As the logistics industry adjusts to a new world marked by tight caps on drivers’ hours of service amid pandemic-fueled demand surges and operating restrictions, many companies are turning to technology that can help them cope with these challenges, leading to the rise of the “digital yard.”
With the hours-of-service (HOS) mandate restricting drivers’ road time, companies are looking for ways to boost efficiency in other parts of the supply chain, says Chris Wolfe, CEO of asset management solution provider PowerFleet Inc. With driving time at a premium, many businesses see the yard as a “chokepoint” where drivers can waste many of their allotted hours waiting in line for a DC dock door to open up, he adds.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, Wolfe says. DCs can gather data from the trucks in their yards by tapping into the sensors increasingly found on everything from truck cabs to trailers to drivers’ own smartphones as well as the increasingly sophisticated Internet of Things (IoT) networks that allow facilities to identify and track nearly every asset that rolls onto their property. They can then mine these rich veins of data to fine-tune dock and yard operations to avoid backups and delays.
The rise of the digital yard is accelerating as trading partners seek more-efficient operations. “This is the evolution of where things have to go based on … HOS. That’s where the next savings is in asset utilization,” Wolfe says.
In the new model of yard operations, companies can combine local sensor data with yard management system (YMS) and transportation management system (TMS) software platforms to squeeze inefficient practices out of the process—the kinds of practices that have led to the long lines of trucks waiting to load or unload that have become common in the coronavirus era. Instead, sensors monitoring variables like weight and motion can detect when a truck is ready to leave the DC and instantly alert warehouse managers.
Among other benefits, those precise metrics enable facilities to avoid backups by notifying suppliers to delay shipments or by warning incoming drivers that a dock door won’t be ready for a scheduled delivery. While the delay could still count against the drivers’ service hours, the advance notice might allow them to wait it out at a truck stop with amenities instead of sitting in a line of trucks outside a warehouse.
“How fast is a trailer getting loaded? If you find it’s not even half loaded, then you may as well slow a driver down and have him wait somewhere else. The worst thing you can do right now is have drivers waiting” in the yard, where they may be unable to maintain the recommended social distances, Wolfe says. “But if a driver knew when to arrive, he wouldn’t have to wait. Everything has to work like a well-oiled machine.”
That machine can be oiled by the vast streams of data that can be collected from a digital dock and yard management system, says Tim Kubly, business development manager for Rite-Hite Digital Solutions. “Customers want to know what’s happening with their equipment without standing there and looking at it the whole time. Now, with the Industrial Internet of Things, we can collect data and push it out to an intuitive dashboard,” Kubly said in a recent webinar, pointing to his firm’s Opti-Vu and Dok-Vu dashboards as examples.
“That means we can monitor detention time. A company might want to make sure it gets trailers off the dock within two hours. But the problem is that workers may not know how long a trailer has been there,” Kubly said. “Now, when a trailer backs up to the dock and the trailer lock is engaged, a timer starts.”
Depending on the type of dock equipment, the system could track sensor signals that detail every step in the inbound and outbound freight process. For example, Rite-Hite’s platform can track variables like trailer presence, door open, leveler down, forklift activity in trailer, leveler up, door closed, and trailer departure. DC managers can use those statistics to schedule the activities of drivers, warehouse workers, shipping and receiving staff, and yard jockeys, he said.
Another factor driving demand for digitized operations is the push for touchless operations during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to dock and yard management solution provider C3 Solutions. The company says its software products can reduce or eliminate paper transactions by using electronic documents instead of paper records on carrier/supplier web portals and for gate processes.
Yard management technology developer Pinc Solutions is taking a similar tack. Pinc says its Digital Yard solution is designed to automate gate activities, trailer movements, dock scheduling, yard operations, and more. The company’s Pinc Kiosk even supports a touchscreen multilanguage interface with a temporary radio-frequency identification (RFID)-tag dispenser that allows drivers to perform self-check-in and self-check-out.
Supply chain visibility provider FourKites likewise had digital yard operations in mind when it announced in March that it had acquired three yard solution software platforms—Yard Management, Dock Management, and Gate Control—from TrackX Holdings Inc. All three of the newly acquired platforms collect data by building connections with enterprise resource planning (ERP) and warehouse management system (WMS) software as well as with RFID and IoT sensors. By tapping into that data flow, FourKites says it can now extend real-time freight visibility into the warehouse yard.
“I think we’ve really nailed where freight is during transit, but that is only one piece of the puzzle,” FourKites Founder and CEO Matt Elenjickal says. “Goods are being held in the yard for some time, whether it’s at pickup or dropoff. What people really want to know is, ‘Where are my products?’—regardless of whether they’re in transit, in the yard, or in the warehouse.”
But achieving that kind of universal traceability may not be so easy. FourKites acknowledges that some trading partners like third-party logistics service providers (3PLs), suppliers, and retailers have been hesitant to share shipping data with each other, although he says that’s starting to change. “We have a lot of customers who ship to retailers or who manufacture consumer packaged goods. We facilitate the sharing of data, but some people weren’t buying in because of data privacy concerns,” Elenjickal says. “One manufacturer said, ‘We’d be happy to share our data if you can mask our purchase orders and carrier lanes.’ And we said ‘OK, we can do that!’ The industry wants to collaborate more.”
Given the current pressure to deliver swift, smooth performance amid tightening restrictions, Elenjickal and others believe warehouse operators have a lot to gain from opening up access to their supply chain data. And one of the payoffs could be a big jump in efficiency at the dock and yard interface, where freight moves from truck to DC and back again.