A year ago, workers at NYK Logistics' yard near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach spent hours every day riding golf carts and bicycles to keep track of the hundreds of shipping containers scattered around the 70-acre facility.
Mix-ups were common, with containers moved to the wrong stack or dropped at the wrong location and workers hustling to set things straight. Exhaustive searches for wayward shipments -- some conducted by flashlight in the dead of night -- were the norm.
These days, a container can be found within seconds and readied for transport within minutes, thanks to a new system of wireless local networks, smart storage tags and big antennas resembling basketball baskets.
The technological advances at NYK are a window on the future. A decade after their Asian and European counterparts were forced to automate because their ports lacked the space to expand -- and almost two years after the California ports reached an agreement with unionized dockworkers to allow labor-saving technologies -- shipping lines on the Pacific seaboard are getting with it.
"These technologies are not new to the world, but certainly brand-new to West Coast terminal operations," said Jim McKenna, chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines.
So new, in fact, that some of the technologies exist only in scattered pilot programs operated by NYK and a handful of other local shipping companies.
But the West Coast ports' traditional method of dealing with more cargo -- expanding the size of their freight terminals and marshaling yards -- is no longer an option. Last year, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone handled more international container cargo than the next five busiest U.S. ports.
With little room left to grow and congestion clogging the two ports, technologies that allow the loading and unloading of ships in half the time are becoming more attractive.
"Now, we are more like a typical Asian port," said Jon Hemingway, chief executive of Seattle-based SSA Marine, which operates three container terminals in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. "Land is scarce, and the requirements to manage these facilities through technology become much more predominant."
At NYK's freight yard a few miles from the Port of Long Beach, where the company handles about 50,000 containers a year, 35 wireless antennas and thousands of electronic tags emit signals that tell yard workers the precise location of each shipping container, which can be 20 to 40 feet long and weigh as much as 67,000 pounds.
Computer terminals relay information directly to truck cabs, enabling drivers to drop off containers at the correct location and pick up new containers without having to get out of their vehicles.
NYK, a subsidiary of Nippon Yusen Kaisha Line and one of the world's biggest shipping companies, spent almost $1 million installing the high-tech tracking system to help it cope with the steady rise in freight traffic from clients such as Target Corp. NYK executives said they had no other option but to embrace the new technology.
Hours have been trimmed from the process of moving cargo from the ports to customers, and workers who used to spend time looking for containers can now focus on other tasks. NYK has been able to reduce overtime expenses while speeding up deliveries.
A potential bonus: The wireless signals indicate whether a tag has been tampered with, providing a tool for improving port security, said Dan Doles, chief executive of WhereNet Corp., the privately held Silicon Valley firm that makes the system and hopes to sell it to other shipping companies at the L.A.-Long Beach ports.
Other high-tech improvements have gained a foothold. A software program called Scheduler that helps terminal operators manage truck arrivals and departures debuted locally 18 months ago and now is used by more than half of the roughly 1,000 trucking companies that haul freight to and from the two ports.
With Scheduler, drivers can determine online when their cargo will be ready and set up an appointment to pick it up, greatly reducing time spent idling at the terminals. The system even allows drivers to pay fees online for such things as storage and customs examinations.
Developed by EModal, a small, privately held Irvine company, the program costs users about $5,000 a month.
"It helps us find the containers quickly," said Brett Arnds, general manager of California Multimodal Inc., a trucking company in Compton with about 100 employees.
More changes are on the horizon. Success in a pilot "agile port technology" program in Tacoma, Wash., last year gained the attention of the federal Maritime Administration.
Under this program, cargo that must be shipped out of ports first is loaded last on container ships. Using a range of tools such as mobile data terminals, the program aims to bypass the ports' storage yards as much as possible and to load cargo directly from ships to rail lines.