he notes, radio frequency identification tags, lasers and other equipment have all been looked at, but all of them required cabling and civil works. However, he feels that these are only necessary if a terminal needs high levels of accuracy to ensure anti-collision or lane assignment under the quay cranes.
Matt Ramsey, vice president sales, ports and terminals for Identec Solutions Inc, says that tracking is very much a case of “horses for courses”. GPS-level positional data may be absolutely required on one site, while a simple point-of-work identification of assets may be perfectly suitable for another. Typically, there will be some combination. For example, RFID on street trucks; DGPS on lift equipment; and RFID or RTLS on UTRs/ITVs.
“The most appropriate strategy is to build a solution based around the customer's key performance indicators. The eventual level of automation chosen may therefore range from simple to very complex,” he says, identifying several key steps in the evaluation process. First of all, the weak points have to be identified using critical analysis and real data used to determine the biggest needs. A plan then has to be developed to work out competitive advantages, looking at both short term and long term goals.
“We also advise evaluating how one technology can be extended to multiple applications; for example, RFID tagging of street trucks for gate automation can be leveraged to perform automated job promotion inside the facility,” he says.
However, the harshness of the port environment has led detractors to question the very viability of tracking technology for mobile equipment, something that DP World’s Mr Arnup strongly refutes: “The human element can pose its own set of problems and challenges, but managing and coping with the physical environment within the equipment space and climatic elements is not an issue today.”
His colleague, Rashid Abdulla, senior vice president global operations, adds that technology providers have not had to change their approach to tracking assets because of the maritime environment; the hardware and software being used is the same as that deployed in other transport sectors.
For his part, Mr Ramsey says that the market absolutely demands that tracking equipment is up to the job.
“I can only speak for Identec, but the environment in which the application is to be deployed is critical in our engineering and development process. Our systems are field-proven to be reliable and robust over the span of several years through the development of rugged hardware and/or environmentally rated enclosures for equipment. Similarly, factors such as temperature, humidity, shock and vibration can be mitigated by proper design.”
According to Eurogate Tangier’s Mr Fehmer, new sites pose few problems in terms of setting up asset tracking capabilities since these terminals normally have optical fibre networks in place; however, for existing terminals, the issue is one of the disruption caused by needing to install the necessary cabling.
“In general, we prefer to work with equipment vendors who operate in our industry. Those coming from the outside – from the automotive or power plant sectors, for example – have had to supply equipment for different needs and budgets. Absolute accuracy is also not necessary in the container business, since our unit of measurement is the 20-foot container,” says Mr Fehmer.
Tracking brings other benefits too: DP World’s Mr Abdulla claims that information obtained from asset tracking does help in future planning of both the equipment fleet and terminal design.
“Richness and quality of data can certainly assist in ensuring the terminal specifies the right equipment for the job in hand and will highlight problems associated with the space in which the equipment operates, thus potentially impacting future designs and/or layouts,” he says.
It's an opinion shared by Mr Fehmer. “Information obtained from asset tracking definitely helps in future planning of both the equipment fleet and terminal design. By monitoring the position of the terminal tractor fleet in both the stacking yard and at the quayside, it is possible to monitor queues in real time and allows work to be allocated and yard planning allocation to be constantly reviewed,” he says.
As for future design improvements, Mr Fehmer says he would like to see GPS devices and antennas to be fitted as standard in vehicles deployed in a terminal, so that operators could buy ready to use equipment. Currently, these remain options.
“At Tangier, the next potential technology upgrade could see the real time tracking of RTGs, by integrating them into the existing solution. Reachstackers could also be similarly tracked. We are also looking at the use of hand held terminals or radio positioning to track pedestrians, so that collisions could be avoided,” says Mr Fehmer.
Mr Abdulla is also keen for OEMs to offer tracking solutions as standard. “It's already well proven, so we don't need to keep on discussing it; rather, now is the time to reap the benefits of such operationally rich data being available to the end users.”
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