Digital tools at U.S. ports lag behind foreign counterparts

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — Giant ports in Southern California and the United States lag significantly behind their counterparts in Europe and other regions using digital technology to optimize their operations.

That was the consensus of a panel discussion on improving truck movements in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that was part of the Metrans International Urban Freight conference held May 25-27. Metrans, a partnership between the University of Southern California and California State University, Long Beach, studies how freight and freight transportation affects urban areas.

Officials at both ports are looking for ways to remove bottlenecks to improve productivity, fuel consumption and traffic and reduce emissions.

Christopher Chase of the Port of Los Angeles (Jerry Hirsch for transportation topics)

“One of the great things here in North America is that we’re two or three decades behind what other ports around the world have done in terms of digital interfaces,” said Christopher Chase, port marketing manager of Los Angeles.

Both ports are creating tools that integrate information from across the supply chain to provide more data and guidance to motor carriers, shipping lines, railways and other stakeholders, said Theresa Dau-Ngo, director of the transportation planning division at the Port of Long Beach. .

Therese Dau-Ngo

Theresa Dau-Ngo of the Port of Long Beach (Jerry Hirsch for transportation topics)

By connecting to public US Customs data, for example, Chase can now enter a container number into a system operated by the Port of Los Angeles and find the location of the box in seconds. Previously, such a search was much more cumbersome and took an hour or more.

“I should have gone to all the shipping companies to find it,” Chase said.

Panelists said one of the main reasons the United States has lagged foreign ports in digitizing and integrating crucial operational information is the way they operate. European ports play a larger role in maritime operations and are generally centralized national facilities. US ports, however, serve as landlords for shipping companies and are independent agencies and facilities.

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But ongoing supply chain issues and shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, trade wars and geopolitical issues are forcing U.S. ports to become more efficient.

The late entry of U.S. ports integrating data to improve operations could be an advantage, said Sal Manzo, co-founder of InfoMagnus, a data integration company in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Sal Manzo

Manzo

“Think about the place of technology today versus 10 years ago,” Manzo said.

Building these tools today will allow US ports to leapfrog others, he said.

But Manzo said all data integration tools should be built into modules that can be replaced over time as technology develops.

“We have the ability to innovate very quickly once we’re on the ball,” Dau-Ngo said.

Further into the future, the ports see major infrastructure projects facilitating the movement of goods in Southern California as well.

Chase said a proposal, using short-distance rail lines to transport containers to an inland port facility, is likely to happen but will need to overcome several hurdles.

“The business case is very difficult,” he said.

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Both ports have invested heavily in coastal infrastructure and have main lines connected to national rail carriers. But the railways have shown no interest in diverting capital spending to short-haul freight and, at this stage, lack the capacity to do so, he said.

“The hardest piece of that puzzle is finding real estate that you’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in to create a dumping area,” Chase said.

The cost of this and creating the route probably increases the freight cost too high at this point.

Although the port would like to see an inland facility that could relieve congestion, Chase said the financial implications and the time it would take to acquire the land and build the infrastructure are significant hurdles.

“Are you willing to pay an extra dollar wherever you shop at the store to cover that rail move, because it now costs twice as much as a truck move the same distance?” he said.

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