Smooth Sailing with NT

The recent success of a Terminal Automation System (TAS) test run in South Carolina has Sea-Land Services, Inc., officials enthusiastic about transforming their global terminal operations during the next few years. The heart of the system, AT&T Global Information Solution (GIS) System 3000 computers and Microsoft Windows NT technology, provides Sea-Land with the critical--and reliable--building blocks required to attain its vision of remaining a leader among shipping companies.

With a presence in more than 100 seaports around the world, Sea-Land administrators know their terminal-operations processes have played a major role in the company's success. With annual revenues in excess of $3.5 billion, the New Jersey-based Sea-Land, a subsidiary of CSX Corporation, is the largest U.S. flag carrier and one of the top three shipping companies in the world. The company has more than 8000 employees, 88 container ships, and more than 150,000 containers.

In today's worldwide marketplace, standing still is not an option for any company in the business of moving containerized cargo. Strict, vast, and varying international regulations, low margins, and fierce, global competition make it more and more necessary to reduce costs and improve customer service. While very successful, Sea-Land officials could still see that they needed to change the way the company operated if they wanted it to maintain its leadership position. They needed to integrate new technologies.

Thus began Sea-Land's TAS test in Port of Charleston, South Carolina. TAS is a computing system designed to streamline critical operations at Sea-Land's terminal facilities. "From the outset, the TAS project team wanted a system that would allow them to spend more time on business issues and less time dealing with the details of the technology," explained Ernie Ruffin, an AT&T account executive for Sea-Land.

In fact, adapting technology to Sea-Land's changing business is a corporate mandate. "We have a mission in TAS to build a suite of custom, in-house solutions that will redesign the operational business processes," said Rick Cerwonka, director of Terminal Operations.

The Name of the Game
Shipping terminals play a critical role in overseas carrier productivity. When you carry freight over water, everything culminates at the terminals: Ships and trucks hand off hundreds of cargo containers en route to their destinations. This critical point of exchange can make or break a business relationship. It is a point where things must go right, quickly and efficiently. However, this is also where things can go wrong, such as misplacing a container, resulting in costly delays and angry customers.

Port operations are as complex as they are expensive. The speed and efficiency with which the company moves containers on and off ships and through the terminal has a profound effect on operating costs and profits--not just for the terminal but also for its customers. The smallest improvement in efficiency, such as increasing the number of crane lifts to and from vessels, can reduce a customer's cycle time with "just-in-time" inventories, which can then provide significant savings.

Sea-Land has relied heavily on computers to run its terminals. The company's worldwide operations are handled by Customer Information Control System (CICS)-based mainframes, 3270 terminals, and a sophisticated Systems Network Architecture (SNA) system utilizing satellite links, leased lines, and routers. The relatively few personal computers in Sea-Land terminals were used primarily for mainframe access, using Digital Communications Associates' IRMA Workstation for Windows emulation software. Operational information, such as container arrival data, was done on paper. The results were then transmitted over the network to the datacenter in Jacksonville, Florida. Manually collecting the information and keying in the data were time-consuming and tedious.

In 1993, Sea-Land began a TAS trial run in its Port of Charleston terminal. This, however, was not the company's first foray into terminal automation. Several years earlier, Sea-Land had started to develop terminal management systems to automate operations in its Hong Kong and Rotterdam, The Netherlands, ports. The company quickly determined that the systems were too closely linked to the unique operating conditions at each port to be useful at other ports' terminals. Re-engineering and transforming a critical business process doesn't necessarily mean reinventing the wheel. Nor is it a process to be used only in the event of a breakdown or problem.

Sea-Land has typically had capable processes and systems for its terminal operations. "The \[established\] system worked fine in Port of Charleston," Cerwonka said. "However, our motivation was to make it work better and handle increased volume. In our eyes, we had no choice if we wanted to maintain a leadership position in an extremely competitive global market." The focus was to identify the optimal standard operating processes, not just to automate the existing processes, forms, and screens. TAS involved a complete change in how Sea-Land did business.

Streamlining the Process
In a year of real-world operations in Port of Charleston, TAS earned its success. The result: Truck drivers enter and depart the facility up to 40% faster--by an average of 20 minutes. Equipment is inspected and repaired faster. And more process efficiency is on the horizon.

With Sea-Land's plans for future enhancements, employees will use TAS to place containers in optimal yard locations so that ships are loaded and unloaded more efficiently, expediting their departure and arrival schedules. "The payoff is faster delivery to customers, improved productivity, and reduced costs," said Arno Dimmling, Sea-Land's vice president of Terminal Operations Services.

TAS has four basic components--Gate, Yard, Marine, and Maintenance Repair and Control System (MRCS)--software modules running on System 3000 servers. Gate improves the way containers are moved in and out of the terminal. Yard assists with the inventory and placement of containers in the storage yard. Marine helps automate the loading and unloading of vessels. MRCS provides real-time identification of damages, estimates repair costs, and prepares repair schedules.

