Los Angeles Port Joins Hands with GE for a Digital Makeover

The Port of Los Angeles is rolling out a first-of-its-kind data platform with the help of GE Transportation to enable all parties — including terminal operators, shipping lines, truckers, cargo owners, and railroad personnel — to track cargo flow at the port, helping them better plan supply chain logistics.

At a Glance

Project Details: The Port of LA is collaborating with GE Transportation to develop a $13+ million platform that aggregates port data and implements machine-learning technology to enhance transparency and improve efficiency of operations.

Key Players: The Port of LA, GE Transportation, terminal operators, shipping lines, truckers, chassis providers, railroads and cargo owners

Project Cost: $13+ million

Timeline: Completed a two-month pilot project in spring 2017; Plans to expand the aggregate platform to other terminals in 2018.

Benefits: GE Transportation’s platform is essence, a one-stop web portal that aims to revolutionize data sharing and coordination within the shipping industry, dramatically reducing congestion and logistics- related costs.

In 2014, the Port of Los Angeles experienced some of the worst congestions that could be recalled in recent history. It made news with painful headlines such as “Port Squeeze Threatens U.S. Retailers’ Holiday Stocking Plans” and “Are West Coast Longshoremen Spoiling Christmas?” Coupled with labor negotiations and holiday season, the congestion overwhelmed the port – taking it months to recover from a backup of trains, trucks, and ships.

Today, that’s a distant nightmare.

The port is partnering with GE Transportation to roll out an aggregate data platform that would enable major players — including terminal operators, shipping lines, truckers, cargo owners and railroad personnel — have a line of sight of the cargo coming in and out of the port, helping prevent those crippling congestions and damaging media coverage.

“This is a system that if one piece stops, everything else backs up,” said Chris Chase, a spokesman with the port.

GE Transportation’s platform is, in essence, a one-stop web portal that aims to revolutionize data sharing and coordination within the shipping industry, dramatically reducing congestion and saving logistics-related costs.

Chris Case, a Port of Los Angeles spokesman

I met with Chase and his colleague Phillip Sanfield in late 2017 at their port office – a building which looks like a stack of Lego blocks – on the heels of a successful, two-month pilot project. The port plans to extend the platform to more terminals this year.   

Chase said the port invested $13 million in the project and expects to improve efficiency by 8 to 12 percent.

The digitization effort began in the aftermath of the 2014 congestion, after Executive Director Eugene Seroka started to look for ways to better manage operations. The port eventually sent out a ‘Request For Proposal’ to find a partner to help implement a digital infrastructure, zeroing in on GE Transportation to develop and manage the project.

GE Transportation selection was largely because of its expertise with securing complex data, say, for government and other industries, and developing portals with similar capabilities.

Testing the waters

For the pilot project, the port and GE Transportation selected two of the largest shipping lines, Maersk and MSC, the port’s largest terminal operator APMT, retailers such as Walmart and Ikea, along with four trucking companies and the BNSF rail company.

“We’re aggregating…from multiple places, from Customs and Border Protection, and from the shipping lines directly, as well as the terminal operating systems,” said Jennifer Schopfer, GE Transportation’s vice president and general manager. “We’re bringing that data together, and for the first time making it available to entire supply chain community,”

The next iteration of the portal will be equipped with machine-learning capabilities that would also provide workers like truckers and chassis providers with recommendations on carrying out their next task, said Schopfer. It will also be available in a downloadable app, and continue to be securely accessible on a website through a mobile device, tablet or computer.

“One of the theories we’re operating under is can we get better use of our existing land by being more efficient?” Chase said. “We think that it’s a better investment in the short run at least, to see if that can help move more containers.”

“The easiest thing to do would be to keep adding land, but that’s not a real option, unfortunately. There’s not a lot of land.”

The evolution of the shipping industry

Ports always have been susceptible to congestion, but to large degree, recent changes to the shipping industry have exacerbated congestion and impacted workflow.

In the past decade, larger ships have been built to hold and move more cargo than ever before. (In 2016, the Port of Los Angeles welcomed the largest container ship in the world, CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, whose length is taller than the Empire State Building.) The financial crisis of 2008 further deepened this trend, with shipping carriers looking to cut down maritime trips and costs by building bigger ships to accommodate more containers and forming alliances to consolidate cargo.

The Port of Los Angeles — along with the nearby Port of Long Beach — together account for around 40 percent of all U.S. imports annually, largely because of their proximity to Asia. These ports handle enormous manpower along with extensive truck and rail infrastructure to load/unload the cargo in a short period of time, often at the expense of coordination.

Consider this: A ship — which can carry anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 containers or more — arrives from Asia or Europe at the Port of Los Angeles. These containers are packed with a variety of goods, from car parts to household items for Target and Ikea. They have to be cleared through US Customs and loaded onto waiting trucks or rails before reaching warehouses in the West Coast or the Midwest.

Once unloaded, the ship is reloaded with imports destined for overseas.

About 2,000 such exchanges happen each year.   

A boon for truckers

“The port is like a supercomputer that has all the hardware you could ask for, but you’re running it on Windows 95,” said Weston LaBar, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association, an advocacy group for the trucking industry. LaBar supports the new platform, working with the port to bridge the digital divide.

Weston LaBar, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association

LaBar says that the average trucker browses more than 40 websites a day to complete their daily transactions. He or she has to navigate between different terminal appointment-systems and have a short window to pick up containers from a terminal.

However, the trucker often doesn’t have information regarding the specific time and type of good they are picking up, prompting them to drive from one terminal to another until they locate the correct containers.  

Similarly, when truckers come back with empty containers to the port, they often don’t know which terminal to drop them off and are forced to check numerous websites through their dispatchers.

This new portal clearly could benefit truckers the most, LaBar said, by “creating transparency, having a place where all the data comes in, and speaking in a common knowledge.”

“It’s about getting this part of the industry up to the same level of productivity from a technological point, like something like FedEx or UPS, where we know where that package is at any given point in time,” LaBar said.   

Brett Parker, the president of Cargomatic, a trucking company who participated in the pilot program, said the trucking community is really interested in “big-picture data.”

“I think this is kind of disruptive technology in a good way, meaning that we’re fixing problems,” Parker said. “People are scared of change, but you really have some solid leadership at the Port of LA with Gene Seroka and an engaged partner in GE, so I’m confident they can make this happen.”

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