Tideworks’ Mark Bromley in an interview with AJOT talks about both the challenges and benefits derived by intermodal operations.
Mark Bromley, VP of Rail Client Services for Tideworks Technology, has been working in the ports side of the business for over two decades. When Seattle-based Tideworks, well-known for its marine terminal operating systems (TOS), decided to expand into the intermodal sector, Bromley switched over to intermodal. As he explained, Tideworks already had “synergies” with intermodal from its marine terminal operations, so expanding into intermodal was a logical step for the company, its customers, and Bromley.
AJOT: You’re operating now in a very different environment than say, even pre-COVID 19. And the current operational environment, which includes labor shortages, equipment shortages, and more, from your perspective, what do you see as the challenges and how do you optimize intermodal terminal operations in this new ecosystem?
Bromley: Understanding the challenges terminal operators face and what they need to succeed in this changing environment is definitely top of mind. Everybody’s trying to figure out. ‘Hey, what are the issues for the terminal operators?’ There is the equipment shortage, so, whether it is empty containers, chassis, you name it, terminal operators might not have the equipment that they need.
However, it’s really become a capacity issue. The footprint of these [intermodal] terminals doesn’t change a whole lot. It’s set. And in many cases, the intermodal facilities (originally) operated as wheeled facilities. They’ve tried to wheel up as much cargo as possible to make it easy to access and get cargo out the gate. And I think terminal operators are finding that as they put more containers to the ground, it’s going to be more of a challenge to figure out how to strategically stack them to avoid adding disruptions into the delivery process.
Wheeled [operations] work, but then you have to consider the equipment shortages like chassis and longer dwell times. Maybe you can’t wheel everything up as you wanted and now you have to ground it. As soon as you start doing that, it’s going to be a challenge to figure out how to strategically stack those boxes to avoid disruptions to your delivery process. It’s a constant set of problems they [the intermodal terminal operators] are trying to solve... So, that does lead to opportunities for software that can optimize and automate those processes for terminal operators.
AJOT: So, what does software do to optimize processes on the intermodal terminal? How can it address some of the capacity-related issues terminal operators are facing?
Bromley: Our core offering is a terminal operating system [TOS]. For some terminal operators, the main value-add of that TOS is inventory management. TOS is a work order execution-based system and a planning software for on and off the intermodal terminal, in and out of the yards. Those key components allow terminal operators to manage their efficiencies inside their terminal. And we’ve brought a lot of pieces to the plate that improve the process of prioritizing the cargo. One use case, for example, is if we know cargo is going to be picked up, we can schedule it and put it into stacks until it needs to be ready. Or it can be put onto a chassis if it’s going to be picked up tomorrow. Giving terminal operators access to that kind of data allows for better planning within the terminal.
AJOT: Is this collaborative too... is this a platform that the truckers or the rail operators are also a party to? Where it integrates with their scheduling software?
Bromley: That’s one of the key things we have found as a software provider in this space. We have to have those integrations available to meet the customer’s needs because, yes, they’re going to be getting data from different avenues, and we need to make sure that we can allow those inputs to come in. So, it’s definitely something that we’ve worked on to allow for those integrations to occur, so they can properly operate.
AJOT: How much of this process is customizing solutions to the user’s needs?
Bromley: There’s a component of change management that comes into play, and we want to work with our customers to help them with that change management. Because as I mentioned before, these are, in some cases, 20-year-old processes driving things. If you want to move toward automation, you’ve got to talk about moving toward new processes and understand the changes that might come with that. So, technology is definitely a piece of that change, but not the whole solution.
AJOT: I would think that would be quite a challenge, actually, with so many systems. Especially since most of the systems were built as silos in the first place.
Bromley: So, it has been a challenge, you’re spot on. However, it gives us the opportunity to build native APIs that allow us to connect anywhere. Or identify ways to access the main data we need - or that we think we need - for those general processes to flow and allow our customers to just come in and connect to that system.
AJOT: Given the collaborative environment necessary to make everything work, is “dirty” data – data that isn’t to the standards of the operating system – a problem?
Bromley: Yes, it’s something that when you’re dealing with data, you always have to check the integrity of it and make sure what you have is correct. But I think we [Tideworks] build the proper business logic to flush out what you refer to as your ‘dirty data.’ We put safeguards of what is allowed into the system, so terminal operators have [data] integrity within their TOS.
AJOT: It’s fundamental to the operations.
Bromley: Because that’s a key piece, you want to have a system that you can rely on and count on and know that “If I’m saying that container is in this location because this driver is coming to pick it up, I want to know that the container is in that location because I’m going to schedule, I’m going to plan, I’m going to execute a work-order.” The ability to provide that accuracy relies on data integrity. The confidence to know that your inventory is correct. Because once you know your inventory is correct, you can do a lot of things. That’s when you can start to automate and have optimization. If you’re trying to automate data that you can’t validate, it doesn’t really work well.
AJOT: Tideworks is known for marine TOS. How much difference is there in the intermodal systems, rail, or for trucking operating systems from your traditional marine TOS? How much do you have to differentiate the type of data in the systems, to work in each and with each sector?
Bromley: We have a product that works in both areas [marine and intermodal]. But we also try to bring our customers together to show different use cases in action. For example, we may take a rail customer to a marine site and show them [how TOS works on a marine terminal]. The rail industry has historically been slower to adopt automation, so seeing successful integrations can help terminal operators conceptualize the logistics and benefits.
AJOT: In the past ‘exception management,’ basically notices sent to the users when something goes wrong, was the key feature in tracking international marine freight visibility. Now, ‘visibility’ means so many different things within freight management systems. How does visibility work now with overlapping systems? Can too much visibility be a disrupter?
Bromley: You’re correct. I think that’s [visibility] what separates rail from the marine sector. It is about international cargo versus domestic cargo. You don’t really have that [situation] with the marine sector. You have this domestic piece of this [movement] where you’re talking about the large intermodal providers. So, there’s a level of complexity with visibility. It can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. And finding that fine line of how much visibility is shared and which levels of visibility could cause disruptions is a discussion that will continue to evolve. These types of things, however, are pieces that might be outside of the terminal operators’ control. This aspect of visibility systems is where we get into the value of integrations between management software and how much visibility intermodal providers want to provide to their customers.
AJOT: As part of the rising e-commerce trend, a lot of warehouses and DCs are now being built closer to urban areas – closer to the consumers. In turn, the supporting intermodal terminals are also being built closer to the warehouses and DCs. How does this trend impact terminal operations?
Bromley: It’s going to come down to what the operators are trying to achieve with their terminals. This is where working with our customers to understand their objectives is essential. Are they trying to achieve better turn times? For the trucking community, are they trying to achieve less dwell time, while for railroads, do they think they can return the rail cars quicker? Are they trying to get everything on wheels instead of stacking them? Understanding whatever that customer’s needs are is what we want to be able to come in and do. And then try to have a flexible solution that supports those needs.