The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, to improve efficiency and save money, is striving to pack shipping containers much closer to capacity before transportation (U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency is carrying out efforts to top off containers that until recently had been shipping with as little as 63 percent of their capacity.
The containers, roughly the size of a semi truck, can carry repair parts, clothing, construction material and even items as large as generator systems and forklifts.
It’s a question of efficiency and of money. Across DLA’s distribution network, every 1 percent of cargo added will save the government $3 million to $4 million per year, said Brad Bellis, chief of depot operations in DLA’s Distribution Operations.
In the past, a container may have been shipped under capacity because it was meant for only a single customer. More recently, planners have been consolidating goods for multiple endpoints, shipping these consolidated containers to a single receiving station and then breaking down deliveries by recipient. This already had been done to some degree in Europe; now DLA has added such receiving points in Japan, Guam and South Korea.
New tools are in play to better utilize space, including metal frames that allow packers to use vertical space without packing goods on top of each other. They’ve also begun combining hazardous and non-hazardous loads, generating up to 80 percent fill rates as compared to the typical 45 percent in a hazardous-only load.
In some cases DLA has worked with its suppliers to improve space utilization. In the past, for instance, the agency would ship 25 container loads a week of empty 55-gallon drums in containers less than half full. To get a better fill rate DLA asked its suppliers to reconfigure their pallets, “and now you can put two of these pallets side by side and fill the container to greater than 90 percent,” Bellis said.
These types of efforts have pushed container utilization to as high as 98 percent.
The new packing methods have already been rolled out at DLA’s four main shipping locations — Susquehanna, Pa.; San Joaquin, Calif.; Warner Robbins, Ga., and Norfolk, Va., — and are being put into play at the agency’s 26 distribution depots worldwide. In Susquehanna, containers have gone from 65 percent full to a daily average of 85 percent.
There are several obstacles to full utilization, such as odd-shaped items that are be difficult to pack. Tight regulations govern the placement of hazardous materials, and shippers also must consider conditions on the receiving end. “You could throw material around and try to stuff it in, but imagine you are sitting in Afghanistan with folks shooting rockets at you, and you need to offload these containers in a timely fashion,” Bellis said.
Topping off containers could make a difference to those in the field.
“It may take a little longer to unload [a full container], but I’d rather unload a full container than two half containers,” Bellis said. “It will reduce the workload and it will allow those sites to focus on other areas of supply support for the theater.”