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Smooth Move: Turning The Country’s Biggest Port Into A Digital Hub

If Richard Scarry, the children’s author, illustrator and creator of Busytown, had ever attempted to map out the Port of Los Angeles, the intricate illustration would have looked, well, mighty busy indeed. Known as America’s Port, the country’s largest port complex is a veritable labyrinth of ships, trains, containers and trucks, coming and going, loading and unloading, at all hours of the day and night. Coordinating the drop-off and pickup of goods destined for remote Target and Walmart stores and Amazon warehouses is an exhausting effort that no mere colored pencil could ever begin to contain.

The task is especially trying for the truckers hauling all this cargo. They often don’t know the details of the job until the moment they enter the port. On a typical day, they arrive trailing an empty 40-foot shipping container and peruse as many as 12 websites — one or more for each port terminal — to find a place where they can leave it and pick up a new one loaded with goods.

Because this is LA, the process is always a race against time as well as traffic. If a trucker gets stuck, a shipping company may go ahead and hand the shipment to another driver who’s closer. “Truckers want to return the empty, pick up a full container and get on the highway as quickly as possible so they can maybe even do another run,” says Jennifer Schopfer, vice president of transport logistics at GE Transportation. “The logistic problems really hurt their productivity.”

But help is on the way. Last May, the port partnered with GE on a six-month pilot program to make logistics run more efficiently. Starting with just one terminal, GE software pulled together data about the locations and arrivals of ships, and the availability of trucks and rail cars needed to carry the cargo away. The pilot worked so well that the partners are now rolling out the software to the entire Port of LA and running a three-month pilot at the Port of Long Beach.

Dubbed Port Optimizer, the software takes streams of data from different sources and harmonizes them so they can all work on one platform. For example, different companies might use different abbreviations to refer to St. Louis. One might use the full name while another might use “STL.” Port Optimizer takes advantage of machine learning algorithms to clean and standardize the incoming data so it all reads the same.

The system, which is designed for secure, individualized access by users, also hides crucial competitive information such as pricing details. This was a key part of persuading companies that are normally competitors to work together on the pilot. “We had to make clear that the people giving us the data own the data,” Schopfer says. “We won’t try to sell it or anything like that. It’s exclusively for Port Optimizer.”

The result of the initial pilot program: The LA port can now see ships as far as two weeks ahead before they enter the port, as opposed to just two days before arrival in the past. This transparency improved coordination and has resulted in 8 to 12 percent efficiency gains across the entire community at the Port of LA — with trucks being able to reduce their turn times, railroads being able to plan their trains better, cargo moving faster overall and fewer “touches” per container throughout the process.

“Our goal is to have a significant portion of ports around the world using this,” says GE’s Jennifer Schopfer. “The more participation we have, the richer the data and the more value and efficiencies we can deliver to the global supply chain.” Top and above images credit: Port of Long Beach.

Based on feedback from the initial pilot, the new rollout expands smart truck scheduling to all of the terminals taking part in the program. That means trucking companies will be able to use one dashboard to get an instant, real-time picture of logistics at both the Port of LA and the participating terminals at the Port of Long Beach. “If you’re a trucker, you view the two ports as one gateway,” Schopfer says. “This is going to save each truck dispatcher three hours per day.”

The ports in LA and Long Beach account for 40 percent of all U.S. imports. But Schopfer says GE is talking to other ports about implementing Port Optimizer. Eventually, all of the ports could be sharing information that would give Target, Walmart, Amazon and thousands of other customers the ability to see where their goods are at any given moment. “Our goal is to have a significant portion of ports around the world using this,” Schopfer says. “The more participation we have, the richer the data and the more value and efficiencies we can deliver to the global supply chain.”

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