Any logistics professional who is currently managing the assets out in the yard using clipboards, two-ways radios, or mobile phones probably can’t conceive of this management task being enabled by flying drones. But thanks to advances in technology, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying around a yard, either autonomously or with the help of a remote control, are coming sooner than one might think.
Just ask the folks at PINC, the software vendor that recently introduced PINC Air, an autonomous real-time location system (RTLS) aerial robot that can survey large areas of densely-packed assets for the purposes of inventory reconciliation or pinpointing where certain inventory is located.
PINC Air is autonomous in that it takes off and lands from the same location automatically, with obstructions in its flight path automatically detected and avoided. The drones use PINC’s RTLS capabilities and upload the RTLS and video data via wi-fi upon return to their ground stations.
Clint Reiser, research analyst with ARC Advisory Group, sees potential in combining drones with the management of yard-based assets, particularly for shippers that have expansive yard operations. “Basically, we’re talking about the development of low-cost drones that serve as ‘readers’ in performing tours of the yard to confirm where the assets are and that those assets are, in fact, out in the yard,” he says.
Secondly, Reiser says that the same equipment can be used to track assets in heavy manufacturing facilities—where high-value assets are located outside of the four walls of the plant—and in lay-down yards where equipment is literally “thrown in piles over several acres of land.” In each of these applications, the UAVs serve as a second set of eyes for shippers that want to gain better visibility over the activities taking place in, and the equipment located in, their yards.
Of course, yard management systems (YMS) don’t have to be overly technical and situated in an aerial position to be effective and valuable for shippers. Over the next few pages we’ll explore current YMS adoption, show how these systems are being put to work in the yard, and hear from a company that has experienced positive results over the five-year span that it has been using YMS.
Tracking valuable yard assets
As the software systems that track the movement of trucks, trailers, and other assets in the yard of a warehouse, distribution center, or manufacturing facility, YMS fills in a critical gap left open by traditional transportation management systems (TMS) and warehouse management systems (WMS).
Where the latter oversees the activities within the four wall of the warehouse, and the former takes over when trucks pull out of the front gate, YMS provides visibility over shipments, inventory, and even security out in the yard. The applications are offered as standalone entities from software vendors like PINC, come as part of larger WMS or TMS applications, or are integrated into enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
In addition to PINC, companies like Zebra Technologies, C3 Solutions, and Exotrac all offer their standalone YMS, while WMS providers like Manhattan Associates, HighJump, SAP, and Oracle have built YMS functionalities into their broader applications.
In return for their YMS investments, logistics operations typically gain better control over yard equipment as well as track assets in real-time, improve dock door scheduling, and reduced unload/wait times. And while the business case associated with YMS can be compelling, actual software adoption rates among operations remain fairly low. According to Logistics Management’s most recent Technology Usage Study, just 8.3 percent of companies surveyed are currently using YMS, and of those that purchase WMS, just 3.9 percent cite YMS as the key reason for making that investment.
According to Dwight Klappich, research vice president for Gartner, YMS tends to come into play when a logistics operation has more than 250 parking spaces out in the yard. Those with fewer than that tend to “gravitate to their WMS” yard management, he says. “When the environment isn’t too complex, and when all the shipper needs is check-in and check-out with a guard at the gate, or to find out the exact location of a container, many of the WMS vendors have good enough functionality to manage those activities.”
Now, increase the number of parking spaces to 1,500 or more, says Klappich, and the need for RTLS-based systems, radio frequency identification (RFID), and other advanced capabilities becomes more prevalent. “We’re seeing more and more interest in these capabilities from companies that have big yards basically because they’re dealing with a lot more complexity.”
Where the shipper with 200 parking spaces may be working with 10 shipping and receiving docks and 100 trucks a day, for example, the one with 1,500 spaces is probably moving 100 tractor trailers around per hour. The odds that assets will get lost in the latter scenario are much higher, says Klappich, who expects RFID technology to continue gaining traction in YMS as more of those large shippers turn to technology to help control and manage their expansive yard activities.
Klappich says shippers that are working with “yard of yards” scenarios—where a manufacturer has one yard at its plant and other, multiple yards at its distribution centers—are also looking more closely at YMS as a way to manage their complex distribution operations. In such cases, companies may be producing widgets at one location, sending them via truck to a DC, and then returning those vehicles back to the plant from the DC. Traditionally, logistics managers and dispatchers had just a single viewpoint of one yard versus more global visibility over multiple locations.
“These shippers would like to have an enterprise view of all of their yards,” says Klappich, who again points to PINC as one of the software vendors making strides in this arena. “They want to be able to drill down and gain better visibility over demurrage charges, freight movement, and other important measures across multiple yards.”
More functionality ahead
Reiser, whose firm covers the YMS arena as part of its TMS and WMS coverage, says that JDA recently introduced an “intelligent fulfillment strategy” that integrates planning and execution functionality. He sees a connection between this strategy and the typical yard.
“JDA is looking to incorporate execution on the fulfillment and planning side and sort of blend them with one another,” says Reiser. For example, he says that a shipper may use the application to factor dock door constraints or limitations into its planning optimization run via a TMS. And because the yard is strategically situated between the warehouse and the transportation network, incorporating yard-related constraints could help companies optimize their supply chains.
“This will take things to the next level as far as yard management is concerned,” says Reiser, who envisions a time when companies can leverage YMS to gain better visibility by breaking down the silos that can exist between warehouse operations, transportation networks, and yard-based activities/assets.
The time horizon for this strategy, and the potential to eke out incremental savings from it, could still be far off for many shippers, adds Reiser. “Conceptually, the idea sounds great, but in reality, adoption will be on a case-by-case basis.”