Keep on Truckin’ by Evan Gilman
As importers, we deal intimately with the comings and goings of coffee. The journey from our warehouse to yours is the last leg we see with great detail. We are more than happy when the coffee gets to you without incident, and less than surprised when the coffee gets to you through the convoluted series of transactions we see every day.
Each of us in the supply chain is familiar with a very specific portion of coffee’s journey, and a roaster could speak all day about their part of the industry just as well as an importer could. One part of the story we don’t often hear about is the space between. This is a story that relies on truckers, port workers, and shipping companies to tell. In this article, I will focus mainly on truckers and their importance in the logistics chain.
In two preceding articles (here and here), I detailed some of the current issues that shipping companies and the port are facing in current times. Industry-wide changes at the shipping level are felt first of all by laborers at the port, get passed on to the trucking and drayage companies, and end up in the laps of the importers. For the green coffee buyer and roaster, the result of these issues can be anything from price fluctuation to unavailability of coffees. For the final consumer of the product, it can mean only one thing: a more expensive, less tasty cup of coffee.
Different avenues are being explored to enhance efficiency at port for truckers, who rely on quick ‘turn times’ to pay their bills. Truckers get paid by the mile and by loads delivered, so keeping the truck moving is essential. Turn time is the time spent dropping off a load and/or picking up another inside the terminal; this doesn’t include waiting time outside the terminal. Currently, turn times range between 25 minutes and 2.5 hours. Again, this is not including wait time before the gate, which may be an additional two hours. Thus, quick shipping is contingent on truckers who are always at the ready, and those trucking companies who have someone at port available to pick up a load – any load at all.
The main issue that arises even in the best instances is that truckers are only allowed a certain amount of hours per day behind the wheel, including wait time. Specifically, the federal limits are 11 hours driving, and 14 hours total on duty; while reasonable, this leaves truckers very little time to get to their destination with the load they are carrying from port. Imagine waiting five hours to pick up a container from port, only to get on the highway to Reno in rush hour traffic. Good luck making it through Sacramento traffic before your 11 hours are up!
Federally mandated driving hours have historically been very difficult to audit, and truckers are known for spending too much time on the road. As of December 2015 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, under the US Department of Transportation, put forth a rule that Electronic Logging Devices must be used on all commercial truck and bus industries. This makes driving hours much more easily tracked, and makes the enforcement of driving hours much easier since most commercial drivers will be monitored. Fast turn times and short waits are absolutely essential for the driver’s job to be sustainable.
To aid drivers in getting fast turn times, various technologies are being introduced by the Port of Oakland, where we import most of our coffee. At the last Truck Work Group meeting at the Port of Oakland, DrayQ and StreetTurn were present to give support to truckers. DrayQ updates wait times and turn times live through auditing of data collected from Bluetooth devices throughout the port. In this way, truckers can plan their next move in accordance with real-time data. StreetTurn provides the Intermodal Data Hub, a service that connects truckers and dispatchers with the chassis that are needed to carry full container loads, and streamlines the transaction process by foregoing port involvement in turn times. Though these may seem like small issues, having all of these pieces of the puzzle line up correctly can save immense amounts of time and money due to the volume of containerized shipping handled at the Port of Oakland.
While some of these logistical pinch points can be eliminated or eased through technology, others are completely dependent on prior links in the chain. To summarize from my previous articles, oversupply of empty containers has driven shipping rates down, which leads shipping companies to consolidate. They do this by using larger ships – some of which were contracted before the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, demand for shipping has also fallen, leading shipping companies to lower their rates further and to delay deliveries of new ships. The shipping lines then become dependent on quick turn times at the port in order to offload giant ships carrying loads in excess of 18,000 containers. Ports and laborers struggle to maintain efficiency, leading shipping companies to take their business elsewhere (read: more automated ports, such as Long Beach). Furthermore, some boats are so large they only fit underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at low tide, meaning they have to wait for multiple tidal cycles to even access the Port of Oakland.
There has been much talk of automation in the shipping industry, and following trends, automation in the trucking industry. Automation makes financial sense; automation of the Port of Oakland would likely cost little more than one F-22 Raptor ($361m if you were curious). The human aspect of this automation would likely be a loss of jobs that many depend on for their livelihood. This would change the structure of the port and of labor fundamentally, and would have a deeply felt effect on the economics of the United States. Truck driving is one of the most common professions in the United States. Without drivers, trucks would have no reason to stop other than to refuel – that means no truck stop diners, and no truck stop diner coffee.
Efficiency is paramount to our trade; coffee must arrive quickly in order to maintain its quality. What cost will we have to incur for our expeditious transportation and reasonably priced goods, however? For our own part, we recently acquired our own big rig to help with this process. Though automation is very likely the future of freight logistics, it will be a long time before we prefer a computer over a friendly voice or face. There is a time for change, and a time to stay the same; a time to break down, and a time to build up. Working together we can prepare for these changes, and with any luck, we can see that they don’t come too abruptly.
For now, the companies we work with are doing an amazing job of handling all these difficulties, and have provided us with better service than we could reasonably expect given the circumstances. Though times are difficult, we stick by our trucking companies – at the end of the day, that solid handshake or friendly voice on the phone is top priority. After all, without the truckers our promises to deliver your coffee on time wouldn’t mean as much, and our link to the port wouldn’t exist at all. Every link in the chain is responsible for creating quality coffee, and though it comes last in a long line of transactions, trucking is no different.