Profiles in Yard Management Excellence by Adrian Gonzalez: Universal Logistics
Universal Logistics (“Universal”) operates one of the country's largest cross-dock operations in Romulus, Mich. With about 850 yard spaces to manage, this full-service provider of customized transportation and logistics solutions has been providing dry van and specialized transportation; intermodal drayage; material handling and value-added services; and global trade management to its valued customers for more than 80 years.
Managing transportation for an operation of Universal’s size is no easy task, and the firm’s yard tends to be a particularly busy and confusing space. “With that many dock doors to manage and the high velocity of trailers going in and out around the clock,” says Peter Spata, Project Management Officer, “controlling everything would be a nightmare without some level of automation to help out.”
Universal found itself in need of a modern Yard Management System (YMS) that could not only manage the logistics provider’s current transportation volume, but that could also scale up as the company grew. At the time, Spata says Universal was using two-way radios to communicate with truck drivers, often giving instructions like, “Hey, meet me over at dock door 17 and I’ll give you a list of your next batch of moves.” That process had to be repeated across 10 different yard-truck drivers.
Spata says finding trailers quickly on Universal’s expansive property was also difficult, as was designating spaces (or, specific zones) in the yard where the trailers could be parked. The company also employed a yard auditor who—equipped with a printout of a spreadsheet—would physically go out into the yard, chalk off trailers, and confirm their individual contents.
This highly manual system didn’t allow for much visibility, says Spata, whose customers would frequently ask about trailer status (i.e., did this carrier make it in yet? Did you get this to the dock door yet? Has the trailer been unloaded yet?). “This presented some key challenges in such a high-velocity operation,” Spata says.
Reducing Costs and Headcount
From its new YMS, Universal wanted to reduce costs and cut down on the number of drivers needed to properly maintain its yard. “We needed efficiency in the yard and we needed to be able to minimize the amount of time that someone spent doing physical yard audits,” says Spata.
By automating its yard and gaining better visibility over the activities taking place on the other side of the dock door, Universal would also be able to reduce its demurrage expenses (e.g., the cost incurred when an ocean container sits on the property for too long), while improving its carrier communications.
“Those were our key objectives,” says Spata, who worked with a team to explore the company’s yard management options and assess the systems’ costs. That team included Universal’s facilities director, a few key supervisors, the dock staff, administrative employees, and yard-truck drivers. “We wanted to make sure we had critical buy-in from all involved parties,” says Spata, “because they were the ones who were ultimately going to be in the middle of all of this, and using the system and benefiting from it.”
After exploring offerings from seven different yard managing vendors, the selection team effectively whittled down the options to just a handful. In assessing whether it wanted to use passive RFID tags (versus active RFID tags or barcodes, for example), the company realized that the former would produce the greatest efficiency levels for its high-volume operation. “Once we knew that we wanted passive tags, we were left with just two or three providers,” says Spata. “Then, upon reviewing those vendors’ capabilities, we selected PINC’s Advanced Yard Management solution.”
$130,000 Savings Right Out of the Gate
With the primary goals of improving efficiencies and cutting costs, Universal reaped an immediate $130,000 in annual savings as soon as its new YMS was implemented and users trained on the system. “We were able to reduce our number of yard-truck drivers by two, and that happened very naturally,” says Spata. “No one actually lost their jobs; it happened with attrition.”
Spata says Universal was also able to scale back the quantity of trucks needed to support the yard and the volume of fuel allocated to maintaining those assets. “Our YMS also helped us automate the carrier pool, to the point that now we could see exactly how many trailers were in the yard,” he explains, “and how many trailers there were for each specific SCAC code that we needed to maintain.”
Universal is also planning to integrate their YMS with its existing warehouse management system (WMS), thus enabling easier integration with its customers’ incoming data. “PINC allows us to receive an ASN, and we also upload any number of file types and match those files with trailer arrival times into the yard,” says Spata, whose team can automatically create lane integrations, dedicated routes, and rules-based events. “We're not only managing the yard at this particular facility, but we're managing the entire 750,000-square-foot warehouse.”
There were also unexpected benefits. For example, Spata says Universal didn’t factor in the higher customer confidence levels that would come from having a fully-automated yard. “They now feel like we’re giving them more reliable, faster feedback,” says Spata, “while at the same time reducing the amount of time spent going back and forth with customers.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Since rolling out the PINC YMS at its main location, Universal has also implemented it at five other sites. “We’re going to expand into a new site in Tennessee in the near future, with the goal of making this a ‘campus’ project versus just a single site,” says Spata, who advises other shippers to use a “team” approach to software selection and implementation. “Get the right people involved upfront, and give them ownership of the project,” he says. “They’ll provide you with feedback in ways that you would never expect.”