Seal of Approval

Seal of Approval

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

Supply-chain security has become a crowded field and it is easy to overlook the fact that many of the initiatives now preoccupying companies are rooted in projects that predate Sept. 11. An example is a study to assess the practical application of electronic seals. A final report was issued in December and a follow-up study has just begun.

The use of e-seals to secure containers and provide information on cargo moving internationally in trade lanes is attracting much attention, "but we've been doing it for two years," said Dr. Ed McCormack of the Washington State Transportation Center in Seattle. "We have put the systems in place and shown that there is some cost benefit," he said.

By "we" McCormack means an operational test sponsored by the Department of Transportation of an e-seal prototype carried out in Washington and British Columbia with a supply chain link in Asia. According to the final report, the test "represents a 2.5-year effort to deploy a new intermodal freight technology in a complex operational and institutional environment." The project used a prototype e-seal from e-Logicity and E.J. Brooks, and the participants included the steamship lines Maersk Sealand and Westwood Shipping, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, and two trucking companies, PRTI Transport and Shadow Lines.

The Department of Agriculture and Maersk Sealand deployed the first test group of 47 e-seals for a year on in-bond agricultural shipments moving from Tacoma port across the U.S.-Canada border. After resolving some operational issues the team achieved a read rate of 100 percent, validating the success of the technology.

The U.S. Customs Service and Westwood Shipping installed the second test group of 30 e-seals on in-bond shipments of auto parts moving from Japan to the Port of Seattle and across the U.S.-Canadian border. The test continued for about seven months. Customs officers in the Port of Seattle read the seals using handheld readers. Three seals registered as "tampered" during the read process. Again after resolving some early problems an e-seal read rate of 100 percent was reported.

An unexpected occurrence put the e-seals to the test. "The potential value of this technology was also demonstrated when a truck disappeared," the report said. The DOA was alerted and reacted in less than half the time normally taken under traditional tracking systems. "It is expected that the e-seal system will assist with prosecution when the driver is apprehended," it said.

Further validation of the technology came from a truck-trailer test. An e-seal container was loaded onto a truck equipped with a transponder, to determine whether the system would associate the vehicle with the box. A Shadow Line truck was married with a container and sent through the Blaine, Wash., border crossing. The system correlated both units and the details were displayed on the TransCorridor website, the web-based information system developed by TransCore that was the backbone of the tests.

The first prototype e-seal system to be tested operationally in the United States validated the concept, the report concluded. The technology was refined; for example reader speeds were adjusted to cope with moving vehicles. However, the report conceded that the test did not reflect a full operational cycle since readers were absent at key points such as port gates. Also, "the handheld readers proved difficult to operate due to the user having to navigate a cumbersome series of menus," according to the report.

More important from a security viewpoint is the immediacy of the information provided by the e-seals. "A major concern with the disposable e-seal technology tested here is that the information is not real-time," the report said. The devices may help detect pilferage by tracking when a container was opened, but "it does nothing to stop the potential corruption of a container with weapons of mass destruction during shipment," the report said. However, the technology still can play an important anti-terrorist role within a larger freight security system, according to the report.

The cost of e-seals has limited the technology's usage but the report said the evaluation proved that a low-cost, disposable e-seal can be developed. A problem is that there are a lot of nondisposable seals on the market that are too expensive, said McCormack. The disposable version is relatively simple. "We just deactivated the seals with a bolt cutter" as if they were manual seals, he said.

The closed system McCormack referred to has to include all relevant parties - including vehicle drivers. "One of the things we are shooting for is to allow a truck to turn up with a driver ID and integrate this with everything else," he said. This will pave the way for special lanes equipped with electronic readers that will be part of a high-speed conduit for freight vehicles, he explained.

That concept will receive more scrutiny as part of operational evaluation in the second phase, which recently got under way. "We are going to do more operational tests," said McCormack, "and take a hard look at the e-seal technology." Specific issues such as who should be responsible for installing an e-seal will be looked at. The second phase also is a three-nation evaluation involving the Canadians and tests at the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas, he said.