Breaking Through On Yard Visibility

Technologies that enhance yard management systems such as RFID and drones promise a new level of visibility into asset location in yards, but they may not be ideal for all yards. Simply using YMS workflows with bar code scanning, as well as integration to TMS and WMS, can vastly improve visibility and throughput.

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Given that the biggest headache in yard management is trying to locate specific trailers, it would seem that real-time location technologies would be a real breakthrough for yard management system (YMS) users.

Technology like radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging, and more recently, aerial drones outfitted with sensors for location data capture, have seen some use with YMS solutions, but even YMS vendors say these technologies aren’t always the best path to yard visibility. Instead, most YMS providers say that it’s YMS’s core workflows and system directives, coupled with some conventional bar coding, that solve most of the asset visibility challenges.

“What we often find when we start off a [new deployment] is that there is chaos in the yard, so when we show up and help them structure their processes as it pertains to the yard with the basic elements of a yard solution, a lot of things fall into place,” says Greg Braun, senior vice president of sales and marketing for YMS provider C3 Solutions.

A key pain point for many yards that serve distribution centers or manufacturing sites, but lack a YMS, is poor visibility into where specific trailers are located. YMS alleviates this pain point because its basic functionality governs what comes into and out of a yard’s gates, while giving system directives to drivers on what dock door or location in the yard to drop off a trailer. Simply by having yard drivers and other YMS users follow YMS directives and confirm moves are complete, a YMS can improve yard visibility without jumping into RFID or drone-based location capture.

The benefit of improved yard visibility boils down to less time wasted by yard drivers (also known as “jockeys”), carrier drivers, and yard dispatchers and security personnel. In today’s market where driver shortages are increasing and detention fees may be charged for keeping drivers on site too long, improving turnaround time becomes an issue.

YMS solutions need effective integration mechanisms so that the needed information on shipments, trailer arrivals, and dock availability can flow accurately into the YMS.

Source: C3 Solutions.

“We are losing a lot of productivity of drivers and assets, not only [in transit] because of traffic jams, but also in yards because of excessive wait times,” says Bart A. De Muynck, research director for transportation technology with analyst firm Gartner.

So while there is little question that yards need better visibility, the question is: How do you break through to it? Technology like RFID can help in some situations, but for many organizations, solid YMS processes and some bar code data collection, as well as integration to other execution solutions like warehouse management system (WMS) and transportation management system (TMS) solutions, can deliver what amounts to a breakthrough in yard visibility.

Follow the system

YMS covers a range of functions, including gate check-in processes, a view of where trailer assets reside in a yard, and system-directed workflows and directives for drivers. In many implementations, gate personnel perform some scanning of bar codes on documents to check in a trailer. While some YMS implementations have added RFID tagging to enhance real-time inventory visibility, notes Braun, simply by following YMS directives and move verification steps in a disciplined manner, the YMS provides a good handle on where trailers are.

While some C3 clients have expressed interest in RFID tagging as part of a later phase, in most cases, the basic YMS implementation has alleviated most visibility shortcomings, Braun adds.

“Where we’ve considered RFID as a phase two, as we finish phase one and look at the project, we see that those major problems we’ve had before—and usually those are related to not knowing where trailers are—go away to a large extent,” says Braun. “So it becomes difficult for our customers to justify that additional investment.”

There are some yards where RFID tracking is better suited, adds Braun, such as yards that accommodate private fleets almost exclusively, such as parcel carrier yards. In these environments, RFID is simplified because tags can remain on the assets, so there is no time lost placing and removing tags at gates, or costs from tags inadvertently leaving the yard.


FAA requirements for outdoor operation adds some complexity to a drone deployment with YMS.

RFID tracking can be implemented in different ways as part of a YMS deployment, from using tags and handheld readers, to more sophisticated methods in which real-time locating units on yard trucks act as mobile RFID readers to capture location data from tagged assets.

While some yards may want to “push the envelope” on real-time inventory visibility by using RFID, says Eric Lamphier, senior director of product management for YMS at Manhattan Associates, most yards have yet to embrace YMS and dock scheduling, so there is much benefit to be gained simply by deploying a system. “There is a lot of opportunity and value to be realized by many enterprises just by implementing some yard system fundamentals,” he says.

Automation’s value

More than 80% of PINC’s YMS customers use its real-time locating system (RTLS) platform underneath PINC’s YMS to automatically collect data, says Matt Yearling, PINC’s CEO. The RTLS platform is basically a sensor platform on each yard truck that is “constantly illuminating and triangulating assets” in a yard, he explains.

PINC’s RTLS can make use of global positioning system (GPS) data feeds from the trucks, but also has RFID capability so it can gather data from tagged trailers. Users of PINC’s YMS still interact with the system to get instructions or see alerts, but the RTLS is a way of automatically capturing useful data as part of the natural flow of yard activity, Yearling explains. “Obviously human interaction with the system is important, but generally, you want to minimize the keystrokes and data that people need to enter into the system,” he says.

