Tracking Totes Turns to Technology (Online Exclusive)

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As totes and intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) become more sophisticated and more expensive, chemical producers and distributors are seeing them more as a fleet like rail cars or tank trailers rather than as a disposable cost of doing business.

Also, strict new rules on tracking and tracing hazardous materials make it imperative for shippers to know where their containers are. Traditionally this has been done with simple manifest coding or more recently with scanable labels on the containers. Now shippers and carriers are seeking more holistic methods including radio or satellite tags and software that is integrated with order management.

"Shippers are becoming more sophisticated in managing their assets," says Mike Spurrier, vice president of sales and marketing for Snyder Industries, one of the largest makers of totes and IBCs. "They want to target a turn time of, say, six times a year for one of our 330-gallon totes. Most of our large clients use proprietary bar codes and tracking software on our containers."

Those are added by the shipper or the 3PL, he notes, not by the container manufacturer. Spurrier adds, that most shippers are "not totally satisfied," with current methods. Shippers agree with that assessment, but none was willing to disclose details.

The technology is evolving in the direction of GPS chips in a tag on each container that will tell the shipper, the carrier, and the consignee not just where the vessel is but what its temperature is, how full it is, and all the MSDS and DOT certification data. That level of technological sophistication is still prohibitively expensive for most shippers and 3PLs.

The expectation in the industry is that GPS-based tracking is still a few years away, but is being driven by two key factors. One is the cost of the containers themselves. A food-grade stainless-steel unit can cost several thousand dollars, and large shippers have fleets of hundreds of thousands. That works out to millions of dollars in capital costs. Tracking helps lower cycle times, improve asset management, and reduce replacement costs. The other major driver is security. Now that truck-level tracking is common for truckload and tank-truck carriers, then next frontier is tracking LTL shipments.

"GPS technology is a little expensive in the cost per container," says Spurrier." He notes, however, that as the investments in totes and IBCs rises, and the costs of technology fall, "within five to 10 years GPS tracking will be achieved. This is definitely an emerging market with all the emphasis on safety and security." He also believes that 3PLs, not just major chemical producers, are driving this advancement. "Their value is in the infrastructure they provide to shippers, especially in taking responsibility for consignments."

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