Tablets make Charleston port-able

Slate devices simplify logistics and speed shipments

Wireless tablet PCs help the port of Charleston, S.C., keep tabs on the thousands of tons of cargo that it handles every day. More than 2,000 trucks a day arrive with containers of agricultural products, consumer goods, machinery, metals, vehicles, chemicals and other payloads.

Port workers at the dozen lanes entering the port area use tablets to enter information and paperwork data from truck drivers into the port's automated Yard Management System. Workers then print a ticket for each container. When a truck arrives to pick up a container, crane operators use their wireless tablets to determine which container is to be collected and where it is located. Then they repack the stacks of containers to make sure that the right one is ready by the time the truck gets to that area of the facility.

As a result of the sheer volume of cargo and the regulations of state and federal governments, port officials face major logistics challenges. Aside from keeping track of the thousands of containers that enter and leave the port, they have to meet federal security and customs regulations in regard to the origin, contents and destination of each container. In addition, they have to make sure the freight moves efficiently, so that trucks aren't kept waiting unnecessarily.

S. Todd Davis, network manager for the port, described Yard Management System, which was launched in 1998, as a real-time inventory system that tracks a container from the time it enters the port area until it leaves.

'Some truck drivers originally had a 'change is bad' attitude when we switched [from a paper system] to a computerized system,' Davis said. 'But now they like it because it gets them moving faster, with fewer mistakes, than before.'

In deploying the system, port officials found that all tablet vendors are not alike. The original vendor didn't keep up with advances in CPUs and RAM, which meant that the tablets weren't as fast in handling information as the workers preferred, Davis said. Plus, the devices weren't rugged enough to withstand the shocks and bumps of everyday use at the port.

It was also frustrating that the vendor didn't have a single model that met all the worker needs. 'Some had touch screens, some pen screens,' Davis said. This meant that the units weren't interchangeable for any task.

In 2003, port officials began testing replacement tablets. They conducted demonstrations among several competitors before selecting Hammerhead rugged tablet PCs from DRS Tactical Systems Inc. of Melbourne, Fla. The units have up-to-date CPUs and enough RAM to handle necessary applications. They have larger screens than the previous devices and the touch-screen interface lets workers wearing gloves to operate them simply.

Hammerheads, often used for utilities, public safety and military applications, also are more rugged and better sealed than the former products, Davis said.

'We also like that we can use one model for both our applications,' he added. In the truck lanes, where wireless communication is good, the devices maintain real-time connections. In the yard, where stacks of metal containers make wireless communication iffy, the devices store data and then update their information when connection is re-established.

The Hammerheads also have bar code scanners to read tickets and paperwork. There are mounting docks for the tablets in lane kiosks, cranes and other locations, which leave workers free to use their hands.

'We've been impressed with how the company listened to us and customized their models to our specifications,' Davis said. For example, workers wanted a Universal Serial Bus port on the outside of each unit for a keyboard, bar code reader, printer or other peripheral equipment. 'You need customization of ruggedized tablets to match applications,' he said.

Port officials currently deploy 165 Hammerhead units, and they anticipate buying 25 more this year.

According to Davis, the biggest problem is batteries. 'We find we need to completely discharge the batteries and then recharge them for best results,' he said, noting that it's not always obvious when the batteries are completely discharged. Fortunately, the Hammerheads use two batteries that are hot-swappable, which simplifies matters.

Davis advised consulting multiple vendors before selecting a tablet PC. Also, additional features can actually cause more problems. 'We prefer units with no buttons, because workers were accidentally hitting them.' Finally, on-site testing is essential: Vibrations at the port severely affect some types of tablets.

Davis points out that handling 2,000 trucks a day without rugged tablets would be impossible. But with the right tablets, it's become reasonably painless.

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