Another module planned for TAS is the Yard Inventory module, in which the location of each container is keyed in by row and slot. The driver knows exactly where to pick up or drop off a container. TAS stores the move sequence for each box so the boxes can be placed in the appropriate order. Container information is fed into the database in real-time, so it's available immediately to anyone who needs it.

About 500 times a day, drivers roll up to the gate in Port of Charleston to drop off containers, pick up empty boxes, or both. These visits are called missions. When truck drivers enter the terminal, they stop at a "pre-gate" where posted instructions walk them through the automated process. A telephone at the pre-gate connects them directly to clerks seated at computers in the office. A clerk enters the driver's trucking company and booking number. In seconds, all the pertinent information about the shipment is displayed. Using a remote-controlled video camera, the checker verifies the container and chassis numbers. The clerk then enters the booking information and proceeds with the rest of the driver's mission. If the driver is picking up a container for the return trip, that information is immediately available to the clerk.

With this step completed in as few as 30 seconds, a thermal printer beside the driver's phone prints an entry pass to the terminal with detailed instructions for the driver and a bar code referencing the visit number. The entry pass tells the driver step-by-step what to do and where to go to complete the mission.

The next stop is at the first gate for equipment inspection. Sea-Land inspects every container that passes through its terminals. Mechanics check the chassis and container for needed repairs and record any data or comments on a hand-held, pen-based computer with an integrated radio modem running Microsoft Pen for Windows software. The hand-held units display not only text but also a graphical representation that shows the exact location and nature of any damage. The driver then signs the touch screen.

The hand-held unit relays the inspection information, including the container's serial number, any required repair action, and the driver's signature, via radio modem communications to the SQL Server database running on a System 3000 under Windows NT. TAS creates a dependable, easily accessible audit trail of information about damaged containers.

The local AT&T server then passes all maintenance and repair information, such as the type of damage and the location of a damaged container, to the legacy system. The mainframe can determine the location and availability of repair parts, schedule the repair, and download a repair estimate to be included in the inspection report and printed before the driver leaves the yard.

The entire process takes less than 10 minutes. Sea-Land's maintenance department gets a jump on performing repairs, and damaged containers are quickly back in service. More importantly, Sea-Land officials immediately know when a container is not in need of repair and is available for customer use.

The entry pass tells the driver where in the yard to park the container--row and slot. Next, the driver's pick-up location is listed. The driver picks up the container if it's already on a chassis. If it's on the ground, the driver selects a chassis, hooks it up, and goes to the location listed on the entry pass where port personnel load the container. There's a final safety inspection using the hand-held computers before the driver heads out.

At the exit gate, the driver puts the entry pass into a specially designed enclosure where a bar-code reader identifies the mission and displays the previously recorded information on another computer terminal in the gate office. Checkers, at exit terminals identical to the entry terminals, use video cameras to verify that the driver has the correct container and enter the chassis number into the record.

TAS automatically connects with Port of Charleston's Orion mainframe computer and the automated cargo clearance system. Orion links all Port of Charleston Customs brokers, freight forwarders, agents, and steamship lines with US Customs and the USDA. With Orion, the odds are good that Customs cleared the cargo days before it even arrived.

Another thermal printer prints a trailer interchange receipt with the driver's signature. The driver proceeds to the security gate, where Port Security verifies that the truck has the correct load before it leaves the terminal. Only two pieces of paper have been generated during the entire mission. A mission that would have taken 40 to 50 minutes in the past now takes as few as 15 to 20 minutes.

"Moving cargo is the name of the game," said Carl Pitts, Jr., Sea-Land dispatch/gate supervisor at the Port of Charleston facility. "The more boxes we move though the gate in a day, the better for everyone. TAS has made us much more efficient at getting cargo in and out of the terminal. For example, I can tell you the average amount of time it takes drivers from a particular company to get in and out of the terminal or just about anything else. Now, virtually every report I need is available at the touch of a button."

Calling in the Experts
Developing TAS required innovation and cooperation throughout Sea-Land Services as well as from its technology suppliers. The internal team included senior management, Information Technology (IT) developers, LAN and systems support, database experts, corporate business sponsors, and end users. "With the help of our technology providers, we created prototype designs, took them to end users, listened to their suggestions, and went back and worked the suggestions in. After all, the end users are the experts," pointed out Ed Tuosto, director of IT.

For example, a critical service planned for TAS was a custom rules-based expert system. The service determines the optimal storage location for a container based on its contents and destination. Tuosto and Cerwonka asked the company's Operations Planning group to perform time and motion studies of existing processes. Computer modeling was used to analyze alternative processes.

Tuosto also mentioned another example, the anticipated Yard Inventory module. "It should mark the end of such things as placing containers on the opposite side of the yard from their destination ship or placing a container that's first out on the bottom of a stack." The system places containers in the section of the yard that's closest to their destination ship.

Technology Transformation
Sea-Land officials chose a client/server model based on a Token Ring LAN that could handle up to eight System 3000 servers running NT networking and database software. The rest of the system was made up of AT&T workstations, 50 to 70 client workstations, and a number of radio-based, hand-held terminals running Windows for Pen Computing. Each system links to the company's datacenter. Sea-Land leaders anticipate consolidating the number of servers as Sea-Land implements TAS at other facilities.

