Rail-Gantry-Crane2 Port of Virginia
Semi-automated rail gantry crane at the Port of Virginia.

Ocean Ports Lead the Way in Logistics Technology Advancements

The Port of Virginia serves as a case study in how the nation’s ports are adapting to the needs of the new economy.

The North American continent was discovered by sea-faring explorers. From early trade to battling America’s enemies during World War II, maritime transportation has played a crucial role. The United States has become one of the most prosperous and innovative nations on Earth due to its connectivity with the rest of the world via the oceans. Today, no other mode of transportation can carry the tonnage between the U.S. and its trading partners that ships can carry.

The growth of cargo moving through America’s ocean ports has increased significantly over the last two decades. U.S. Maritime Administration statistics show the number of twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) containers moving through U.S. ports doubled from 17.9 million to 34.8 million during the period 2002 through 2017. Estimates for annual port traffic growth for the foreseeable future are between 3-5%, including bulk and liquid categories. In addition to the challenge of handing increased cargo throughput, the ports must also have the channel depth to accommodate the new deep draft Ultra Large Container Vessel ships and even larger ships currently on the drawing board.

Globally, major maritime carriers are demanding improvements in the efficiency of port operations. Cargo carried by ships must be loaded and unloaded quickly with minimal dwell time in the port. Commercial road and rail carriers are placing these same demands on port operators. This is driving the implementation of more efficient processes and new technologies in the terminals. Additionally, a lack of land necessary for expanding port footprints to accommodate the growth in cargo has resulted in more efficient use of land currently owned by ports.

One of America’s largest ocean ports, the Port of Virginia, operates four port terminals in the Norfolk Harbor region of Virginia (www.portofvirginia.com ). During fiscal year 2018 alone, 2.8 million TEUs moved through the port. In FY18, 62% of cargo has moved into and out of port yards by truck, 35% has moved by rail and 3% has moved by river barge. To be competitive with other East Coast ocean ports, the Port of Virginia has taken on the challenge to improve terminal throughput by expansion and implementation of new technologies and processes. We’ll examine a few here.

Trucker Reservation System

As stated previously, both the commercial drivers and railway companies expect reduced wait times, or dwell, for their equipment and operators upon arrival in the port area. The Port of Virginia realized the need for information systems capable of scheduling and tracking the anticipated arrival of motor and rail freight carriers in the port area. Daily container movement and crane operations must be pre-planned. Factored in was the requirement to reduce congestion on local road infrastructure by spreading vehicle arrival times, or flow, during gate operation hours and the need to create waves for import unloading and export loading. The Port of Virginia chose to implement a trucker reservation system (TRS).

Joe Harris, spokesperson for the Port of Virginia, states, “The TRS creates a win-win for both the port and the trucking industry. Developed by the Port of Virginia IT team, we asked the major trucking companies for input to ensure it’s a solution they could easily and willingly utilize.”

The TRS is found on the port’s PRO-PASS website, which is dedicated to all the needs of motor carriers. Through PRO-PASS a motor carrier can:

● Register themselves and their vehicles as repeat carriers.

● Make a reservation, to include time of day, for pick-up or drop off of containers at one of the terminals.

● Check the availability of chassis.

The drivers can download the necessary information from the website confirming their reservation. Not all drivers are registered users of the reservation system but certain peak periods at the terminals require reservations. The port is driving towards a goal of 100% trucker registration and active use of the system. To gain access to the terminal, the motor carrier must be a registered PRO-PASS user.

In order to process trucks arriving at the terminals for pick-up or drop-off, all vehicles are required to have port-issued RFID tags. Interrogators located outside the terminal gates interrogate each vehicle and update the port database to a status of “anticipated arrival.” As vehicles drive up to the terminal gate, the RFID tags are again interrogated, updating the database as to their arrival. All drivers are required to carry federal credentials for identification and security purposes. The driver scans his Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card at the gate, which produces a ticket identifying the destination for the vehicle within the terminal. The container handling equipment at the destination is notified to expect arrival of the vehicle. Once the driver arrives at the destination, his card is again scanned in order to validate the vehicle is at the correct location.

