Slot Booking Offers a Window into the Transportation World

Sept. 7, 2010
Slot booking appointments at facilities can help streamline operations while reducing traffic congestion

Even in this age of modernization, many industries still do things the old fashioned way—manually. Some industries are slow to automate, often using spreadsheets for complicated scheduling and planning, faxes and emails for ordering, phone calls to find transportation capacity, etc. But now that the economy is rebounding, these companies are learning that automating their labor-intensive processes allows them to do more with less.

Take for example transportation scheduling. At a large facility, like a processing plant or distribution center, trucks travel inbound and outbound on a continuous and frequent basis. These trucks need to be scheduled for arrival and departure to eliminate traffic congestion in the yard, increase operational efficiency, and ensure resources for unloading and loading are available.

The challenges that exist in shipping and receiving departments range from communication challenges between carriers, shippers and receivers to limited visibility into projected capacity in the future. Often, appointments are made by a broker or a shipper and never communicated to the carrier, leaving the carrier with no knowledge of expected arrival time. Other challenges include:

● Labor-intensive manual scheduling and re-scheduling
● Numerous errors due to manual processes cost money
● Inaccurate schedules cause chaos and congestion
● Limited access to information on carrier performance for continuous improvement programs.

What is needed is visibility into the shippers’ and carriers’ activities, including detailed load information, availability of and requirements for docks, manpower, resources; and loading, unloading, arrival and departure schedules. Carriers and vendors need adequate information about the scheduling requirements and business rules of the receiver in order to schedule appointments on their own, without relying on calling the scheduler each time to confirm an appointment. Enabling access to the same information by all parties in real-time provides the visibility needed for shippers and carriers to schedule appointments and book time slots at loading and unloading facilities, streamlining their loading workflows and reducing delays and wait times.

Transportation scheduling by hand or a spreadsheet is prone to error and extremely slow. Plus, many factors must be reviewed and optimized. Shippers have products to deliver or drop off, so they tender the offer to carriers to pick up the products. Shippers must schedule a time for pick-up at one location and drop-off at another location. The carriers must review the time slots to see what is available, then schedule the pick-up and/or delivery for a specific time and location. This is manageable manually on a small scale, but almost impossible to accomplish quickly and easily in a medium to large facility.

Automated slot booking applications allow inbound and outbound carriers to electronically book time slots at facilities for pick-ups and deliveries. These solutions can spread loading and unloading activities more evenly throughout the day for faster dock velocity and quicker truck turnaround, helping to eliminate traffic bottlenecks and reducing wait times.

In addition, if shippers, carriers and receivers have access to scheduling applications on a 24/7 basis, should a problem occur (bad weather, mechanical failure, etc.), all parties can be proactively alerted to scheduling problems, modifications of appointments, or cancellations and given detailed information of alternative plans. This also helps eliminate a snowball effect of trucks lining up outside a facility if there’s overlap due to late arrivals.

With appointment scheduling applications, shippers and carriers have visibility into the list of appointments so they can manage daily resources and activities, such as optimizing manpower, physical and mechanical resources at loading and unloading locations. Slot booking provides visibility for shippers and carriers on availability of dock, labor and warehouse configurations/schedules and detailed load information. These applications allow inbound and outbound carriers to electronically book time-slots at facilities for pick-ups and deliveries and validate that appointments follow the shipper's business rules and site setup.

By ensuring all supply chain partners are involved in the process and have visibility into requested, scheduled and rescheduled dock appointments, slot booking applications are designed to optimize road carrier collaboration within a company's logistics operations while improving productivity. Facilities are able to load and ship out a greater volume of orders in less time while increasing on-time deliveries and reducing delays. Not only do they avoid demurrage charges and retention fees, but transportation spend is reduced because of these operational efficiencies. And, with reduced wait time, carriers often will charge lower freight rates.

Slot booking applications allow shippers to look at a terminal holistically, subdividing it into loading points and/or clustering these points into similar groups. This allows the shipper to provide detailed instructions to manage various products and different shipping methods, while following set rules and constraints.

For example, say you are loading bulk liquid into a rail car. You will need to know whether the rail car that just arrived needs to be cleaned, and if so, how will you clean it and with what materials. If you load bulk liquid into the rail car using pumps and loading arms, do you have to clean or prepare these resources prior to or after loading? What’s the duration and labor resource required to load or unload a product? Having this type of information available saves time and improves efficiencies.

Cloud-based slot booking applications can function as standalone solutions or integrate with other logistics or transportation management solutions. For example, if integrated with a logistics and/or inventory solution, companies can get a better handle on inventory levels and prioritization. This can help eliminate inventory being left on the dock or even worse, placed in a random location, where it could potentially be lost or forgotten.

With a slot booking application, shippers gain visibility into processes and procedures that allow for better planning, such as how much and when staff is required for inbound and outbound shipments, which optimizes hours of service and levels the labor load. This eliminates the costly issue of understaffing when goods are not received on time and overtime must be paid, or overstaffing situations where productivity declines due to the incorrect utilization and allocation of resources.

Shippers can garner the ability to capture and measure performance of on-time deliveries and pick-ups for analysis of service and delivery contracts. Visibility into real-time performance and compliance of carriers provides shippers with much-needed information for continuous improvement programs and drives on-time deliveries. Also, maintaining all appointment data enables the analysis of historical trends. This helps predict future resource requirements, identify negative patterns of performance, monitor compliance and foster score carding for improved relationships.

As companies continue to do more with less in their supply chain operations, they should consider automated slot booking applications to reduce overhead associated with the appointment scheduling process. Employees should not have to spend 40% or more of their time with phone calls, faxes, or emails to schedule shipping and receiving appointments. LT

Jeff Gantt is director of product management with Elemica, a supply chain integration company with roots in the chemical and oil industries.