Aerial drones are another technology PINC supports for visibility. To date, the most attractive use for these drones is indoors in warehouses, especially in large facilities with high, dense storage where conventional bar code data collection is difficult and requires considerable human labor, says Yearling. PINC’s “supply chain” drones can be configured with a variety of sensors including GPS and RFID, video, optical character recognition, or bar code readers. However, outdoors, they require line-of-sight operation by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified operator, whereas indoors, the drones are not under FAA requirements, so they can self-navigate.

According to Yearling, the FAA requirements for outdoor operation adds some complexity to a drone deployment with YMS, which is a key reason why indoor use of drones is progressing more rapidly. Only a few of PINC’s clients have piloted drones in yard settings, Yearling says. Another reason for limited drone use in yards is that PINC’s “on the ground” RTLS platform already provides accurate location visibility for most yards. There are a few exceptions where drones are attractive for yard visibility, says Yearling, such as very large, geographically dispersed yards or big yards with densely parked trailers or other assets.

“Most of what yard management users need today [in terms of visibility] we can provide with our ‘on the ground’ sensor platform, but there are some fringe cases where you may want to deploy this aerial sensor platform outdoors,” says Yearling.

Gartner’s De Muynck agrees that drones might be useful for very large yards, especially those that have densely parked assets such as in the automotive industry, where a plant might have 50,000 vehicles in a finished-goods yard. Another possible use for drones might be a very large dealer parking lot.

Vehicle telematics solutions also can potentially provide location data to a YMS, says De Muynck, as can real-time visibility platform solutions that aggregate location data from a variety of sources including telematics and GPS. An added benefit of vehicle telematics is that they can pinpoint when a truck is nearing a yard site, thus providing YMS users with accurate alerts on imminent arrivals.

Beyond location

With some YMS solutions, users can enter information on factors like fuel levels or temperature in refrigerated units into the system. This human interaction with the YMS adds value beyond simply recording where a trailer was left, says Richard Chrzanowski, logistics and supply chain best practices manager with UltraShipTMS, a YMS provider.

Chrzanowski agrees that in some yards, RFID might be an effective way to capture location data, but that data tends to be at the trailer level. Achieving a more detailed knowledge over equipment status usually comes from interaction with the YMS.

For example, RFID can’t do things like enter a temperature reading in a refrigerated unit, or update the YMS on the fuel level in a unit. Yard drivers or security personnel typically enter such status-related information into YMS. UltraShipTMS’s YMS also makes use of alerts, including maintenance alerts, that let users know if an asset like a refrigeration unit or dock door will be unavailable.

“If there is a temperature issue with a refrigerated unit, or a unit is not running, many of these conditions are keyed into TMS by a security person or whoever is doing the rounds,” Chrzanowski says.” The typical [YMS] user organization is not just looking for location data—they are looking for details about each asset. There usually is human interaction involved to get certain details into YMS.”

YMS vendors also have introduced mobile apps to enhance the level of communication with drivers. At C3, a relatively new app aimed at drivers called “C3 Driver” enables self-check-in at gates and can perform other tasks, like letting a driver know that a trailer is ready to go. “Drivers want to be back on the road and driving again as soon as possible,” says Braun. “We believe use of this app will improve their chances of making that happen.”

Two of the biggest technology advances that aid YMS, says Braun, are the proliferation of highly capable smart phones, as well as mobile broadband networks. Whereas decades ago, the first YMS deployments required purpose-built outdoor networks, today YMS can simply tap into commercial mobile broadband. Meanwhile, Cloud computing has become a popular way to deploy YMS because it eliminates the back-end server infrastructure hassles. “Just getting to market is a whole lot quicker today because of these technology advances, and it’s much less costly,” says Braun. ]

While some yards may benefit from a YMS with newer forms of location data capture, YMS solutions also need to be able integrate with TMS and WMS to be informed of carrier information and shipment details, and to know about warehouse issues like labor availability and dock equipment readiness.

Lamphier notes that because Manhattan Associates’ YMS solution shares the same integrated architecture as its TMS and WMS, transportation order and advanced ship notice (ASN) data can flow into the YMS, and dock door appointments and scheduling can be done with knowledge of warehouse constraints.

“When [a YMS] is a stand-alone solution or not very well integrated, the steps and functions in the yard system are just going to slow down a bit,” Lamphier says. “But when YMS is well integrated, the check-in process at the gate flows nicely, the right locations can be reserved, and labor can be planned and ready, so [integrated YMS] really facilitates better flow.”

Companies mentioned in this article:

  • C3 Solutions
  • Gartner
  • Manhattan Associates
  • PINC
  • UltraShipTMS

About the Author

Roberto Michel
Roberto Michel, an editor at large for Modern Materials Handling (MMH), has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to MMH since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. He can be reached at [ protected]

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