The combination of truckers making reservations in TRS for pick-up or drop-off, using RFID tags to track vehicle locations in the port area and scanning driver badges has reduced processing time through the gates. Harris notes, “For those motor carriers using TRS, their transaction times are in the 40-minute range. What is more important is that we are developing and providing a predictable experience for the motor carrier. This difference [in turn times] is significant, but the goal is to establish a predictable and reliable steady flow at the gates.”

Container Stacking

A challenge facing the Port of Virginia at its terminal in Norfolk (Norfolk International Terminals) is a lack of land for expansion of terminal footprint, due to city development around the property. Similar to the scenario of companies needing additional warehouse storage space but unable to build new warehouses, storage density has to be increased. The port undertook the development of new container stacking technology.

The new system, the Semi-Automated Rail Mounted Gantry Crane container stacking system, includes rail mounted gantry cranes providing for precise movements and software that preplans movement of containers, thereby minimizing the number of moves required while optimizing terminal space. The system increased storage density from three-high container stacks, located 8 feet apart, to container stacks that are now five containers high and 18 inches apart. This technology increased the container capacity at Norfolk International Terminals by 46% within the same footprint.

The Semi-Automated Rail Mounted Gantry Crane stacking system also provides additional benefits to the terminals and surrounding areas. Dustin Rinehart, state & local government affairs, the Port of Virginia, states, “The new system is safer for our people on the terminal and the cranes are electric so there are less carbon emissions and quieter for neighboring residents.” He also notes the system minimizes container handling because it is constantly grooming the terminal lot stacks, pushing exports closer to the water and imports closer to landside.

As identified previously, 35% of cargo moving into and out of the terminals is moved by rail. Rail operators have loading and unloading points inside the terminal gates. In past years, with a vehicle with a container chassis moving containers between ships, the container lot and rail cars would wait for cranes to load or unload the container from the chassis. In some instances, the driver would detach the chassis from the tractor in order to go for another chassis and container. This type of processing resulted in lost time and the driver needing to exit the cab in order to detach the wheeled chassis. The Port of Virginia addressed this inefficiency by procuring the cassette container handling system.

The cassette container handling system is a two-part chassis specifically designed for rail loading. The container sits on a cassette which is moved on a wheeled chassis pulled by a tractor. Once the tractor driver has moved the cassette and wheeled chassis to the container crane for container loading/unloading, the wheeled chassis underneath the cassette is pulled away. The driver is then directed to the next location where a cassette is ready to be moved to a loading/unloading point. Tractor dwell time awaiting cranes to load/unload containers and the need for the driver to exit the cab and detach a chassis is eliminated.

A Matter of Security

No port modernization program would be complete without addressing security. The U.S. Government placed additional security requirements on port operators in the wake of September 11th. A primary concern is the possibility of a nuclear device being transported from an overseas location to U.S. soil via container. The Port of Virginia had to integrate detection devices capable of scanning each container without slowing the flow of containers through port gates. This was accomplished by implementing gate technology with real-time data collection and alerts. In the past, not all containers were screened for possible nuclear devices. Now every container passing through the terminal gates is scanned quickly, thereby keeping a predictable and steady flow at the gates.

A challenge facing logistics organizations in today’s economy is the lack of personnel possessing the necessary logistics operations skills. The Port of Virginia is partnering with local academia, specifically Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, to train future maritime logistics employees.

Rinehart states, “We want to provide a route to employment when students graduate. To accomplish this, we share the N4 Terminal Operations program (a component of the Semi-Automated Rail Mounted Container Stack system) with ODU for inclusion in the curriculum and hands-on experience.” The port’s workforce development team has been able to focus on homegrown ODU students and has seen an increase in hiring and interest in employment.

What does the future hold for ocean ports? Transportation of goods via ship will continue to increase. Ocean carriers, the trucking industry and rail carriers will demand faster processing of cargo in and out of port terminals. Larger ships with a capacity of 23,000 TEUs are on the drawing board. This drives the need for continued innovative technology and process improvements in port operations to meet the challenges. The Port of Virginia has been a leader in innovation in many areas and we’ll continue to see these types of initiatives implemented in many of the world’s ocean ports.

Al Will is president of PWG Distribution Solutions LLC , and a member of the MH&L Editorial Advisory Board. He is a retired Marine Colonel, logistics specialist.

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