Magazine Article | November 20, 2007

Improve Cargo Velocity, Inventory Management With Active RFID

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Eagle Marine Services (EMS) earns a two-year payback by upgrading its RTLS (real-time location system) from passive to active RFID (radio frequency identification) technology.

Integrated Solutions, December 2007

Business won't come to a halt because you're out of land. Real estate is scarce, particularly on the West Coast. To combat the scarcity, some ocean container terminal companies are implementing RTLSs as a means of streamlining operations. Companies also are using RFID technology to discern the physical locations of tagged objects in an effort to locate cargo containers quickly and precisely. For EMS, a terminal operating subsidiary of APL, Ltd., streamlining its operations with an RTLS is a serious matter. EMS' 292-acre terminal in Los Angeles faced growing container volumes, tighter delivery windows, and more stringent service commitments. What's more is that EMS needed to improve its overall throughput without the option of expanding the physical capacity of its terminal. In other words, EMS was maxed out at 292 acres.

With thousands of containers traveling across the world, EMS sought an RTLS solution that employed the latest technology. In 2001, a company called WhereNet contacted EMS about an active RFID solution. WhereNet explained that active RFID tags are continuously powered and do not require strong signals (unlike passive RFID) — a natural fit for the metal-intensive environment of EMS' terminal. With this in mind, EMS decided to pursue a pilot RTLS project at the terminal. Fast forward to 2006. "We were impressed with the preliminary results that WhereNet produced and decided to roll out the solution across our entire terminal in Los Angeles," says Frank J. Mazzella, terminal process manager at EMS.

The previous RTLS at EMS employed passive RFID technology. "The passive system included specialized MIVs [mobile inventory vehicles] that drove up and down the container rows," says Mazzella. The MIVs read the passive tags that were affixed to the chassis parked in the stalls. With GPS (global positioning system) technology, the chassis' positions were calculated and electronically sent back to the TOS (terminal operating system) used for day-to-day operations (e.g. scheduling cargo pickups). Once in the TOS, the positions were associated with the chassis and the containers they held. The major drawback to this solution was it lacked timeliness of inventory. For example, the inventory counts were only as accurate as the last time a row was 'inventoried' by the MIV. "As our volumes grew, the MIVs could not keep pace," adds Mazzella.

Both RTLSs solutions at EMS had tags affixed to the chassis located throughout the terminal. The key difference, however, is that the inventory with the WhereNet system is continuously updated. What's more is that every time a container arrives into the terminal, leaves, or is moved, its exact locations are updated in the TOS. "Furthermore, we now affix tags to the yard trucks [approximately 160] as well. Each time a chassis is moved by a truck, a near real-time update is provided back to the TOS," says Mazzella. The ability to provide real-time updates ensures accurate and quick turnaround of loads coming into the terminal. For instance, late-arriving cargo on a truck can still be quickly located and retrieved for loading aboard its designated vessel. In the past, EMS was at the mercy of the MIV's route within the terminal.

"The WhereNet RTLS system paid for itself in less than two years," says Mazzella. Furthermore, physical inventory counts at the EMS terminal are a rarity these days — effectively reducing operating cost. What's more is that UTL (unable to locate) occurrences have been virtually eliminated as a result of the installation. Previously, meetings were held on a regular basis regarding the unacceptable level of UTL occurrences. Today, UTL-focused meetings are nonexistent. "Velocity is the operative word when you have 3,000 trucks pulling up to the terminal each day for cargo. Every hour counts in this type of environment. Small improvements equate to huge gains in the long run," concludes Mazzella.