Why visibility into shipments is more important than ever

by Andy Adams

Pressures created by the pandemic and other global developments have introduced a new level of variability into all areas of the supply chain. This has heightened the need for intermodal shipment visibility.

Multi-modal supply chains can stretch over thousands of miles, as containers move via multiple modes of transportation, from ocean, to rail, to motor carrier, creating the need for real-time – or near-real-time – visibility.

At the same time, intermodal logistics managers face a complex mix of labour issues, port backlogs, insufficient equipment supply, inventory management demands, rising transportation costs, low margins, expensive detention fees, and service issues that challenge end-to-end efficiency and reliability.

Canadian supply chain managers also have a particular need for container status and estimated times of arrival (ETAs) during the winter months when frequent snow and subfreezing temperatures can play havoc with intermodal rail operations. Under extreme circumstances, containers can sit for extended periods, causing unplanned delays while the railroads work to conquer the elements.

Varying challenges

These challenges can vary for different supply chain participants, including ocean carriers, beneficial cargo owners (BCO), and drayage operators. The number of modes involved and the security level around the available data are also significant variables.

For the ocean carrier, granular visibility to the shipment might disappear or diminish once containers are discharged, forcing use of sub-optimal means to provide customers with location information. Conversely, they may have scant information for export containers destined for their vessels.

For the BCO, it is essential to always know the location of their containers. Otherwise, their ability to manage production schedules or inventory levels in distribution centres and stores is compromised. These shippers typically use two – or even all three – of the intermodal modes.

They may also rely on freight forwarders, intermodal marketing companies, or NVOCC’s to move their product. This can present challenges, not just in obtaining multi-modal data, but in being included on shipping documentation that provides access to critical location information.

Detention fees

For the dray carrier employed to pick up the containers in the terminals or provide first mile/last mile services, location visibility is vital for reducing or eliminating detention fees. These carriers urgently need information including ETAs, last free day, pick-up number, and lot location at the terminal.

Detention charges for pickups after the last free day time can be as much as $150 or more per day, cutting into already slim margins. Accurate information can also increase the number of turns the driver can perform in a day, making their businesses more profitable.

The most vital locations in the chain where accurate and complete data are needed are the port and railroad intermodal terminals. These are often the places where a container gets held up.

Data at these points include:

  • • Container discharge or embarkation
  • • Customs clearance
  • • Gate events
  • • Chassis ties and unties
  • • Container status reloaded or unloaded from rail
  • • Notifications on loading delays
  • • Notifications on missed cut-off times
  • • Last free day
  • • Pick up numbers
  • • Lot locations
  • • Appointment times and missed appointment notifications

Port and rail facilities are complex operations, and have a limited amount of real estate for storing containers and accommodating motor carriers. The main goal of these operations is “terminal fluidity” to maintain a smooth operation. Accurate and complete data minimize the amount of time spent in the facility, benefiting both the BCO and motor carrier.

The ETA might be the most important data element provided in the intermodal shipment. An accurate prediction of arrival time at a terminal allows the operator – as well as the entities employing drivers – to set schedules and reliable appointment times to maintain a more predictable and profitable operation.

Many container owners are now equipping their containers with GPS units. This allows them to get accurate readings not only about the condition of the container (temperature, damage, open doors), but also to obtain an accurate location and if the container is moving. The GPS reading is useful when the container is moving, but it does not provide vital status information if the container is dwelling during transit, including cause of delay and projected time to resolution.

Understand the factors

Understanding the unique and complex factors that affect intermodal shipment visibility is the first step toward making greater use of intermodal logistics. Doing so supports safer, more efficient, and greener operations that will strengthen your organization’s position as a reliable and responsible player in the fast-changing global supply chain.

Realizing that goal likely requires expertise that is outside the core competencies of your organization. This article should help you determine where you need to develop relationships with subject matter experts who can help you achieve optimum intermodal supply chain visibility.

Andy Adams is senior solutions engineer, Railinc