Wireless LAN Cuts Carrier's Shipping Time

SEATTLE (05/08/2000) - A trucker picking up a 40-foot container at the American President Lines (APL) pier and terminal here waits an average of just 17 minutes from the time he arrives to the time he's ready to hit the road. That's less time than it takes an airline to deliver a bag to a passenger at most airports.

How could it be so fast? APL uses an automated, wireless system to track containers parked across its 160-acre facility, which was recently remodeled at a cost of $275 million.

The system is based on a wireless LAN from LXE Inc. in Norcross, Georgia. The LAN is the link between terminal managers and the trucks, cranes and "pickers" that shuttle containers in and out of the port and on and off ships.

APL's trucks are equipped with dashboard-mounted mobile computers hooked into the wireless LAN. The computers track containers via radio frequency tags that are mounted on the chassis on which containers are placed. A satellite Global Positioning System (GPS), now being piloted, will help locate containers even more precisely.

Debbie Gebeyehu, an APL applications executive, said the company chose the wireless LAN technology because nothing else can meet the demands of a truly mobile operation.

Tom Hogue, manager of terminal services at APL here, said the company "automated this terminal as much as possible" to speed up turnaround for customers, who increasingly operate under the just-in-time delivery mode.

Independent truck drivers also benefit, since they can make more trips.

Specific costs of the automation weren't available, Gebeyehu said.

Dan Gatchet, president of Seattle-based West Coast Trucking Inc., which hauls containers to and from shippers, called the APL terminal "the best in the area.

I wish there were more terminals that used automation to speed the flow of containers."

APL has also managed to get the unionized longshoreman workforce at the terminal to buy in to the new technology, a key factor in the success of any automation process on the docks, Gatchet said.

The GPS pilot involves a mobile inventory vehicle (MIV) equipped with a GPS receiver, a chassis tag scanner and cameras to scan the rows of containers. The MIV starts its scan by placing its left wheel on a precisely surveyed mark at the beginning of each row. As the MIV moves, the on-board system scans for containers and tagged chassis. At the end of the row, the driver pushes a button, and the containers' locations are transmitted via the wireless LAN to a map of the terminal displayed on a dispatcher's screen.

Gebeyehu said training hasn't been an issue. "All the drivers really have to do is push a button," she said.

Craig Mathias, a consultant and president of Farpoint Group in Andover, Massachusetts, said the use of a wireless LAN in a widespread area such as the APL terminal has become a "very common technique, just like an ordinary LAN."

But, he added, GPS as a pinpoint location technique would work best in a self-contained area,'' such as a precisely surveyed APL terminal.

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