Jack Hedge, President, Utah Inland Port Authority.

Sep 20 2022

Ports Turn to IT Networks for Visibility into Cargo Data

Wide sharing of shipment data may produce a more resilient supply chain.

The supply chain fell apart when hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disruption delayed sourcing for raw materials, snarled customer delivery and placed shipping companies in difficult situations. In many cases, retailers over-ordered so they wouldn’t be caught short, while consumers turned increasingly to online shopping with an expectation of superfast delivery times.

That combination “just overwhelmed the system,” says Jack Hedge, president of the Utah Inland Port Authority. The nation’s ports “don’t have the slack, the excess capacity of chassis and trucks and rail cars that are needed to process this huge upswing in cargo volumes that we’ve seen.”

Technology can help build greater resiliency. A Gartner survey of supply chain organization leaders found 61 percent say technology gives them a competitive advantage, and analysts there predict increased adoption of digital supply chain technologies. Stakeholders can gain enhanced visibility of cargo through recently established IT networks, which provide information that enables everyone to act more quickly on shipments.

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Historically, “a single company could at best see where its own materials or products are within the supply chain,” says Maciek Nowak, interim dean of the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago. Port operators, on the other hand, “should know where everyone’s products are coming into and leaving the port. As such, they can serve as traffic control for global supply chains, coordinating the flow of containers throughout the entire system.”

To that end, “technology should be implemented to provide greater visibility throughout the networks,” Nowak says. With greater information sharing, “we can begin to untangle the supply chain backups or prevent them from happening in the first place.”

This trend is visible among the nation’s port authorities, many of which are owned and operated by local governments. Supported by state and local investments, port authority executives are implementing digital technologies to fortify their operations and augment the U.S. supply chain.

DIVE DEEPER: How local port authorities are improving maritime cybersecurity.

The Importance of Data Access for Port Cities

The Utah Inland Port Authority, or UIPA, oversees a sprawling industrial nexus. “It literally is the crossroads of the West,” Hedge says. “There is a major transcontinental rail line, a major transcontinental freeway system and a major international air hub, all located within about a 2-mile circle.”

Here, as in other ports, a lack of data access can get in the way. “There are issues with data collection and with transparency in ports and large industrial hubs and rail yards. They tend to be sort of black holes in terms of data connectivity,” Hedge says.

To open up the flow of information, UIPA has embarked on an effort to build and operate the Intelligent Crossroads Network, the world’s first private LTE/5G network dedicated to the supply chain.

Hedge says port operations are awash in data that could support a more robust supply chain: information about the location and availability of containers, chassis, trucks and so on. The ICN “will be able to record that data live, in real time, without having to rely on human inputs. It will record data around the movement of goods in our inland port area and feed that live into a standardized network,” he says.

The technology supporting the network intelligence includes Intel NUC, a small-form-factor PC, and Intel Movidius vision processing units, which enable compute-intensive visual analytics and artificial intelligence workloads at the edge

“Intel is providing the edge processing power to process the data stream that’s coming in off the system, right there on the edge,” Hedge says. “That gives us the ability to relay data in real time to whoever has the right to see it.”

“A cargo owner can query the system and say, ‘I’m looking for container #123.’ When our system sees container #123, in almost in real time, we can tell them it just left the rail yard,” he says.

Data visibility “allows you to better plan, allows you to better strategize,” he adds. “We’re going to be better able to plan and position equipment, rather than just being reactive.”

Jack Hedge
It will record data around goods movement in our inland port area and feed that live into a standardized network.”

Jack Hedge President, Utah Inland Port Authority

How the Supply Chain Relies on Data Availability

Leaders at the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay are likewise looking to make data more readily available to help iron out supply chain wrinkles. A nonprofit trade association, the Maritime Exchange collects and shares vessel schedules across a broad range of stakeholders.

“Everybody needs to know where the vessel is — when it’s going to arrive, when it’s going to depart — so they can schedule the appropriate resources to meet the ship, supply the ship, unload and load cargo, and all the processes to facilitate commerce,” says IT Director Michael Fink.

The association uses Maritime On-Line, seaport logistics software developed in-house, to provide a secure venue for processing and sharing information on movements of the 2,300 ships per year that use Delaware River ports.

EXPLORE: Real-time supply chain visibility solutions.

“We find out when a ship gets to a terminal and when it departs, as well as any docking orders. We collect that, and we put it into our system, and we make that available online to our members,” Fink says. “We disseminate the vessel schedules via email a few times a day, and our subscribers and members can obtain the latest information at any time by logging in to the system directly.”

The system is built on a Microsoft backbone using Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Internet Information Services Server and Microsoft Exchange Server. “SQL is the data repository for all of the information. IIS serves up the web pages and provides the platform on which the application layer resides,” Fink says.

These digital tools have a direct impact on supply chain resilience. “Some of our constituents operate in multiple ports, and those ports that don’t have a system like ours have stated that it’s operationally a lot more difficult,” Fink says. “They’re very, very grateful to have such a system in our port; it really helps to facilitate cargo movement.”

67%

Percentage of CEOs who say they will increase investment in innovation processes to help close supply chain gaps

Source: KPMG, “Six Key Trends Impacting Global Supply Chains in 2022,” January 2022

Building Out the Supply Chain Information Highway

In California, the Port of Long Beach has teamed with Amazon Web Services to develop the Supply Chain Information Highway — a digital network that will help companies track cargo in real time, maximizing visibility in support of better supply chain scheduling and planning.

“We launched this initiative last December, and we completed the proof of concept at the end of February,” says Noel Hacegaba, deputy executive director of administration and operations for the Port of Long Beach. Since then, “we have been fine-tuning the prototype, and we’re about to transition to phase two, scaling up from one terminal at the Port of Long Beach to all six of our container terminals.”

The system will help manage high-level data: “container events, such as when the ship departs its port of origin, when it arrives at the port of destination, when the container is discharged from the ship, and when it crosses the terminal gate, either via truck or train,” Hacegaba says.

RELATED: How the Port of Long Beach established the Supply Chain Information Highway.

He’s looking to the cloud to support both ready availability of data and the high level of security needed to ensure data integrity. “The objective is to keep data flowing, and AWS will secure that cloud environment,” he says.

The system will make logistical data more accessible to the roughly 200,000 shippers served by the port. That, in turn, should drive supply chain improvements.

“You need to know in advance what’s coming your way in order to plan your equipment and your labor,” Hacegaba says. “The Supply Chain Information Highway will allow supply chain partners to enhance their existing planning, scheduling and optimizing systems.”

With better data sharing and greater visibility, “cargo will flow more efficiently,” he says. “The entire national supply chain will benefit.”

Photography by Skylar Nielsen

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