Technology, skilled shunters key to managing a busy yard

by Harry Rudolfs

Shunting is a precision science. A good shunt operation gets the maximum out of available equipment and space. And a fast-paced shipping environment has an intimate relationship with its shunt trucks. Empty doors can cost time and money.

So much depends on the yard set-up. Shunt scenarios vary widely, anything from a mom and pop cross-docking operation to a bustling terminal with hundreds of doors. But trailers scattered about the yard, buried or dropped helter-skelter create a nightmare for shunters and impede productivity.

That’s why the first thing Mike MacLellan does when he arrives at a new customer is to check out the yard layout.

MacLellan is a shunt specialist with National Shunt Service Limited of Cobourg, Ont., and he’s often called on to assess a new client’s needs.

“What kind of yard surface are we dealing with, where are the holes and bottlenecks? Where are the empties kept?” he asks. “One of the things I might do is segregate the broker trailers by company. That way when outside carriers come into the yard they can bump and scrape their own trailers instead of everybody else’s”

MacLellan stresses that safety should never be compromised for expediency – drivers as well as dock hands must be aware of the company safety policy and procedures. “Some companies use bumper locks while others are on a red and green light system,” he says. “Most companies have chocks for every door while others have nothing. Shunts should always check to see if the dock plate is up and that no one is on the back – no matter what the dispatcher tells you on the radio or computer screen.”

Yard checks are essential
Every shift should start with a thorough yard check. Most controllers never get to see what’s going on outside. They rely on their drivers and dock forepersons to tell them the status of moves and loads – which makes up-to-date yard reports even more important.

The yard check can also catch equipment that’s been dropped without notifying the control room. And if done several times during a shift, can ensure all outbound and inbound loads are dealt with in a timely manner.

Ideally, there should be enough empties in the yard to cover all the loads. But something like out-of-service trailers, flat tires, or those with expired safety stickers can throw a wrench into shipping schedules. Some terminals rely on outside carriers exclusively. Can the carrier handle the allocated capacity? Are there enough broker trailers in the yard?

If space permits, empties should be staged separately, as should inbound and outbound trailers. If the yard is full, trailers might have to be blocked or stacked, in which case it’s important to block in the least important loads first.

If possible, avoid making unnecessary moves. While working at Canadian Tire one summer I noticed a container that regularly moved back and forth between buildings and never got unloaded. One manager would call it up and I’d move it overnight where it would sit until the next afternoon when the manager from the other building would bring it back. This went on all week while the seal remained intact.

The average hydraulic shunt move takes about five minutes. So getting carriers to drop directly into a dock door can free up a shunt truck for a couple of moves. Most carriers don’t mind waiting for a door to clear for 10 minutes or so, if they’re asked nicely – they usually have paperwork to do anyway.

What’s in your software?
Distribution centres, LTL carriers and couriers are among the most intense users of shunt vehicles and state-of-the-art technologies. Purolator’s Ontario hub on Vulcan Street in Rexdale, Ont., handles 250 to 280 inbound loads every afternoon.

And some of those trailers have to be moved several times between the bulk docks and the unload conveyors, finally getting stripped of empty skids on the skid dock. That makes for about 700 moves done every day by 18 shunt drivers, the majority handled by about 12 trucks during the peak period between 7 and 11 p.m.

When I started working at the company seven years ago, the control room used a huge board with magnetic tabs representing the trailers and another chit denoting the shunt truck. I recall the controllers rolling across the floor in a swivel chair while juggling two phones (inbound and outbound shunts on separate channels), and talking into a headset at the same time.

That’s all changed over the last couple of years. The big boards are gone and the yard tracking info appears on a large monitor on the controllers’ desks. The screen is a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on steroids, laid out in columns to represent yard positions and  docks, with a spectrum of colour-coded blocks depicting the trailers. The colour-coding corresponds to the status of the trailers, whether empty (clean or dirty), reserved, bulk, mixed-load, priority or out-of-service, among other classifications.

The shunt numbers appear as squares in a column along the right margin, and are also colour-coded to indicate whether they are dropping, hooked, or standing by. Instead of dragging a magnetic tab across a board, the controller only has to make a mouse click on the shunt and trailer and the status is immediately updated.

One screen provides multi-layered information about real-time yard operations, something the magnetic board could never do.  As well, drop-down menus provide immediate data concerning departures and hot loads, etc.

Shunt drivers still keep a record of each move and time, but the information is already stored in the  Web-based server.

Controllers no longer have to plough through a mountain of paperwork to find a missed move and location.  And controllers and managers can also link with the other two hubs to obtain current information on incoming or outgoing loads.

To be sure, several transportation software developers have jumped into the yard tracking business and offer a wide variety of similar programs in template form. But Purolator’s system is unique in that it has been custom-built by in-house IT specialist Theo Pribytkov to accommodate the courier’s specific protocols, and reflect the exact layout of its hubs.

I spoke with two controllers who were enthusiastic about Pribytkov’s system (and are hoping the big magnetic board never returns).  Chris Soodeen, head controller at the Ontario hub, likes the fact that the system’s stored data can be accessed for analysis. “We can go back a year and find out what happened and what the problem was. Then we can take it apart and see how to fix it.”

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