Out-Smarting Congestion

With congestion seemingly almost endemic on the US West Coast, what are the systems providers doing to help? Cathy Hayward investigates.

Port congestion became a burning issue last year when Long Beach and Los Angeles became gridlocked with ships waiting for up to four shifts before being assigned labour. Containers could then sit for two to three more days because railroads were under-equipped and under-staffed.

"There was lots of congestion here, " says Bruce Wargo, vice president of SSA Marine. In Southern California, especially in Los Angeles and Long Beach, we have outgrown our ability to be effective.

We are really reaching capacity because of the dwell time."

Todd Tatterson, business development director at Tideworks Technology and Harvey Bauer, the firm's marketing manager agree and attribute the congestion to the continual increase in cargo volumes.

Overall volumes at Southern Californian ports were up 17.5% in June 2004 and 24% in July 2004. "There was also a labour shortage which meant that the terminals were having a hard time - there were simply not enough people to shift the cargo, " says Tatterson.

Various solutions are being adopted. Members of the Trans Atlantic Conference Agreement (TACA) announced a congestion surcharge on all-water shipments to, from and via the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. And all six marine terminals in New York and New Jersey are cutting the number of days they allow containers to be stored for free and are raising demurrage fees for storage after the free times runs out.

Meanwhile other ports are looking at incentivising the industry to use all hours in the day. SSA's Wargo is spearheading PierPASS, a programme to fund off-peak hours operations at ports. Users will be charged a set fee which works out at US$80 for a 40ft container. Software development for PierPASS has been underway for several months, hard testing starts in June and the programme should be operational in early July. Not only will it reduce traffic, it will also improve air quality and help infrastructure in the port area such as bridges, highways and the trucking and warehousing industries, says Wargo.

But Nico Berx, business development manager at Cosmos, believes that such a system would not work in Europe. "Antwerp looked at night time operations a few years ago but the truckers didn't use the service. Now the terminal operates from 6am to 10pm and that's standard in Europe, " he says. "But still we're looking at reducing the congestion we do have and making the whole operation much slicker, " Berx adds. One initiative is advanced appointment systems. This allows the trucker to make an appointment over the internet so that the terminal knows when he is coming. The terminal operator can then plan the imports - if they know when and what is coming - then they can organise the yard more effectively.

More terminals are also becoming automated and using yard planning software, says Berx. Cosmos' yard planning software SPACE automatically determines the optimal position for containers that enter the terminal until they are loaded in the right vessel, barge, truck or train. "Yard space is limited and has to be used as efficiently as possible to maintain the profitability of the terminal - shifting should be kept to an absolute minimum, " he says.

Another new initiative is the use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technologies at ports. Tideworks Technology and Camco Technologies implemented OCR technologies at Pier A in Long Beach late last year and have begun working to implement the same model at Pacific Container Terminal in Long Beach.

FASTER THAN EVER OCR technologies offer enhanced efficiency and productivity for the operator at the gate. Cameras housed in an OCR portal capture digital images of container, chassis and tractor licence. The captured information populates gate transaction forms in Tideworks' Mainsail Terminal Management System, streamlining data entry while increasing data accuracy and reliability. Pieter Suttorp, general manager of SSAT Pier A, says the results speak for themselves.

"We're processing trucks through our gates faster than ever and have effectively been able to increase our operating capacity at the gates.

"Our customers look to us to gain efficiencies, " say Tatterson and Bauer. "Either through getting cargo coming in at the weekend, making the gate processing more seamless or better yard planning."

There is no doubt that uptake on terminal operating systems (TOS) has risen over the past few months as a result of increased congestion. Copenhagen Malmo Port (CMP) recently signed an agreement to purchase several TOS solutions from Tideworks. It is using Tideworks WiseTerm, to manage multi-purpose cargo and container terminals, WiseCare for warehousing and inventory control, and WiseTalk, a tool for communicating with customers and third parties. Implementation is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2005.

P&O Ports is testament to the benefits that the latest terminal operating solutions can bring to ease congestion and improve efficiency.

P&O Ports' West Swanson Container Terminal in Australia recently upgraded its computer systems with products from Navis following an 18-month review of its strategy for operating the terminal.

P&O started by implementing a new strategy for arranging containers in the yard. Navis Expert Decking makes use of a computer's ability to quickly assess the pros and cons of every possible slot in the terminal each time a container arrives at the gate or is discharged from a ship. In contrast, the previous system was based on the industry-standard practice of 'reservations, ' in which tracts of yard space were pre-assigned for the expected containers.

The other key development was the implementation of a straddle carrier scheduling module. Navis PrimeRoute uses mathematical techniques to develop an optimal schedule for each strad, factoring the time required to lift/set a container and driving speed against a fully detailed model of the pathways within the yard.

The benefits are beginning to be reaped. The terminal has increased its capacity in terms of the number of trucks that can be processed in a given period with no increase in the number of strads.

The daily driving distance for the strad fleet as a whole has fallen by as much as 200 km - a reduction of 18%. This means savings in time and fuel for P&O.

With the new system in place, P&O has changed its practice of treating the north and south halves of the yard as separate 'parks', due to the long and narrow shape of the facility (30 hectares spread along 980 metres of berth). Now, each truck is serviced from a single grid position, no matter where the containers it is collecting are located. This makes things simpler and faster for the trucks. It will encourage trucks with multiple jobs, leading to better overall efficiency says John Hunter, manager of P&O's National Development Centre.

Another port embracing the latest technology is Napier, aiming to become the major port for New Zealand's lower North Island area.

Navis helped the port move towards this goal through increased terminal utilisation and productivity. "By providing our staff with the best technology tools, it allows them to do their work a lot faster and more efficiently than in the past, " says Steve Johansen at the Port of Napier. As a result the port, which has throughput of 120,000 TEUs a year and between 230-450 gate transactions per day, increased capacity by 25%; yard utilisation by over 100%; decreased truck turn-times by over 50%; reduced vessel load planning time by 3 hours; and reduced vessel discharge planning time by 67%.

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