The System 3000s are running several of the system's critical applications, including: the TAS SQL Server for NT database in a disk-mirroring mode on Pentium Symmetrical Multiprocessing (SMP) platforms; Remote Data Terminal Server to interface with the hand-held systems; Async Server driving the bar-code reader; and Communications Server for networking to the datacenter in Jacksonville.

Built with Teamwork
Seizing on the technology and industry trends of the past decade, Sea-Land's upper management asked its information and business units to work together to improve productivity. A surprising and rewarding result of TAS is how it has brought Sea-Land employees together and helped them to focus on--and deliver--a common goal: superior customer service.

"Right from the very beginning of the project, the people who run the business designed the system," explained Tuosto. "Everyone had a stake in it. Those in the Yard, those at the Gate, the mechanics, the inspectors, and everyone else knew that they depended upon each other for their own success. They also realized that if TAS worked, they would benefit as well."

Terminal managers also found themselves performing their jobs differently--and more productively. TAS freed their management and administration worktime by greatly reducing paperwork. TAS electronically documents nearly every step of the new process and each piece of relevant operational data. Immediate access to information such as "length-of-turn times" and "problem logs" provides a quick way of resolving problems. In the legacy environment, this simply didn't happen.

TAS also strengthened Sea-Land's business relationships with alliances and partners because all the players benefited. Customers whose goods are transported get faster, more reliable deliveries at a competitive cost. Drivers who haul the containers are in and out of the terminal more quickly and with less hassle.

"Sea-Land is a little bit faster than the other terminal operators, so if I can get in more loads per day, I'm going to do more business with them," said Lawrence Robinson, owner of Robinson Trucking in Jones Island, South Carolina.

Tapping Technology Partners
For the TAS project, Sea-Land tapped a number of outside consultants, as well as Microsoft and AT&T, to help design and build the system.

  • Nettech Systems, Inc., a Princeton, New Jersey systems integrator, helped implement the radio-based communications system consisting of hand-held computers used by the gate checkers and mechanics.
  • Communications Technology for Business, another New Jersey integrator, helped to install the customized SQL Server database and develop the system architecture.
  • August Design, a third consultant, designed the expert system.

Why Sea-Land Chose AT&T GIS
Moving mission-critical applications into a client/server environment demands reliability from both the hardware and the manufacturer. "Our criteria for a hardware platform included not just performance, but also dependable, global support," said Tuosto. "If and when a system crashes in one of our ports--such as Hong Kong or Yokohama, Japan, or Algeciras, Spain,--there has to be someone close by who can bring the system up quickly, without being limited by distance and time-zone differences. AT&T GIS can offer worldwide technical support for a client/server architecture running the Windows NT platform."

AT&T's global infrastructure of trained experts, professional services, and support for NT makes Sea-Land managers confident as they move toward implementing TAS in ports abroad. Based on open computing standards, the System 3000s provide a high level of data integrity and reliability. Scalability is also an important factor because TAS is designed to vary from terminal to terminal and to grow as Sea-Land's business expands.

Going Global
Sea-Land managers plan to use the Port of Charleston TAS experiment as a benchmark. They plan 17 other terminal-port conversions during the next four years, including the company's largest facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

The Buyers Group, which is a subsidiary based in Seattle, Washington, is planning to roll out a new network of Windows NT-based AT&T System 3455s into Singapore, Korea, The Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. The Buyers Group is Sea-Land's freight-consolidation service.

"TAS definitely fits the description of an enterprise-wide, mission-critical application," said Tuosto. "As we roll out TAS at each new location, the system will allow for differences in language, physical plant, labor, and available radio frequencies. From an IT perspective, we've come a long way, and we're very confident about what TAS is going to do for us in the long run."

Effective and Efficient
Sea-Land's TAS experiment is an outstanding example of how an enterprise can enhance its market position. This was accomplished by effectively getting, moving, and using technical information and keeping abreast of potential technological advancements. During the one-year experiment in South Carolina, Port of Charleston became so efficient that it developed into the leading seaport in the South Atlantic/Gulf Coast region of the US. As Sea-Land officials prepare to move their terminal-port operations around the globe, the carrier is poised to lead in handling containerized cargo well into the next century.

Solution Snapshot
Transportation services

Automation of shipping terminal operations

  • Maintain leadership position in industry
  • Optimize strategic assets
  • Increase terminal productivity
  • Lower operational costs

Move CICS-based mainframe processes from vertical terminal operations to horizontal, information-based client/server system

Client/server system with core database and interfaces to legacy mainframe systems, local expert systems, and radio-linked, pen-based hand-held computers

Server Platforms:
AT&T System 3000, Model 3430, and Model 3455

Client Platform:
AT&T System 3000, Model 3350
Operating System:
Windows NT B>Application Software:
SQL Server, Visual Basic, Windows for Pen Computing, Windows
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