US Gulf develops automated systems to improve container availability

Growing oil and petrochemical exports from the U.S. Gulf and an intensified shortage of container availability have triggered the use of the first cohesive automated network between port, trucking and cargo shipper in Houston, executives told Petrochemical Update.

The Port of Houston is working on a collaborative automated approach to solve container availability issues.

Intermodal software provider Compcare Services, The Port of Houston, Sunburst Truck Lines and Packwell are working together to form a cohesive, complete platform that will enable data collaboration between the port, container terminals and supply chain stakeholders in real time.

The platform is expected to help beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) and their logistics partners reduce the time they spend manually searching for information and planning their operations by directly integrating data securely between all systems.

The result, expected to be implemented by year end, will be a streamlined and automated process that eliminates manually searching websites, emails, phone calls and spreadsheets typically used to collect and share information about containerized cargo moving through the supply chain.

Container conundrum

As exports from the U.S. Gulf grow, container availability remains an issue and lost time manually searching for containers equals lost time for the supply chain. The Port of Houston recently extended its operating hours from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. to help alleviate some of the pressure.

All Port Houston facilities have handled 28.8 million tonnes of cargo year to date as of September, a 9% percent increase over the first three quarters of 2016. Container volume alone recorded an 11% increase versus last year, and in September surpassed the 1.8 million twenty-foot equivalent unit mark.

“We remain confident of continued growth in the container sector, both on the import and export side, during the remainder of this year and into 2018,” Port of Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther said.

From a trucking standpoint, availability of containers at the port is a big issue. Compcare previously developed tools that screen scrape websites at ports. The program will login as the truck driver, look for containers and automatically trace results in real time.

“The truck driver needs to know when containers will be available. When you are picking up 100s of containers a day, it is very taxing to do this manually. This program allows it to happen automatically saving time and money in the long run,” Hickman said.


However, not all of the ports appreciate this, claiming the screen scrape process taxes their internal systems when data on 1000s of containers starts getting tossed around.

The Port of Houston is one port that does provide real time container availability updates electronically now, but the feeds are not totally complete, Hickman said.

The Port of Houston already has an Application Programming Interface (API) in place and Packwell and Sunburst have systems in place as well. So the main goal is bringing it all together in one cohesive effort, and putting the jigsaw puzzle pieces together for real time collaboration.

“The number one goal needs to be for ports and trucking companies to work together so we don’t tax the system. Ports need to provide this data electronically,” Hickman said.

The executives behind the collaboration believe this integration will save at least one hour of time and the potential to save thousands of dollars per load, as a result of reduced errors and reduced manual time searching for containers.

“This is a game changer for the industry. It will save time for the driver when the information is preloaded and sent,” Hickman said. “Getting the information correct between the loader and getting the feed from the Port of Houston to ensure the correct cargo is picked up and taken to the correct place could save thousands of dollars per cargo.”

Real time data

Once a container is ready, the Port of Houston network will send a direct feed into the collaborative network.  Truck drivers will enter in their requests and the network will help to match containers to drivers.

“Information from the truck driver coupled with the direct feed from the Port will feed into the cargo shipper Packwell and let them know that we are coming with a particular container,” Hickman said. “This expedites the process because they know the trucker is on the way and can prepare for the arrival.”

If the wrong container is loaded and taken to the wrong destination, then it has to be returned and that costs time and money. If the wrong container is loaded and gets all the way to the port and it’s the wrong one, that cost even more time and money to have to turn around and reship the cargo to its intended destination.

The new programming will provide real time data such as vessel arrival, terminal location, container availability/status, current location, and other pertinent shipment and terminal information.

Rather than constantly searching for updates, the collaboration allows container status and availability information to be communicated directly between systems so that personnel only need to monitor exceptions and possible issues.

Involve trucking

Collaboration by all three sectors was key to bringing this network together, Hickman explained.

“There needs to be a willingness by all parties to work together: the ports, the trucking industry, the container sector,” Hickman said. “If we can get electronic data interchanges (EDIs) on board and all BCOs to accept the paperless process, things will be much more efficient.”

Communication is important and this means between all the parties, especially the trucking sector, Hickman said.

“For many years, trucking has not had a voice or say in this. Getting trucking involved has made a world of difference,” Hickman said. “Get buy in from the drivers and this will help you get everyone on board.”

The trucking sector is a backbone of the American economy. 70% of the nation’s freight, representing more than $725 billion in annual revenue, are moved by the trucking industry. Freight levels are forecast to grow more than 40% by 2045, and energy and oil use are set to rise by 20% in the next 25 years, according to a new report by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE).

Long Beach

The Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT) is an example of a group that has made great progress on implementing their digital strategy and as a result is a top destination for trucking, Hickman said.

LBCT is fully automated and drivers want to go there because it means they get in and quickly with the correct containers. This means more drive time, more business and more money.

“They are nearly 100% automated and the drivers love going there. Trucking is largely an owner/operator business. Owner/ops can refuse business at any time if they don’t like the way things are done or they are not making money or wasting time on something,” Hickman said.

“At a time when the industry is facing a driver shortage, this is more important than ever,” Hickman added.

Going paperless

The oil and petrochemical industry has for years relied on manual processes for things such as equipment installation, repairs, logistics, maintenance and waste disposal. The problems make their way all the way to distribution where terminals are running 20-30-year-old software, or no software at all, and running paper bill of ladens.

Customers end up with accuracy issues and confusion over deliveries. Delivery time is lost and costs increase.

Shaun Leone, president of Sunburst Truck Lines, saw the issue with errors and lost time and invested in technology to ensure a smooth process from order to delivery, from fleet to dispatch at his Houston based trucking company.

Working together with Compcare, Sunburst Truck Lines put a paperless approach in place that handles delivery tracking, electronic invoicing, tablet dispatch, automatic delivery notification and easy scheduling.

“The entire industry needs to get on board with going paperless. If we can get less human interaction in places where possible, there won’t be as many steps so accuracy, productivity and timing is improved,” Leone said.

By Heather Doyle