Mobile computers become more versatile, personal and cost-effective for fleet management
A customer calls with an urgent request: Move 10 truckloads from separate locations across the country to a central warehouse, and once the freight is sorted and cross-docked, transport the individual pallets and parcels to hundreds of locations. The customer requires electronic capture and transmission of status updates and delivery details — including pictures of any damages — of each pallet and package. The loads must start moving by tomorrow.
Missing some of the technology needed to fulfill this request, you have to decline the offer. But your much smaller competitor is able to locate truck capacity, dispatch drivers, track shipments and capture all delivery details quickly and electronically by using technology that many drivers already own.
If the above scenario hits close to home, consider this: By 2013, mobile devices will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide, according to technology research firm Gartner. Millions of people, including thousands of truck drivers, now use smartphones with satellite tracking, Web browsing, high-resolution cameras and other high-tech core components.
With applications already available for smartphones, drivers can post equipment and search for loads, submit electronic vehicle inspection reports, automate hours-of-service and fuel tax compliance, receive training, track load status and capture electronic signatures for proof of delivery, among other high-tech capabilities.
Tapping the smartphone
FTL Logistics currently uses an automated phone system to track its shipments, but its plans include much more. Carriers that haul loads for the Sallisaw, Okla.-based company contractually are obligated to call a phone number at pickup, during delivery and for any exceptions along the way. The phone system, designed by uFollowit, is integrated into FTL’s back office via Web services. FTL can monitor load status and receive alerts for any exceptions electronically, says Willis Johnston, manager of carrier and agent relations.
The phone system is a one-way communication link to carriers, but FTL is beginning to leverage a smartphone application developed by uFollowit. “What we are hoping to do is to get as many carriers as we can to make the conversion,” Johnston says. “Everyone is carrying around smartphones.”
Using drivers’ smartphones and the uFollowit app will help FTL shorten its order-to-cash cycle. The uFollowit app captures driver, truck, trailer and other information that some FTL customers need to know in advance of releasing a load for pickup. The app also includes electronic signature and document image capture. “The goal is to go paperless with everything,” Johnston says. “As soon as a load is delivered, we’ve got proof.”
Not all handheld devices are created equal; despite the versatility and relatively low cost of smartphones, few of these devices are suited for a rugged environment such as transportation. Honeywell, Intermec, Motorola and Panasonic are the major manufacturers of industrial-strength handhelds; their latest models use the longstanding Windows Mobile platform rather than popular consumer platforms such as the Apple iPhone, