While technology has transformed warehouse and transportation operations in recent years, the vast yards surrounding distribution facilities largely have remained outposts of manual, inefficient processes.
"Most yards today operate in an after-the-fact environment," says Charles Kerr, equipment control manager for NYK Logistics. " Someone goes out there with a clipboard in a golf cart or pickup truck and writes down trailer numbers and locations and then comes back and those numbers have to be key-punched in. By the time all that is done, the yard has probably changed three times."
Moreover, he says, keypunching data usually results in mistakes or transpositions of the alpha-numeric identifiers. "There is truncation of numbers and all sorts of ugly things that go on," Kerr says.
Eliminating this and other inefficiencies were key goals when NYK Logistics decided in 2003 to implement a state-of-the-art, real-time-location and yard management system at its big, high-volume transload center near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Today, this facility is arguably the most advanced and efficient of its kind anywhere in the world.
The solution that transformed the NYK Logistics facility is from WhereNet, Santa Clara, Calif. It combines a real-time location system with a local-area network for communications and a core application called Visibility Software Suite or VSS. "This is a very high velocity yard," says Kerr. "We typically have about 1,800 gate moves in a 24-hour period, so the challenge is to know the status of the equipment in the yard - whether it is loaded or empty, who it belongs to and what dock it needs to go to." The facility has 1,000 parking slots and 380 doors on 70 acres with three lanes in and two lanes out. It operates 24x7, transloading freight from ocean containers into domestic truck trailers. "We are basically a cross-dock operation," says Kerr.
With so much traffic, it is not unusual for an inbound driver to drop his container or trailer in the wrong location. Before the WhereNet solution, crucial time was lost locating this inventory when the dock was ready to work it. Now, however, WhereNet automatically locates the equipment and updates the system every few minutes. "We have real-time visibility so no one ever wastes time looking for equipment," says Kerr. Nor do drivers spend time going into an office to exchange paperwork. They are told at the gate where to drop their load and where to pickup a new one. Since the yard system allocates adjacent slots to the same carrier, these destinations usually are very close to one another. As a result, drivers that used to spend an hour and a half on site are now in and out in a matter of minutes. In one example, NYK Logistics did a time study of J.B. Hunt drivers, whose trailers are parked farthest from the gate. It showed that the average time in the yard for a double transaction - dropping a trailer in one location and hooking a new trailer at another location - was 16.4 minutes.
The WhereNet system is based on radio frequency identification technology. When a truck enters the gate, a battery-powered transmitter is attached to the container or trailer. A barcode on the transmitter is scanned, associating that particular transmitter with the equipment and its contents. This transmitter beeps every six minutes while the trailer is stationary and every 15 seconds while it is moving. Receivers, known as WhereLAN locating access points, placed on light poles around the yard are able to precisely locate each trailer and transmit this information to VSS. When the trailer exits the gate, the transmitter is removed. Both entry and exit are time stamped.
With incoming containers, NYK Logistics typically receives a shipment manifest via EDI transmission in advance. "We download that information from our transload management system (TLS) to the WhereNet yard management system, which creates an accounts receivable letting us know that this container is coming in," says Kerr. When the driver arrives at the gate, the gate operator only needs to enter the container number and all the information needed to validate the transaction comes up on a screen.
From that point on, every information exchange is system to system - no keypunching. "When it arrives at the gate YMS tells TLS that it is here," says Kerr. When the dock is ready to work this container, they give bar-coded load slips to equipment control. Once the barcode is scanned, status of the container automatically is changed to "ready to work." When that container arrives against the building, the status in the system changes to "unloading."
"When workers have finished scanning the freight from the container, they need to basically zero out, using their handhelds," says Kerr. They are asked if the unload is complete and if there is overage or damage. If not, the worker completes the transaction and that changes the status to "unloaded."
This simultaneously sends a RF command to the yard jockey to pull the empty container away from the building, says Kerr. The localized global positioning system senses there is a vacuum at that door and sends another RF command to bring back a load to that door.
On the outbound, a PC is located at each door and the load slips are scanned into the system there. When the trailer is closed and sealed, messages are automatically generated to direct a yard jockey to pull the trailer away from the door and to notify the carrier that the trailer is loaded and ready to go.
"There is no keypunching, no radio, nothing at all except system-to-system communication," says Kerr. "When the unit goes out the gate, we divorce the transmitter from it and that tells the system that it has departed."
In addition to this system saving driver time, it also speeds the flow of freight, says Kerr. "We are very close to the harbor where land is very expensive and we have managed to increase the throughput of the facility simply as a result of better productivity." This has helped NYK Logistics realize a return on its investment in the WhereNet system in less than a year.
Joel York, marketing director at Navis, Oakland, Calif., also stresses the importance of better productivity through integrated gate, dock and yard management. A leader in marine terminal management, Navis has translated that expertise to solutions for distribution centers with a suite called DCFlow. "Companies that are growing are constantly under pressure to increase DC capacity," York says. "There are a number of ways to do that. They can build new DCs, add space to current DCs or, preferably, they can do it by squeezing more volume through existing facilities." That can only be accomplished, he adds, by addressing the bottleneck just beyond the dock door. "Without a true yard management solution, the last 20 percent in supply-chain efficiencies is unattainable," he says.
This same point was made in a recent benchmark report from the Aberdeen Group, Boston, called Extending Warehouse Management Beyond the Four Walls. Leading supply chain managers, the report says, "are rethinking how to integrate inbound vehicles, dock activity and yard management into traditional transportation and warehousing processes" as a means to improve customer satisfaction. Companies that take these steps, it says, enjoy a 50 percent advantage over competitors in four key areas: order fill rate and accuracy, inventory accuracy, warehouse flow-through and compliance to company internal standards. Moreover, they enjoy a 20 percent to 25 percent advantage on customer service and satisfaction measures.
