Dunavant’s mobile devices linked to intermodal TMS empower contract drivers.
By Eric Johnson
Visibility has become so pervasive in the field of logistics management that it has largely obscured the fact that one major link in global supply chains continues to remain virtually opaque to shippers.
Drayage remains the veritable black hole when it comes to tracking the movement of containerized goods. The reason is not hard to ascertain: drayage companies and their salaried or contract drivers have had little to no incentive to invest in technology that can loop the dray leg into sophisticated transportation management systems.
So shippers largely cross their fingers and hope their boxes make it from the container yard to the distribution center or deconsolidation facility intact and on time.
But to Mike Rodriguez, senior vice president of Dunavant Sea Lane Express, it wasn’t good enough to write off visibility on the drayage leg. He joined Dunavant in 2010 just as Sea Lane was being acquired by the growing logistics arm and former commodities broker.
Rodriguez, returning from a military stint overseas, immediately set out to resolve a situation he saw in his previous position for an intermodal operator in Southern California: how to bring the drayage leg out of the black hole.
The concept occurred to him on the plane back from Afghanistan.
“I drew up a list on the plane of things I wanted to do in intermodal,” he said. “One of those was to take intermodal mobile. I tried it in 2004 with Qualcomm, but the technology was not available.”
Once back home, his first thought was to work with a technology developer in Long Beach, Calif., Jim Hickman, president of CompCare Services. CompCare is one of a handful of intermodal transportation management system (TMS) providers, catering to the multitude of small to midsized drayage operators clustered around the nation’s seaports and domestic rail operations.
Together, the two developed a system that has put Android tablets in the hands of 300 Dunavant drayage drivers in the U.S. Gulf and Southeast regions. The tablets allow drivers to log into the system through a mobile app and get dispatch information automatically. The driver can then update his or her status through the app, eliminating the time-consuming back and forth with the dispatcher over whether the container has been picked up, discharged, damaged, etc.
“All these over-the-road carriers can get me real-time data,” he said. “Why can’t we get this on the drayage leg? It’s taking this data and making it mobile, but it needs the right infrastructure. I said it has to be a native application. If the driver goes into a dead zone (for cell service), it needs to be able to cache that data and resend it when he gets coverage. Jim had a prototype in front of me in six months.”
Rodriguez said the system can also be set up with geo-fencing so that if a driver crosses certain physical milestones, the status updates automatically — in case the driver forgets to update his status.
The real crux of the system is it compels drivers to fill in milestone gaps that either get ignored or handled manually.
For Rodriguez it was primarily about making an often disenfranchised group — drayage drivers — feel they were included in the process.
“We built the systems to engage the driver in a way they’ve never been engaged,” he said. “They’re so ignored.”
That’s especially true of the owner-operators with whom Dunavant contracts.
“Anyone could make this work for a company truck,” Rodriguez said. “This is the hard sell. We went driver-centric with the app, to really move the driver’s life into this tablet. He can get e-signatures for delivery, ask for fuel surcharges.”
Rodriguez said there was some initial pushback from drivers with whom the tablet was deployed. The benefits to the shipper and to the drayage company were clear, better visibility to the dray leg and instant confirmation of milestones. But the benefits to the driver weren’t so clear.
“We explained to them that they’ll get paid quicker,” he said. “They’ve confirmed to us that they’ve never had a higher rate of pay accuracy.”
Hickman said that benefit is especially apparent for containers being drayed to rail facilities.
“It can be hard to convince them — I’m doing all the work, what’s in it for me,” he said. “But what drivers love is rail billing. That’s the sell to them.”
The benefit for draymen is that when they take a loaded container back to the rail facility, they will not be allowed in if the container is not “rail billed,” Hickman explained.
“That driver usually has to wait in a line to get into the facility,” he said. “Once in, if their container is not rail billed, they have to go to a trouble ticket window, or at times get kicked out until rail billing is recorded by the steamship line or IMC (intermodal marketing company). This is very time consuming and, at times, the driver has to return back to the terminal yard location to store the container until the following day, costing the driver time, fuel, money etc.”
Hickman said the rail billing feature allows the driver to quickly check to see if his or her container is rail billed before arriving at the rail facility.
Another benefit to the harbor area drivers is that they are required to have the appropriate paperwork when they arrive at a port to pick up a container.
“Many times, the driver must drive to the terminal yard location to pick up the paperwork,” Hickman said. “With our electronic (proof of delivery) module, the driver receives his paperwork on the tablet, thus saving a costly trip to the office by going directly to the terminal to pick up his container.”
Drivers can use the tablets for more than just status updates and load locations. The camera has been integrated into the app to allow drivers to take pictures of documents, such as an out-gate receipt, which then automatically get converted into compressed TIFF and PDF files, which are then automatically archived in the TMS.
“Drayage companies are paper-intensive companies,” Rodriguez said. “We should be investing in IT.”
Dunavant piloted the tablet program with the global logistics services provider Kuehne + Nagel.
“We tie directly into Kuehne + Nagel’s TMS,” Rodriguez said. “So there’s no reason to speak to Kuehne + Nagel unless there’s an exception. I only want to talk to them if I want to talk to them, not when I have to talk to them. It’s a straight data pass-through end-to-end via EDI.
“We have a technologically advanced company in K+N, and that’s why they were chosen as the model. It’s the way the industry should be and will be in the future as forwarders and brokers see the advantages of using EDI (electronic data interchange). There’s a lot of set-up time with EDI, but once it’s in, it’s cruise control.”
Rodriguez said the system will be aimed at forwarders who just haven’t focused on visibility past the point at which the cargo arrives at the destination port.
“Final delivery is often an afterthought for the forwarder,” he said. “They are concerned with the ocean leg. That’s what this is designed for — to give the forwarder a real end-to-end option.”
But what has held back the development of technology aimed at the drayage industry?
“Part of it is understanding intermodal drayage as an industry prior to CSA (Carrier Safety Accountability provisions under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration),” Rodriguez said.
Previously, there was little impetus to improve the performance and safety of drayage equipment because there was little regulation of those moves.
“Compliance is part of our daily life now,” Rodriguez said. “In order to bid, you have to have a good CSA score and be C-TPAT (Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism)-certified. Before, it was the easiest model to implement. The overnight hurdles were easy. That’s what drove drayage companies to not invest back into the company, especially on the drayage side. Maybe you’d buy equipment, or a warehouse, or a forklift, but not technology. Also, the brokers would furnish a lot of the information to the drayage companies, so there was no motivation to invest in visibility.
“The other issue was length of haul. For a line haul, you want daily updates on a haul that length. On a 50-mile dray, that wasn’t really an issue. But with the compliance requirements, now you need that. It’s more of a requirement because of the paradigm shift across the industry,” he said.
Hickman said the reason might be simpler.
“There’s still the mentality that the driver isn’t going to get it, that they’re not smart enough to work a device like this,” he said. “But companies need to ask themselves if they want to be ahead of the curve and ahead of the competition. I have 600 of these on the streets right now. The list is starting to pile up of people who want to get on board.”
For Rodriguez, the satisfaction is seeing the system take root which comes from his desire to turn industry traditions on their head.
“I enjoy disruption,” he said. “I enjoy looking at the industry and finding where we can shake things up. What we’ve done here is very unique. The more people I get on board with this concept, the more the standards get formed. I like being the first person to a market, but after a while, you need to get other people involved.”