Port Crowding Won't Ease Without Tech Help

A labor shortage and increased imports to the U.S. have overloaded West Coast ports

Laurie Sullivan, Contributor

November 5, 2004

3 Min Read

The view from the 710 freeway--the major road leading to the San Pedro harbor that's home to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach--is eye-opening. Vessels stretch for miles down the California coast, waiting to dock and unload their cargo, even though the backlog at the docks over the past few weeks has improved enough that manufacturers and retailers don't expect their holiday shipments to be delayed. Container volume at the ports is up an unexpected 12% from last year--thanks in large part to China's growth as a manufacturing center--and a labor shortage isn't helping, but the failure to implement new technologies also takes part of the blame for the situation.

Ships wait to unload at the Port of Los Angeles, where lines are long because container volume is up 12% over last year.Photo by Jamie Rector/Bloomberg News/Landov

Something has got to give, or the ports risk losing revenue streams as traffic moves to other U.S. ports or even Canada and Mexico. "Something has to drastically change with the infrastructure in the ports and rails in order for things to get better, because imports to the U.S. are expected to increase, and there are no major initiatives on the table that will change this," says Wayne Thompson, director of logistics for bicycle manufacturer Pacific Cycle LLC. The company has added days to its fulfillment cycle to take into consideration the slowdown on the West Coast. About half of its products come into the country via the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, but it's considering shifting operations so that more inventory enters North America through more tech-savvy ports.

Carriers and terminal operators are considering technology that could prevent this from happening again, says a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which negotiates labor agreements with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Being considered are remote cameras, global-positioning systems, and radio-frequency identification technology to eliminate bottlenecks as containers are moved in and around ports. The Port of Rotterdam has implemented RFID for this purpose, while Singapore uses optical character recognition to read container numbers as they come into the shipping yard and an automated clearance system to let truckers clear cargo before they arrive at the gate.

Carriers at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles want more digitizing of information to gain greater productivity, which the labor union agreed to in 2002. But the impact of these technologies on union jobs remains a concern, and not all business processes have been changed to take advantage of the information that's already being digitized, says Paul Bingham, principal at Global Insight, an economic forecasting and consulting firm.

Additional help can come in the form of software like that offered by Embarcadero Systems Corp., which makes a scheduling system that trucking companies use to reserve time in a terminal's yards, preferably when they're less crowded, so they can save time getting their loads on the road. There's little time to waste in getting new technologies on board, says Steve Longbotham, VP of customer technology at Marine Terminals Corp., a provider of stevedoring, terminal, and transportation-related services that operates in most U.S. West Coast ports and is owned by the same company that owns Embarcadero, MTC Holdings. "The level of traffic that was predicted to come into the ports has doubled," Longbotham says. "And there's a lot more coming."

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