Nearly two decades after the widespread adoption of computers by the industry, the hour - of delivery, not the day - has become the standard by which the international shipping game is played.

It used to be that when a shipment departed from the Far East, you could tell an American consignee that the goods would be here in 21 or 22 days - but no more, says Kjeld Petersen, a gulf intermodal manager for Kerr Steamship based in Houston. Now, consignees want to know within a matter of hours when that shipment will arrive in the United States.Besides sheer technological capability, Mr. Petersen says the demand for highly accurate shipping reports is being fueled by the increasing popularity of Just-in-Time manufacturing in the United States and Europe, in which lean and mean inventories are highly prized.

The Japanese automakers with plants in America have been very demanding, Mr. Petersen says. But I wouldn't say they're the only ones. All of the major U.S. and European companies are looking for the same kind of service.

In addition to decreased overhead and warehousing costs for manufacturers, Mr. Petersen says the ever-growing scrutiny of intermodal transport performance has brought more professionalism and efficiency into the industry.

Fewer shipments are late since the proliferation of the computer, and fewer are victim to pilferage and/or damage, he says.

And the gains have also made a phenomenal impact in dockside efficiency. Says Mr. Petersen: We've gotten to the point where we can essentially lay out the loading plan for a double-stacked train in the United States, by the time the goods for that train leave the Far East.

Meanwhile, fast-track traders have been able to buy, sell, and even reroute goods in transit by computer with an ease that their predecessors would have found mind-boggling.

I'm not saying it happens every day, but I have seen goods heading from San Francisco to New York be sold and rerouted by the time the train pulls into Chicago, says Gary Lazarewicz, a vice president of systems for MCC in Cranford, N.J.

While the significance of all these gains might not be impressive to shipping newcomers, industry veterans like Shauny Moore know otherwise.

A director of documentation and systems at Kerr's San Francisco office, Ms. Moore remembers all too well the archaic three-by-five index card system that Kerr and others once used to monitor the trappings of international trade.

Essentially, each card was recorded with the status of a particular container or set of containers, and was arranged on a giant hardboard of countless other cards that hopefully contained accurate information on the status of other containers.

There were so many cards to keep track of that we had to split up the United States by office - one office might be responsible for San Francisco, Portland and Houston, for example, she says. So it was very difficult to get an overall picture of what was going on.

Not surprisingly, the opportunity for errors and misunderstanding within the system were rife, and the timeliness of the reports - judged by today's standards - were somewhere in the league of drumbeats and smoke signals.

Moreover, losing a card could essentially be equated with losing a piece of equipment. And Ms. Moore still shudders when she recalls the days when one or more of the giant boards were knocked askew, and the meticulously arranged cards went flying in all directions.

But besides the more obvious advantages of automation, Ms. Moore says one of the greatest benefits of computerized intermodal tracking from her perspective has to be the computer's ability to catch small errors before bigger headaches develop.

Under the old system, if you transposed a number and mistakenly recorded a full container as empty, there was no way of knowing otherwise, Ms. Moore says. But if you try to make that kind of entry with a computer, it will immediately tell you it's illogical, based on the information it already has.

These days, Ms. Moore says users can distinguish the cutting edge intermodal tracking system from an average system by determining whether the processing is done on-line, or in batches.

On-line systems - the superior choice - enable data to the updated instantaneously. With batch processing, a system's data bank can only be

updated periodically.

There are some definite drawbacks with batch processing, Ms. Moore says. Even something as simple as an entry error is not reported until the batch has been fully processed.

And since many companies process batches only once a day, that could translate into a fullday delay before the company's data bank is corrected - a major wait by today's standards.

Predictably, companies at the forefront of computerized intermodal monitoring aren't about to stay complacent with their cutting edge status for very long.

According to Ms. Moore, Kerr is already hard at work on a data accessing system that will be able to bring its computers to an entirely new degree of resolution.

Once its completed, we'll be able to ask questions like 'As of this minute, how many empty containers with an 8-6 door opening does the company have in Portland?'

Kerr clients will also soon be able to trace the progress of a shipment every step of the way - no matter how far around the world it's going, Mr. Petersen says.

And at MCC, Mr. Lazarewicz says consignees will soon be able to arrange for an outbound shipment entirely by computer. All the information - schedules of when ships sail, availability of double-stack trains, where those trains are headed - will be right there on the screen.

All our users will have to do is choose by computer what they're looking for, and wait for a confirmation from us, he says.