Marine Software: Computer Software Keeping Barges on Track

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

by Larry Pearson

"It's all about information and how you use that information, "said Michael Thibodaux, founder and CEO of Information Technology Systems, LLC (ITS) of Luling, La. Founded in 1997, ITS was established to develop advanced software solutions for the marine transportation industry.

Thibodaux, a veteran with National Marine (purchased by ACBL), and his staff of 13 have developed a spectrum of software products for the inland waterways industry that includes barge tracking, fleet management and vessel support.

"Our software systems are of significant value to both barge operations and barge management sides of the business," Thibodaux added. " Helping a barge company to increase their fleet utilization is one of the main advantages of our information products," Thibodaux said.

Barge Tracking

The DELTA (Dispatched Equipment Logistics and Tracking Analysis) product is a major element in the range of software products offered by ITS. The barge industry is essentially a load-empty- load business and DELTA tracks the tugs and barges and records all billable events. "One example of the use of this information is demurrage. These charges are an important part of the revenue of a barge company and when demurrage is missed or not accurate, revenue is lost, Thibodaux said. "Our barge tracking system's systems billing module provides barge companies a precise method to make sure all demurrage is recorded and billed," he added.

The ability of this software to keep precise trip records helps barge companies analyze each movement or segment of a trip to determine its profitability. DELTA keeps extensive information on contracts that include rate, demurrage and special provisions or clauses.

Events such as pickup, drop-off, dock transfer information or any event important to the operation of the vessel is readily available. Current and last commodity are registered along with computer generated ETA's.

The tow configuration is essential in many situations. The DELTA system generates tow diagrams graphically showing exact barge dimensions, and certain characteristics of the barges (rake, box, number of tanks), which help determine the best tow configuration (See Figure one.).

The MapPoint module displays boat location and other information on very detailed maps. Zooming in or out on the map is an feature that enables the operator to see the positions of all the vessels in the system including boat name, river mile marker, direction, date latitude and longitude. (See Figure two)

The Delta system includes agency reporting generated from other functions such as Orders and Vessel Detail. By getting this information from other parts of the system, the amount of time to generate government and regulatory agency reports is substantially reduced.

The system with its ability to store and report volumes of information on a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour barge operations can help save barge owners money in very specific ways. For example, there is a federal tax on each gallon of diesel fuel burned by pushboats during propulsion. The tax does not apply when the engines are at idle during locking operations, bad weather standby or other non-propulsion events.

DELTA can track hours spent when the vessel is underway and when it is burning fuel but idle saving the tax on fuel consumed in an idle state.

The ability of the DELTA system to track all tows in the United States that are Coast Guard licensed is of significant importance to many branches of the federal government. The software can track what commodities are being transported, where they are and what products may be hazardous. The user can select a specific boat and view the boat's tow diagram, what barges are carrying a hazardous commodity and other vital information.

In these days of enhanced national security, such information is vital. Scenarios where barges loaded with hazardous chemicals being commandeered by terrorists and run aground near larges cities or run into bridge pilings so the bridge collapses and blocks a major waterway is a not a far fetched possibility. Also a possible scenario is where two barges loaded with ammonia, sulfuric acid and diesel fuel mixed by a front-end loader on an empty barge and suddenly you have a 1600-ton bomb.

"We have to know more about what is in the 25,000 or more barges active on the U.S. inland waterways, to help the system run more profitably and to protect the national interest of this infrastructure," Thibodaux added.

MARAD is very interested in implementing its Short Sea Shipping program. MARAD wants to move hazardous commodities off the nation's highways and rail lines and put them on barges. On the inland waterways, dangerous commodities can be better controlled and the waterway itself is a natural barrier of the effects of this material if there is an accidental discharge.

Other less dramatic, but important functions of this software are in the area of personnel identification. "By their very nature, barge lines have huge personnel turnovers," Thibodaux said. "It is important from both safety and security standpoints that crew personnel are who they say they are," Thibodaux believes. Picture IDs are a part of everyday life so they should be a standard on crew changeovers as well, according to Thibodaux whose system can be expanded to produce such ID's and track personnel in relationship to insurance claims filed, absences, drug test results and other parameters.

Fleet Management

ITS also offers the industry fleet management software specifically designed for fleeting and harbor operations. The Fleet Diagram provides an easy way to what barges are in the fleet. Operators can create as many fleets as needed and can move barges from fleet to fleet. (See Figure three).

Using a graphical appearance, each barge appears in its correct proportion to its size and type and the barge number counts the number of full barges and empties. Barges containing hazardous materials are also called out with as much information that is known as to the material in the barge, quantity of material and other important information.

A fleet log is generated and used for the daily entry and tracking of fleet services such as fleeting, tug service and towing. As these services are entered, the software automatically creates and calculates charges and produces invoices.

Vessel Support

This software is designed specifically for the vessel crew and their environment. Features include records of all daily events, crew scheduling information, tow diagrams showing exact tow makeup, GPS tracking of current location of activities, grocery/supply ordering, daily log, order and crew reports.

Log information is entered and accessed using simple push buttons. The button approach required no keyboard to enter log events ands shows how easy the software is to learn and follow. The screen provides a seamless approach to daily operations of barge, boat and crew functions.

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