The laboratory opens for business

The laboratory opens for business

The coffee beans are bagged, stowed in containers and shipped from Brazil to the Port of New York and New Jersey. Nothing complicated about that. But what can be done to ensure that terrorists haven't put something else into the container along the way?

Finding the answer is the central mission of Operation Safe Commerce, a $58 million initiative of the Transportation Security Administration. OSC was created after the Sept. 11 attacks as a proving ground for many of the business processes and technologies that have been proposed to improve supply-chain security.

After obtaining approval for the final $30 million of a $58 million appropriation, OSC is now under way with contracts awarded to 11 teams, each working through a network of subcontractors on security projects for a specific international trade lane.

Participants say the initiative is "vendor-neutral." No company or technology has the inside edge. The government wants to determine what the various technologies on the market can accomplish. It will eventually use that information to develop cargo-security policies and regulations that will be standard specific but vendor-neutral.

"The overriding principle is that we want a balanced blend of process and technology," said Grant McKinstry, a partner in the global supply-chain management group of Unisys Corp, which is overseeing a team studying ways to improve security for test shipments of coffee beans from Brazil to the Port of New York and New Jersey. "There may be high-tech and low-tech elements. This is not a high-tech, flashy solution, although there are components of that."

Like the other teams, Unisys will test various systems for information sharing, container tracking and employee verification.

The teams will work with international shippers with cargo flowing through the load centers at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Los Angeles and Long Beach, and New York and New Jersey. The cargoes range from mass merchandise commodities to high-value, national-security sensitive freight.

Unisys and its contracting partners will work with Sara Lee Coffee & Tea Foodservice and coffee importer Atlantic (USA) Inc. to secure Sara Lee's coffee imports. Sara Lee's coffee brands include Hills Brothers and Chock Full O'Nuts.

The Unisys-led team will work on security for the cargo from the time the coffee beans are brought into a Brazilian warehouse until they are delivered to the U.S. consignee.

McKinstry said his team is studying several technologies, beginning with the warehouse where the coffee is bagged and loaded into containers. One option is to use closed-circuit video cameras to continuously monitor the bagging and loading. Another is to use digital photos snapped at specific intervals and embedded into the electronic manifest. A "smart seal" equipped with radio-frequency tracking technology would then be fixed to the container. What comes into play after that could be anything or everything.

"There's a plethora of new homeland security technologies coming to market for obvious reasons," McKinstry said. They include radiation detectors for nuclear material, carbon dioxide detectors to locate stowaways and light-intrusion devices that would alert authorities if the container were opened or had a hole bored into it.

"We're looking at a hybrid of these technologies," he said. "We want to set up an environment that's vendor-agnostic and plug-and-play. You determine what your threat is and the risks you want to home in on."

An example of such hybrid approaches is container tracking. McKinstry's team aims to meld the best of two competing technologies, radio-frequency identification and the Global Positioning System.

The satellite-equipped GPS provides continuous, up-to-the-minute tracking - provided the container is in view of the satellite. The drawback to GPS is that a container can be hard to spot if it's indoors or buried under a stack of containers in a storage yard.

Radio-frequency technology overcomes the GPS weakness, but it doesn't have the unbroken chain of visibility that a satellite offers, since containers are recorded only at intervals.

The Unisys team wants to figure out how to fuse the two. The tracking information, combined with the data from various detection equipment, would be fed into a live GPS feed.

The team will have about eight members. They'll include the Inttra ocean portal, based in Parsippany, N.J., for ocean carrier information and software developer Greenline Systems of San Francisco for information technology applications.

Among the issues to be addressed, McKinstry said, is what to do when the security alarm signals a problem. "As a pilot project, there are going to be 'false positives' and we're going to have to deal with them," he said. "We are dealing with real supply chains, and it's important that we deal with them with respect."

Another person mulling over the "false positive" question is Mike Egan, director of homeland security intermodal transportation for Systems Planning Corp. in Arlington, Va. "As the technology evolves, so must the ways that we interpret the information, or else you're going to get a lot of false alarms that slow the supply chain," he said. "There's a whole new level of e-security that must be melded with e-commerce."

Systems Planning is lead contractor for two Safe Commerce projects. One is for mass merchandise moving from Istanbul to the Port of New York and New Jersey and trucked to its final destination. The other is for high-value cargo moving from Japan through the Port of Tacoma and then to Chicago by rail.

The Istanbul project examines security from the importer's side of the business while the Japanese project looks at it from the exporter's side. The project's three main goals are to secure the work force, the shipment tracking and monitoring of the information.

The team will work with academic institutions, the Alaska Maritime Exchange and a Swedish supplier of electronic seals, ALLSET Tracking AB, to weigh the merits of GPS and radio-frequency technologies, among others.

Egan said electronic cargo seals are poised to make a technical leap. The next frontier will be "micro-electrical systems" small enough to be placed virtually anywhere inside a container. The small size of the device would make it harder for a criminal to find the device and rip it out, he said.

But technology doesn't work without the right people, so Systems Planning has developed a detailed program to vet the quality of a company's trading partners. "A company would want to appear trustworthy even if they haven't implemented a secure program internally, so we would look at that," he said.

Systems Planning's partner in this effort is Tag24, a British firm that will create employee training programs. "This is a business that's just starting to emerge, and they're building the template for it," Egan said.

Yet another contractor is Maersk Logistics Inc., which won a project for the import trade lane from Malaysia to Seattle-Tacoma. The company's proposal emphasizes use of radio-frequency technology for tracking at the container and pallet level, and possibly the individual product, said Anthony A. Chiarello, president of Maersk Logistics.

Although there's overlap in the technologies used in the individual Safe Commerce projects, Chiarello said the program is not a horse race where one contender is looking to top another.

"We all have a civil responsibility to come up with the best solution that we know of to give the government. Our effort is to assist them in any way and to help them determine a standard," he said. However, he added, "If you go to the next step, we could find that as a result of this effort you're looking at a possible competitive advantage that can be tried and tested in the marketplace."