Photo courtesy of Remprex

Advances in Intermodal Terminal Gate Technologies

Intelligent camera systems, automated gate operations and radio-frequency identification tags are some of the technologies that have been adopted by operators of intermodal terminal gates in recent years. How well are they working, and what more technology could be on the horizon?

More and more intermodal terminals are implementing automation solutions such as optical character recognition, RFID, self-serve kiosks and mobile apps to streamline the ingress and egress of trucks and minimize turn times, industry experts told Intermodal Insights.

They also said that terminals are looking for proven online platforms with easy to use tools that help motor carriers in efficiently planning daily activities and interacting with the terminal, with truck reservation or appointment systems being key among the capabilities, since they enable motor carriers to better plan their work and optimize utilization of their fleet.

Steve Rauch, director of information technology, South Carolina Ports Authority, added that common advanced gate technologies include the combination of a terminal pre-advise system, truck portals and interactive kiosks at the gates.

"Drivers and motor carriers will pre-advise details about their missions through a web portal or app providing the terminal operating system with key information prior to arrival," he explained. "The combination of pre-advise data and data elements captured from the truck portals—tractor, chassis, container—makes for a more efficient gate process as the data are provided as a package that can be reviewed all at once for accuracy."

Stephan Stiehler, intermodal sales director with lifting equipment and services provider Konecranes, told Intermodal Insights that one of the solutions they are providing is an active load control system, where a crane driver is assisted in the handling of containers, thereby reducing the handling time and resulting in more moves per hour.

"The active load control system corrects at any time the small movements which you have by wind, by sway, etc.," he said. "It means you are able to position your container on a truck or on a rail and you can move the container by plus-minus 25 centimeters in the front, in the back and sideways, and a degree of plus-minus five degrees. That makes it very comfortable for the crane drivers, that they’re not using the movement of the whole crane or trolley and as well saving energy."

Emerging Technologies

Regarding what new and emerging technologies that increase gate processing and fluidity could be on the horizon, Remy Diebes, president of Remprex LLC, which provides operating solutions for intermodal transportation, said that he thinks technology to allow analysis of digital photographs is something that could gain steam as new and different uses for it come into use.

"Image analytics is a big one—layering A.I. over some type of image capture so that you can do more with those images," he explained. "Today we take high definition pictures of every angle you can think of, but all we do with it is OCR. That was cool 20 years ago; now we should be looking for automatic damage inspection or automated load shift, to improve safety. It also helps to better identify trucks."

TGS Transportation Executive Vice President Peter Schneider said that touchless technologies are also ones that could see more widespread adoption and deployment at port terminals. "

You just enter in an appointment number, or you use your TWIC card and everything’s automated; you don’t have to do anything," he said. "And I guess the next step of that evolution is the TOS system—the terminal operating system—needs to talk to the TMS system—the Transportation Management System—the softwares need to talk to each other and be integrated so that the driver’s experience is even more fluid."

Rauch added that thanks to the emergence of 5G cellular networks, the goods transport industry could see a whole host of connected objects, the likes of which haven’t been seen before.

"5G is seen as an additional enabler for the promise of the Internet of Things and is likely to find its way into gate processes," he said. "Perhaps the truck, or other equipment, will be enabled to essentially advertise itself upon arrival. 5G will also promote the use of more mobile applications, opening up opportunities to share information in real time in ways that we haven’t even considered yet."

He also said there continues to be tremendous opportunities in the use of APIs, which are a set of routines, protocols and tools for building software applications. Basically, an API specifies how software components should interact. Rauch said that APIs represent a path to provide data integration across a whole host of applications and systems.

"We’re already seeing a lot of activity in this area with supply chain visibility platforms that share cargo events that can be actionable," Rauch explained. "Stronger ties between the motor carriers’ dispatch systems and these visibility platforms and terminal systems will provide real-time interfacing to supply everything from equipment and cargo availability and advanced carrier responses—all of which increases the velocity of cargo in and out of the terminal."

"API adoption is well underway, and there’s more room for growth in this area," he stated.

It has even been predicted by some that ‘virtual kiosks’ will become more prevalent at terminal gates in the coming years due to an increasing reliance on such gate technologies as reservation systems, automation, API integration and smart mobile applications, resulting in less need for physical kiosks at lanes.

Encouraging Usage

Currently, some motor carriers remain wary of using some technologies, so terminal operators have a difficult task in trying to encourage carriers to increase their tech usage. Schneider said that the trucking community needs to keep in mind that productivity enhancement technology can reduce turn times and cut down on waiting time at gates.

"If a larger trucking company has the ability to tie in with API connections and make it to where it’s seamless and it’s software driven, not trucker driven, then I think that’s very advantageous for a terminal to say ‘hey, I’ve got the technology, link in to me, and that’ll make your jobs easier’" Schneider said.

Belt Railway of Chicago President Mike Grace said that one way to get motor carriers to embrace tech is to make it systemic, such as in the implementation of reservation systems like those used by airlines.

"[Technology] ought to be a part of the pricing model," he said. "If you want to show up at the last minute to get on the train, it’s going to cost you more. If you want to make a reservation two weeks ahead, we’ll give you a better price. I think that should be the market mechanism to regulate that."

"If we look at the biggest evolution of the gate process to date, it’s the mobile app," Diebes added. "The challenge has been adoption of that technology. Some truckers don’t want to use the mobile app; there’s a wide range of reasons. The terminals aren’t also motivating the drivers to do so. And I would say the biggest thing you could probably do is make it a fast lane—if you’ve done this, you get some type of expedited access, or some type of privilege."

Rauch said it’s been the SCPA’s experience that carriers are open to adopting technology, as they are looking for ways to make their businesses and processes more efficient.

"By adopting these technologies and approaches, carriers will be able to do more turns, more quickly, and with fewer exceptions."
Steve Rauch
South Carolina Ports Authority

"What you need to illustrate is that by adopting these technologies and approaches, carriers will be able to do more turns, more quickly, and with fewer exceptions," he explained. "We are helping each other make the whole process more efficient. That velocity at the gate translates to similar benefits in the yard, for example. The quicker that we can process a driver through the gate and into the container yard to, for example, deliver an import container, the better we can utilize the space that container occupied for additional containers and the more turns that driver can do throughout the week. It’s a win-win."

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