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The day after Christmas in 2015, workers at the Port of Los Angeles set a personal record. They unloaded a massive cargo ship called the Benjamin Franklin, the largest ever to land in North America, in just three and a half days.

Such brisk efficiency takes lots of planning. The right equipment has to be in place to move the merchandise from the ship and onto trucks and trains for distribution. In this case, it was a months-long logistical exercise — carried out mostly by telephone and spreadsheets.

Port operators knew they could do better. So they partnered with GE to create a pilot program making cargo shipment data visible with GE software. The pilot, which went live this week, will help the port’s complex system of shippers, terminal operators, trucks, rail cars and other components run more efficiently.

Port of Los Angeles (Image credit: Getty Images via GE Reports)

The companies in the pilot include Maersk Shipping and Mediterranean Shipping, as well as retailers such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s. They will test the system for two to three months at the port’s APM Terminals, with the possibility of expanding it across all 16 Port of LA terminals in the future.

Seth Bodnar, GE Transportation’s chief digital officer, says the port resembles a giant restaurant. “In the past, we didn’t know who to serve until the customer showed up — you didn’t know what was coming off the ship until a couple of days before the ship arrived,” he says.

Such short notice can lead to bottlenecks. The new GE software system makes data available to the ports two weeks before the ship arrives, giving everyone plenty of time to synch their assets. The system will also tell workers the cargo’s final destination so that trucks and machines can be ready to move the goods in the most efficient way possible. The payoff can be huge. Bodnar says that a 1 percent improvement in efficiency at just one port can net $60 million in savings.

(Image credit: Getty Images via GE Reports)

There are other benefits. Bodnar says that efficiency can also help reduce the port’s impact on the environment by reducing the number of idling trucks.

Port of LA Executive Director Gene Seroka says pulling the pilot program together was a logistical feat in itself. The team had to securely pool terabytes of data from several different databases. They brainstormed with GE on a dashboard to make sense of the data and deliver real-time, comprehensive insights to the right people at the right time. “To keep pace with the rapidly changing shipping landscape, operations at our ports must evolve,” Seroka says.

The partners say that if the pilot is successful, it could scale to other ports across the country. As the world becomes more connected, ships are getting bigger and more complex: Between Asia and the U.S. West Coast the average container ship size has risen 14 percent in the past two years, and seaports account for roughly 90 percent of trade worldwide.

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