The transportation of chemicals is fraught with hazards, inefficiencies and opportunities for costly delays. Profit margins can be exceedingly thin for a commodity that’s delicate to handle, subject to strict regulation and highly dependent on seesawing demand. This is no conventional supply chain.
Rail, with its built-in unit-cost advantages, is essential to the movement of chemicals. And the productivity of railcars is key to maintaining the flow of product across North America. A lean chemical supply chain depends heavily on the shipper’s ability to keep track of shipments and make optimal use of available capacity.
A British multinational chemical company, operating in more than 25 countries, was determined to get better control of its fleet of more than 7,000 rented or leased railcars, by better understanding the location and status of those assets at any given time. The stakes were high; a single mistake in delivery can result in losses in the millions. And each instance of contamination, caused by improper loading onto railcars, trucks or silos at the point of delivery, cost around $300,000 to clean up.
The solution came from Roambee, provider of a global, real-time supply chain visibility tool. It deployed solar-powered “smart” sensors, locking technology, optical character reading (OCR) capability and analytics to address the problem of failures in the chemicals supply chain.
A Need for Visibility
The shipper was lacking the visibility and accurate ETAs needed to assess when a given railcar would be unloaded at the customer location. It was relying on radio frequency identification (RFID) check-ins that supplied the data too late for it to be of use in effective equipment management. As a result, the company didn’t know when its equipment would be ready for return to a production center for refilling. It was covering up that failure with a larger fleet of railcars than was actually required, which led to poor utilization and excess spending on transportation.
Roambee’s sensors, linked to the internet of things, sit atop the shipper’s railcars in special containers that protect them against weather and wear. They transmit real-time status data that can be instantly analyzed and used to take corrective action if necessary.
Watch: Using Sensors to Achieve In-Transit Visibility of Railcar Shipments
The devices allow the chemicals shipper to know the location of both empty and full railcars at every point in the transportation journey. It receives timely status alerts that enable the accurate planning of dispatches and retrievals, without the need for a single reader or antenna at any location along the way.
Through the IoT, the shipper can validate the chain of custody for its railcars from the manufacturing plant to customer site. Heavy-duty keyless padlocks placed on silos and storage facilities, triggered by sensors, reduce the risk of contamination as product is moved from railcar to truck to silo.
Locking the Silos
OCR technology, built into an Android-based mobile app distributed to truckers and silo operators, lets the truck driver scan a railcar’s unique number at the transload terminal, confirming that the correct product is being loaded onto the truck. That’s followed by scanning a QR code on the silo at destination. The lock on the silo will only open if the SKU matches the bill of lading on the truck. As a result, the possibility of contamination is greatly lessened.
With access to real-time railcar tracking data, the shipper can more accurately match inventory distribution demand with railcar supply. The system employs machine learning, drawing on an analysis of historical ETAs, to calculate predictable delivery windows.
With the Roambee technology, the chemicals shipper saw a 70% increase in the accuracy of railcar ETAs. GPS coordinates are used to predict when the equipment will be ready for retrieval. And that capability allowed the company to reduce railcar fleet size, plan trips based on real-time status reports about full and empty equipment, and avoid blind “milk runs” of excess equipment.
In adopting the new system, the shipper undertook a successful pilot involving more than 500 railcars. With full visibility across the 7,000-unit fleet, it expects to reduce losses by 200 railcars every year. It has also been able to cut down on shipment delays, with consequent savings on replacement costs and rental.
By resolving the contamination problem, the shipper improved downstream safety and saved millions of dollars in cleanup costs. “This saved time is now being utilized for more productive activities, benefiting the business and ROI in the long term,” Roambee says.
“All this impacted operational safety at large, reduced costs, enhanced customer satisfaction, and is making an overall positive business impact for this large chemical multinational,” the company adds.
Resource Link: Roambee, https://www.roambee.com/
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