E-Commerce Speeds Business at U.S. Ports

Technology improves cargo flow, provides real-time information to customers

U.S. ports and waterways handle more than 2 billion tons of domestic and import/export cargo annually, a figure that's expected to triple by 2020, according to the American Association of Port Authorities in Alexandria, Va.

To remain competitive and handle the increase in cargo shipped by water, U.S. ports are using logistics software and the Web to run their businesses more efficiently and meet customers' needs.

"[Shipping companies] want to be able to track and trace their cargo, book freight and check on the availability of cargo and equipment through one Web site in a real-time manner," said Steve Hennessey, director of terminal operations at CSX Lines LLC in Charlotte, N.C., which provides ocean transportation and logistics services.

Chris Newton, an analyst at AMR Research Inc. in Boston, said he agreed that the main thing a port's customers want is the ability to keep a close eye on their goods.

"They don't want to lose sight of [their cargo], so it's good for the ports if they have the ability to track the movement of shipments," Newton said.

Advanced Freight Technologies

But how exactly can ports meet their customers' needs?

Through advanced freight technologies, according to the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass.

For example, next month, the Port of Charleston in South Carolina will roll out a computerized Yard Management System designed to rapidly move cargo in and out of terminals by improving container organization, said Pam Everitt, IT director at the South Carolina State Ports Authority in Charleston, which operates three public seaport facilities including Charleston, the fourth-busiest container port in the country.

A container is a rectangular box used to ship goods on ships, trucks or railroad cars.

"As volume increases, we have to be more efficient moving cargo," Everitt said.

Everitt said the new system will be capable of tracking containers and instantly reporting their status electronically. She declined to divulge the system's cost. Compared with the port's present paper-driven terminal process, the new electronic system will provide a more accurate perspective of where containers are in the terminals, according to Everitt.

Knowing the location of containers will let workers in the container yards direct truck drivers to an exact location, rather than a "ballpark" estimate of the location, to pick up a particular container, saving time and money for the customer, he said.

Other U.S. ports also understand the need to run efficient transportation operations and are implementing new systems to reach that goal.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in New York is setting up a new Web site designed to offer transportation providers, exporters, importers, terminal operators, freight forwarders and others one-stop shopping for the data they need to make decisions about cargo pickup and delivery, said Rick Larrabee, director of port commerce.

The new platform, called FIRST (Freight Information in Real-time System for Transport) is slated to be launched next year.

By logging on to www.firstnynj.com, all parties will be able to access real-time information on ship arrivals, the status of arriving cargo and highway traffic in the vicinity of the New York/New Jersey ports.

For example, by first verifying that a container has arrived at a port and has been released for pickup, a truck driver can avoid an unnecessary trip to the port.

Manuel Garmilla, director of operations and planning at CSX World Terminals LLC, also in Charlotte, said shipping companies are just now asking for these services from terminal operators. He said it may be because until recently, shipping lines weren't sophisticated enough technologically to take advantage of such Web-based offerings.

Yard Work

Jim Eldridge, director of administration at the Port of Houston Authority, said the authority is implementing new computer systems from Navis LLC in Oakland, Calif., to help manage its container terminals. "This is just [one place] where we can help our customers [save time and money] by being more efficient," Eldridge said.

Together, the Navis SPARCS and Express systems will allow automatic yard planning to determine the best location to put a container as well as provide information including container availability to the port's customers. In addition, Eldridge said, computerizing the yard-management functions will allow trucks picking up containers to get in and out of the yard faster.

On the West Coast, the Port of Seattle, like other U.S. ports, is computerizing its container terminals to move freight faster and more efficiently, according to Mic Dinsmore, the port's executive director.

For example, truckers can use the port's container tracking Web site run by Long Beach, Calif.-based eModal.com LLC to help cut down on wasted trips by checking if a specific container is ready to be picked up.

Dinsmore added that the port is launching a five-year, $20 million e-business strategy that will ultimately move all of its internal and external business processes to the Web.

"[Our customers] will have easy access via our Web page to do business with us," Dinsmore said.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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