IT Glitches at the Port of New York and New Jersey Slow Cargo Handling

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-08-07

IT Glitches at the Port of New York and New Jersey Slow Cargo Handling

A recently installed modern cargo handling system at the Port of New York and New Jersey continues to be slowed by software glitches that have plagued the project at least since June, but some service improvements are starting to be seen.

That's the latest joint status report from the Ports and the system vendor, Navis, which builds software that enables complex systems to organize, load, unload and handle large cargo containers in seaports around the world. Maher Terminals, a freight company at the Ports, arranged to purchase Navis' latest cargo-handling software, the SPARCS N4 Marine Terminal Operating System, back in April 2008 and has been undergoing its deployment.

"The implementation of the new operating systems at Maher's Elizabeth, N.J., facility has turned the corner, as service has returned to acceptable levels during the past several weeks, albeit at reduced volume," according to a July 31 joint statement from Maher and Navis. "Barring any unforeseen circumstances, this steady progress has now put the terminal in a position to handle all of its business and transition to normalized operations."

That's good news for the Ports, which have seen critical slowdowns in cargo handling due to the software problems, according to an Aug. 5 story in The Wall Street Journal. The problems began in June, the story reported, and have been causing all kinds of freight-handling delays just as retailers are hoping to get their shipments in time for the back-to-school shopping season and the December holidays.

"The computer system at the port in Elizabeth, N.J., was meant to improve routing of cargo from ships to trucks and trains, helping terminal operators track containers and allowing longshoremen to locate them for loading onto trucks," reported the Journal. "But industry officials and the longshoremen's union said elements of the system didn't successfully communicate with each other."

The problems, according to the joint Navis and Maher statement, are being solved by modifying the implementation plans and scaling back troublesome parts of the system until they can be fixed and brought back online.

Ivo Oliveira, a vice president of industry relations for Maher, did not respond to several requests for comment from eWEEK.

Andy Barrons, vice president and chief marketing officer for Navis, told eWEEK that the system is improving from a performance perspective as the glitches, which have surfaced in the system's wireless network, are resolved.

"This was an implementation of multiple component systems [including software, container moving equipment and vehicles] that are integrated together in an overall solution," said Barrons. "What was identified was an issue with the wireless network that prevented the automated process of inventorying the containers as they moved around the yard. That component, which has a position-detection system, was preventing the automated process from working."

IT Glitches at the Port of New York and New Jersey Slow Cargo Handling

The wireless network is supposed to track the vehicles that drive around in the container yard, so that inventory and other records can be accurately kept, he said. "The drivers get their directions on a screen on their vehicles in the yard, so it's essential that you have a robust network for the automated process to work."

The Navis SPARCS N4 is software is the company's latest software and is installed in 77 terminals around the world, according to Barrons. Earlier versions of the company's software products are installed in 244 shipping terminals worldwide.

Navis and Maher had noted the ongoing problems with the system back in June, when they issued a previous joint press release describing the troubles. "After successful implementation of earlier phases of this important initiative, and extensive testing of the current phase of implementation, the operation has encountered some unexpected issues," the statement said at that time. "These issues have led to delays, which are expected to be temporary while both Navis and Maher Terminals continue to commit all available resources to identify and resolve those technical issues."

The delays at the Port of New York and the Port of New Jersey are apparently benefiting other East Coast-based ports that are not undergoing similar problems, according to a story from IEEE Spectrum. "It is hard to overestimate the importance of an effective, fully functioning terminal operating system (TOS) to a port's attractiveness to shippers, and therefore, to the port's profitability," according to IEEE Spectrum. "And when a TOS doesn't work well, it doesn't take long for shippers to decide to go somewhere else, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—the busiest on the East Coast despite still being in recovery from the ravages of Hurricane Sandy—is finding out to its dismay. The Port of Virginia, among others, is delighting in the shift."

Interestingly, the Port of Virginia "successfully migrated to the Navis SPARCS N4, the same TOS that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is having trouble with, last year," according to IEEE Spectrum.

The Maher Terminal in Port Elizabeth, N.J., is on 445 acres and is the largest container terminal in the Port of New York and New Jersey and the largest on the Eastern Seaboard, according to Maher. It replaced an old, home-built container management system with the Navis software.

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