One factor in achieving these results is optimization, says York: "You not only know where the trailer is, but you actually have an intelligent way of deciding which trailer should go to which dock, taking into account which products are on board, what type of equipment and labor are needed to unload and which hostler is free." The Navis solution, he says, adds real-time adaptation to advance planning. "We can radio dispatch the hostler closest to the trailer, to take it to the closest dock, all to minimize travel and wait time. When you add research-based optimization to automation and planning, you really start seeing the capacity and productivity and utilization gains."
Navis customer Jo-Ann Stores, a fabric and crafts retailer, experienced these benefits after it installed DCFlow Yard Management at its DCs in Hudson, Ohio and Vidalia, Calif.
Greg Pockl, director of the yard project, explains that when workers have visibility to all the freight in the yard, they are able to better prioritize their sequence. "Basically, we wanted better visibility to what was on the trailers in our yard and how long they had been here, so we could ensure we get them unloaded before any detention issues arise" says Pockl.
Jo-Ann Stores also wanted to simplify communications with its yard jockeys or switchers. With the Navis installation, dockworkers have a PC at each door. They enter the trailer number they want to bring up and the destination door number and a message is automatically sent to a switcher. "It takes about a minute to put that move into a queue that the switchers are working from," says Pockl. "The queue has algorithms behind it to solve for the shortest path, based on all factors, so every time you add a move, it recalculates how the queue should be handled."
Detention and driver turn-around time have become bigger issues for many shippers since the change in the hours of service regulations. "The HOS rules certainly have placed a premium on people getting in and out of the yard quickly," says Chris Heim, President of High Jump Software, a 3M company based in Eden Prairie, Minn. "A trucker's time clearly is a more valuable commodity than it used to be."
A first line of defense is to schedule carriers for specific dock appointment times-a capability that is part of most yard management systems. High Jump's Yard Advantage uses web-based appointment scheduling. "It is really nice for people to be able to log on and schedule themselves," says Heim. "And the system ensures that they are offered appointments when the warehouse has dock availability and the resources to unload."
Easy compliance with hours-of-service is one benefit that American Port Services has realized from implementation of High Jump's Yard Advantage at its large container and trailer yard in Savannah, Ga. "Flow through the gate is very important and with Yard Advantage we have been able to reduce the amount of time it takes to move drivers in and out," says Ty Cobler, director of operations at APS. Yard Advantage also allows the company to handle more volume, he says.
Detention charges are an important factor for railroad shippers as well. YardVision from Transentric, Omaha, is a solution especially designed to help shippers manage railcars in their plant by providing detailed tracking of each car's movement though the facility. "Most of our customers want to know what railcars are due in at their yard, when are they expected to get there and what is sitting in the yard that has not yet been called in that is soon going to start costing them money," says Penny Yardley, director of account management at Transentric. YardVision automatically sends out a message to carriers when a railcar is empty and ready to be returned, she says. "This notification stops the clock so they don't incur extra charges." The system also sends alerts when equipment is getting close to being in the chargeable area. "The real focus of our solution is to let users know exactly where a car is located and what exactly is its status, how long has it been there and is it in the right spot to be loaded or unloaded," she says.
Yard management systems also provide better security for trailers in the yard. "Big consumer packaged goods companies and other manufacturers that have large yards have always wanted control, but there is a whole different spin to it now around the threat of terrorist acts," says Tom Kozenski, vice president of product marketing for distribution products at Red Prairie, an supply-chain execution software company based in Waukesha, Wis.
New bio-terrorism regulations particularly impact the food industry, he says. "Companies have to keep track of who touches everything," says Kozenski. "If there is a contamination issue, they have to know what trailer it was on, who was the driver, where he went, and so on. The yard management system can be the system of record for driver-specific or trailer-specific data."
Another issue for many food companies is temperature control. Red Prairie's DLx Yard solution keeps close tabs on refrigerated trailers in the yard to make certain refrigeration continues to work, says Kozenski. "Most of these refrigeration units run on gas, and our system can create alerts to notify the person in charge of yard to go check the gas level on a particular trailer if it has been sitting there for a few hours," he says. "If they forget, that product is ruined." The system also has the ability to collect and track RFID data from special transmitters installed to monitor temperature changes.
C3 Solutions, Montreal, says the greatest demand for its Yard Smart solution currently is from the grocery and food manufacturing industries, with security being but one driver. "Obviously, we keep track of all the security issues," says Greg Braun, vice president of business development, adding that food companies additionally are concerned with faster trailer turns and greater productivity. "A big issue with grocery is maximizing use of dock assets, so scheduling is a major concern," he says. The Yard Smart solution enables web-based scheduling by carriers, taking into account the varying operating constraints. "When you have visibility that a carrier is coming in at a particular time, you can prioritize and make sure drivers are turned around as quickly as possible," he says. Yard Smart also allows customer service to indicate if there is a hot product that needs to be handled quickly, he says. "As soon as that product hits the yard, our task optimization module will automatically bump that trailer reception up in priority. This is all part of our overall inventory visibility - extending the four walls of the warehouse to include the yard."
Braun says YMS has evolved over the last two years to a greater emphasis on flow. "Our customers have gone from a concern with managing drop trailers and trying to optimize utilization of hostlers to a situation where they are now concerned with overall flow.
"We see our job as keeping freight and equipment flowing at all times," he says. "That's the challenge."
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