The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization picked an interesting arena for its first patent application: exports.

The MPO worked with students at CyBIZLab at Iowa State University and others to develop a searchable website, now active at www.containerlocator.com, that lets shippers in Iowa find out what containers will be coming to a specific place in Iowa. If they discover a container will be delivering a shipment to, say, Marshalltown, they can save money by booking that container for a shipment leaving Iowa. 
   
MPO Executive Director Todd Ashby said that should save money for both the shipping company and the Iowa firms that are looking to export goods. 

Other partners in the effort were International Traders of Iowa, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Bridgestone.

Ashby said the website lets companies search for what containers are coming to or in Iowa. It also has a map of sites where scales are available, because loads must be weighed before shipping. 

The MPO contracted with CyBIZLab, which employs ISU students, and a data mining company to develop the website. The feasibility analysis began in fall 2014. 

The MPO system is cheaper and more targeted than getting information from U.S. Customs, Ashby said. There is a two-day lag in the federal data, but the MPO never has to touch it. It automatically feeds the website, which is available free for now. The MPO plans to assess the value of the website and possible funding sources before considering subscription fees.

“No one in the country has anything like this,” said Ashby. “It’s very scalable. We could buy data to expand it regionally or nationally.” The initial work cost $15,000.

Tim Woods, president of the Central Iowa Chapter of International Traders of Iowa, said were it not for the website, there would be lost opportunities. “Generally, the containers just go back empty,” Woods said. “It’s a huge benefit to run one truck instead of two,” both financially and environmentally, he added.

For example, a company might see that an ocean carrier is going to be bringing a container in that will end up being trucked to Cedar Falls. “If it’s going back to Kansas City, it comes right through Des Moines,” Woods said. “So it could pick up a load of Bridgestone tires. Both parties can negotiate, because you are getting a good deal because you are reloading that container.”

Ashby said it is likely a shipping company would offer a break to a firm using one of the empty containers preparing to leave Iowa. 

In February 2016, 3,891 containers headed for Iowa. If that is typical, that would mean nearly 50,000 come to the state per year, 7,000 to 9,000 in the MPO’s Central Iowa planning area. 

Ashby said the website is part of the MPO’s broader work to improve transportation logistics in Iowa.

Alex Andrade, CyBIZLab’s program manager, said the student employees usually work on industrial marketing research and the like, and the website was an involved challenge for the students, who were majoring in formation systems and supply chain. The project was a success, nevertheless, he added. 

The students were paid $15.50 — the highest pay for a university-related student job, Andrade said. They were mentored on speaking skills, made presentations to the MPO, and one student used the information in a degree dissertation. “It’s great to see them shine,” he said. “They gain a lot of confidence.” Six students worked on the project over the two years.

“This was to improve the efficiency of transportation in Iowa,” Andrade said. “The companies don’t like to ship the containers back empty,” much as a semi driver doesn’t like to haul an empty trailer, he said. “If you can find a load, you can get a little money.”


Study findings
February 2016: 3,891 containers were destined for Iowa
Estimate for a year: 50,000
Greater Des Moines: 8,000