BCOs to gain from digitization of intermodal rail

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A digital transformation of the intermodal rail supply chain is gaining momentum as beneficial cargo owners (BCO) and freight intermediaries seek to extract information that will allow them to better put necessary labor and equipment in place.

Whether the data comes from a bill of lading, proof of delivery, freight bill invoice, or customs declaration, BCOs want better information, they want it faster, and they want it digitized. “They want to kill the paper,” Bruce Orcutt, senior vice president product marketing at ABBYY, which offers document capture and form processing solutions, told JOC.com.

A similar message was repeated frequently last week at the Intermodal Association of North America expo in Long Beach, with providers promoting products designed to satisfy BCOs’ demand for a new approach to processing transportation information. “If we don’t change it from the inside, outside forces will make it happen,” Mike Albert, CEO of DrayNow, a matchmaker for truckers and brokers, told the IANA expo.

The intermodal environment is especially challenging when it comes to introducing technology because of its complex processes and requirements, said Brian Widell, president of CEO of Profit Tools, an intermodal trucking software provider. Freight hand-offs take place between vessels, trucks, and rail, and specialized equipment such as chassis are involved. Optimization of the intermodal supply chain also depends upon the sharing of shipment information, which is still problematic due to trust issues. “It’s a matter of getting the inputs,” he said.

Now that the data inputs are being made available in a secure environment by technology providers such as InfoMagnus, BCOs and drayage companies are receiving real-time visibility into conditions at the marine terminal gate, the chassis pit, trouble window, and chassis roadability station within the terminal and at the out gate. This information allows a technology provider like Profit Tools to significantly improve the capability of the dispatchers to manage their fleets. A dispatcher that manually handled 25 trucks is now capable of dispatching 75 trucks with the software, he said.

In Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, InfoMagnus provides BCOs and truckers with real-time information on marine terminal conditions by geofencing each terminal through its GeoStamp software. Dispatchers can route or divert trucks to any of the terminals based on the congestion or fluidity of conditions in real time. The “breadcrumb information” generated via GPS identifies bottlenecks at the ports for immediate use, and the data is aggregated over periods of time to help truckers compare the performance of their fleets at various terminals throughout the harbor, said Sal Manzo, co-founder of InfoMagnus.   

An increasingly important step in the digitization process is the use predictive analytics to determine when shipments will be available for delivery, how many trucks and equipment assets will be needed, and the labor requirements that must be lined up. The use of predictive analytics is not Star Wars technology, but rather is becoming a necessary part of the intermodal process, said Adam Compain, CEO of ClearMetal, which builds artificial intelligence solutions for supply chains. “We use artificial intelligence to solve core transportation problems,” he said.

The key to generating information for users in a real-time format is to utilize technology that automatically extracts the data from transportation documentation in a “self-service” process rather than requiring manual processing of the documents, Orcutt said. “The speed of information is what is driving technology discussions,” he said.

BCOs, drayage companies, terminal operators, and equipment providers are able to use this data to achieve greater productivity from their existing assets without having to enlarge their footprint, purchase more equipment, or hire more drivers. “You may not have a driver shortage. It may be an efficiency shortage,” Widell said.

Carriers, equipment providers, and terminal operators are also using technology to increase their business with the same amount of assets. “The only way to build density is through leveraging technology,” Albert said.

Despite rapid advancement in the development of transportation technologies, the overarching problem faced by intermodal is that each technology is siloed in the industry for which it was developed, and these products do not interact with each other for the benefit of the entire supply chain. Orcutt said one solution might be for a non-profit entity such as a trucking association to develop a platform through which all sectors of the supply chain can share information.

Another possible solution is being tested at the Port of Los Angeles. The port portal pilot is being developed in cooperation with GE Transportation, which several years ago linked the 400 General Electric plants around the world through a single platform. In Los Angeles, the initial pilot earlier this year linked a marine terminal, two ocean carriers, three drayage companies, and 10 BCOs in a “system of systems” through a single portal. The harbor commission recently approved an expansion of the pilot port wide.

The biggest challenge to overcome in developing a port portal is neither the technology nor the ability of the port to attract participants, but rather the human obstacle to developing trust, said Jennifer Schopfer, vice president of transport logistics at GE Transportation. “It’s okay to collaborate around the same data,” she told participants in the IANA expo.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.

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