Innovators: Sealed and delivered

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Tom Pirnie demonstrates his locking seal guard, which consists of a rectangular metal sleeve to protect the back and sides of the seal; a cover to protect the front of the seal; and a bolt that requires a special wrench to remove.

Tom Pirnie is the kind of guy who worries about bad things that can happen to his business and does something about them.

Last year, Pirnie, president of Grand Island Express, heard that one of his competitors lost $4,000 because the flimsy seal affixed to the competitor’s trailer broke between stops. So he enlisted the help of an inventive cousin to keep the same problem from occurring to the Grand Island, Neb.-based carrier, which employs 90 company drivers and 45 owner-operators.

“Most of the things we’ve learned in our business, we’ve learned by doing it wrong first,” Pirnie says. “The best learning experiences are the ones that happen to someone else.”

More than 50 percent of loads hauled by Grand Island Express is beef – much of it coming from a processing plant across the street from the carrier’s headquarters. The company hauls the meat west to neighboring Colorado and east to the Atlantic Seaboard.

The loads often require multiple drops, which is where problems can arise. When a load is first put on a trailer, the processing plant affixes a seal, a thin strip of numbered metal or plastic that is bound through the trailer’s hasp lock. When part of the load is delivered, the receiver affixes a new seal through the hasp and so on, until all the loads are delivered.

In the past, a broken seal simply meant that the receiver and driver would count units of beef, and if the count was accurate, everything was fine. But the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – and fear that the food supply could become a target – changed all of that.

In 2003, a driver for one of Pirnie’s competitors arrived at his second receiver on a multi-stop run with a missing seal. Instead of counting the load and taking delivery, the receiver declared the load unfit for human consumption, and it was rendered.

“They were fearful the meat might have been tampered with,” Pirnie says. “They charged the carrier $4,000 for the load. I’m not even sure if that was legal, but I’d rather not have to pay myself.”

For the receiver, it didn’t matter who was at fault in the situation. The first receiver might never have affixed a seal. It could have broken in transit or it could have been snipped by a competitor. Since the driver is the only one who can open the lock, the driver controls access to the seal and can be held accountable for any problems.

“When we heard about the story, we asked ourselves what can we do to make it more difficult to tamper with a seal,” Pirnie says. The carrier that lost the load was lucky: The portion that was rendered was a partial shipment of cheap meat. If it had been a full load of high quality beef, the cost could have been much more substantial. “If it had been a full load of rib eyes – that’s over a dollar a pound. A cargo claim like that would raise your rates.”

Grand Island Express trailers already feature a low-tech security device designed to prevent cargo theft – a small metal bar affixed with a bolt to the trailer frame that prevents the door from being opened. A large Allen wrench is required to remove the bar, and Pirnie says thieves typically don’t carry Allen wrenches in that dimension. The bar can be defeated, but it takes time – something Pirnie says most thieves don’t have.

While adding security to the door was relatively easy, protecting the seal provided a greater challenge. The company had to develop a box to cover the seal and the hasp assembly and still resist efforts by a determined thief. The idea came from Pirnie’s cousin, Keith Pirnie. The carrier’s chief technician, Randy Kunze, produced a working model. The design had to work with cable seals as well as flat metal or plastic seals.

The group of would-be inventors spent time wandering through their customer’s yards looking at trailer models and seeing what the seal guard’s design required. After a couple of months of fiddling, the team had a prototype. They took it to a local manufacturer, who produced 50 seal guards. Pirnie passed them out to his drivers to experiment with them.

The staff also did its best to break into the locks. Pirnie took part in some of the testing himself, slinging a heavy sledgehammer at the final product until he bent the pin so badly it nearly required a blowtorch to remove.

Pirnie says his drivers are trained to inspect seals and have never had a claim like the one that his competitor suffered. The new lock makes that job easier, in part, because receivers can’t break the seal without the driver removing the box.

“A receiver will say ‘I’ll just break the seal,’ ” Pirnie says. “My driver will say ‘Go ahead and try.’ This gives something additional for our drivers to do to make sure the seal is in place.”

The final hasp and seal cover consists of three parts:

  • A rectangular metal sleeve with a pin that slides through and around the hasp, protecting the back and sides of the seal.
  • A stainless steel cover that slips over the base and protects the front of the seal.
  • A specialized bolt that locks the box and requires a special wrench to remove.

A variation of the device allows a padlock to be affixed for loads and carriers in need of more security.

Once drivers began using the locks on their trailers, competitors and receivers took notice, asking where they could buy them. So Grand Island Express is now marketing the device – officially called the Enforcer Seal Guard Lock – through Transport Security Inc. in Waconia, Minn. Transport Security’s John Albrecht says Grand Island Express retains the patent and will benefit from sales of the product.

“The exciting thing is that shippers and trucking companies will benefit from the invention,” Albrecht says. Transport Security has improved the lock’s design, making it more difficult to defeat.

“I’m not saying you can’t get in there, but it’s going to take tools and time,” Pirnie says. “With seals, you don’t know until you have a problem. We got a break in that it happened to someone else.”

Now with his innovation, Pirnie is hopeful the problem never happens to him.

Innovators profiles carriers and fleets that have found innovative ways to overcome trucking’s challenges.

If you know a carrier that has displayed innovation, contact Avery Vise at [email protected] or (800) 633-5953.