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Port Report: Long Beach terminals seek solutions to truck fluidity

While a port-wide system still under review, one start-up works with individual terminal to optimize drayage.

Port of Long Beach (Photo: POLB)

The Port of Long Beach can be a challenge for truckers, even during the slow season. But the port and its tenant marine terminals are looking to software to ease the fraught process of returning and picking containers.   

Drayage drivers that navigate the 3,200-acre facility juggle different websites, appointment systems, and changing instructions on where to return empty containers for Long Beach’s six marine terminals.

One way to address the disparate systems is through a common “portal” where cargo owners and their truckers can access information and make appointments for drivers.  

In 2018, Long Beach completed a two-month trial of GE Transportation’s Port Optimizer software, which is in use at the neighboring Port of Los Angeles.

Ken Uriu, marketing manager for the Port of Long Beach, said at a trade industry event in April “that having an information portal to provide transparency to the supply chain is needed.” Yet Long Beach has not made a decision on which portal to use, he added.

“We are looking at different information portals,” Uriu said. “We’ve been recently approached by many providers other than GE.”

The facility’s marine terminals are looking at individual solutions as well, said Hugo Malorey, head of business development for software and analytics start-up BlueCargo.

The Walnut, California-based company was founded a year ago based on “the observation that seaport terminals are doing a lot of unproductive moves,” Malorey said.

“What we are building would be a bridge to what a GE Port Optimizer does,” he added.   

Malorey said BlueCargo has been working with one undisclosed marine terminal at Long Beach since March on how to stack containers in its yard and reduce wait times for pick-ups and deliveries.   

During those trials, Malorey said BlueCargo saw a “tough problem that needed to be solved beforehand, which was better collaboration between marine terminal operators and the drayage community.”

One of the biggest pain points between those two parties is how to return empty containers.

The problem of empty containers became particularly acute during the first quarter in the wake of import front-loading that took place in 2018. Empty containers as a percent of total volume at Long Beach reached a three-year high in January 2019.

Source: Port of Long Beach

Shipping lines provide terminals with instructions on where empty containers should be dropped off. The terminals then are usually responsible for relaying those instructions to trucking companies.

But the container ship alliances have resulted in box ships calling at multiple terminals, forcing truckers to return empty containers to different sites than where they were picked up. Terminals will also close empty receiving because of too many empties.

“When that happens, it can be a real problem for drayage carriers as drivers have to be rerouted to other sites,” Malorey said.

To alleviate the problem of empty returns, BlueCargo built a “visibility platform” which will take return instruction information from terminal websites and deliver it to drivers.

“We spotted the empty return problem as the drayage community has to always be on the lookout for return instructions,” Malorey said. “Drayage carriers usually have one person in charge of checking for empty return instructions and scraping websites manually, but that information can change at any time.”

Looking ahead, Malorey said BlueCargo looks to use the compiled data on empties and return instructions to provide predictive analytics on which terminals will close to empties and which container lines will change instructions.

Along with empty return visibility, BlueCargo is working on an improved appointment system for truck drivers at marine terminals. The system would determine the actual position of a container in a yard to suggest the best appointment time. That is, a container at the top of a stack would get the first appointment, and so on down the stack.

The containers themselves would not need to be kitted out with GPS or wireless tracking for that. Instead, yard equipment would relay information on which container it is handling back to BlueCargo’s platform.

Terminal software vendors such as Advent Intermodal and Tideworks Technology are no doubt looking into similar issues of cargo fluidity. Malorey said BlueCargo’s platform will be able to integrate with those vendors to provide a more robust suite of solutions.    

“If the current implementation goes well, we will for sure look to replicate it at other terminals.” Malorey said.

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