Every week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

This article comes from the August 1992 issue of American Shipper and explains how longshoremen first worked with barcodes while shipping Chrysler vehicles, making the process “nearly mistake-proof.”

Barcode technology reduces the chances of misplacing a vehicle in transit from one per voyage to one every 50

Saturday, Jan. 25, 1992 is a date Ulla Onni won’t soon forget. At 2:00 a.m. falling snow and a biting wind chill sent the temperature on Baltimore’s waterfront plummeting to -20°F, and there were plenty of places the freezing director of information systems and technology for Wallenius Lines North America, Inc. would rather have been. But there was no postponing the event that had brought Onni and her colleagues down from Wallenius’ Northern New Jersey headquarters to stand on a Baltimore pier in the middle of the night.

For the first time ever, longshoremen loaded an entire shipment of Chrysler motor vehicles onto a vessel, as they were using barcode scanners to place the right cars in the right spot on the right deck. Onni would have preferred better weather. Before daylight arrived the hand-held scanners were layered with ice, not the best environment for testing sensitive electronic equipment.

But all went well, a good thing for Wallenius, since its contract with Chrysler mandates the use of barcode technology in addition to electronic data interchange (EDI). Wallenius isn’t the only carrier implementing barcode scanning of motor vehicles, but it is the first, and so far the only, carrier doing so with an up and running live system designed to meet the service requirements of a shipping contract.

Nearly mistake-proof

It’s no wonder Chrysler, and its competitors around the world, are embracing barcode technology and forcing their vendors to do likewise. With barcoding, it’s virtually impossible to misplace a vehicle in transit.

Barcoding allows manufacturers and their vendors to eliminate manual entering and tracking of the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, that is assigned each motor vehicle as soon as its frame is assembled. With 17 digits, the VIN leaves lots of room for mistakes. During shipping, motor vehicles are generally tracked using the VIN’s last eight digits. But it’s not unlikely that a manufacturer would assign the same final eight digits to two vehicles that carry different brands.

An early version of the barcode scanners we know today. (Photo: American Shipper).

For example, a Chrysler LeBaron and the Chrysler Jeep might share the same last eight VIN numbers, but are differentiated by the VIN’s first nine digits which denote model name.

There’s a big difference between a dockside checker manually recording eight digits for each car loaded, and a scanner reading the full 17 in the wink of an eye. In the shipment process, vehicles are staged at the pier and then loaded onboard a ship, according to their destination port. The bar-coded VIN makes it much easier to keep strays from ending up where they shouldn’t be.

If a Liverpool-bound vehicle is mistakenly stowed amidst a deck full of cars bound for Rotterdam, chances are it will take a lot longer to get to Liverpool than the shipper originally anticipated. Wallenius estimates that about one vehicle per voyage was likely to go astray before barcoding. Now the error factor has been reduced to one in every 50 sailings.

Moreover, the bar-coded VIN can also be used to trigger the documentation and subsequent payment process that attends any shipment.

Three beeps, all’s well

Here’s how Wallenius and Chrysler are using barcodes in Baltimore:

Sometime before a vessel is ready to load, the Wallenius shore captain asks his personal computer to provide a record of the Chryslers scheduled for loading on that particular voyage. The shore captain’s PC gets that information from Wallenius’ central database in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

Once the portside PC has all the details, the shore captain proceeds to download that information to each of five hand-held barcode scanners that will be used during the loading process. Hence, the shore captain’s PC serves as a link between the scanners and Wallenius’ mainframe.

Next, the shore captain brings all five scanners to the quay. Two of the scanners are used by checkers at the foot of each of the ship’s two loading ramps, two are used by checkers inside the vessel, and the fifth is a spare, just in case.

As a motor vehicle approaches a ramp for loading, the checker scans its bar code to make sure it is valid for that particular voyage, and for that particular sequence in the loading process.

Scanning is easy with the pistol-like device which operates similar to the handheld scanners used at many department store check-out counters.

When the checker pulls the trigger he hears either a long single beep, which tells him something isn’t right, or three short beeps, a confirmation that all is well.

If a barcode doesn’t scan, the checker has the option of hand-keying in the VIN, using the scanner’s tiny keyboard that looks a little like a telephone handset.

The scanner’s screen, which measures about two inches by three inches, provides instructions or status updates on individual vehicles, for example, “DO NOT LOAD!”

A second scan is made inside the ship after the vehicle is lashed in place, thereby capturing the exact stowage position.

When the vessel is fully loaded, the process begins in reverse. The scanners are brought back to the shore captain’s office for downloading to his PC. Then the shore captain’s PC transmits the same data to the Wallenius central file at headquarters.

From that point, various reports and documentation can be generated. Also linked into the communication chain is the processing center at the port where vehicles are prepared for export or import. In Baltimore, vehicles are processed at Hobelman Port Services before being placed in the marshaling yard. Steps performed by Hobelman are precisely recorded using barcodes.

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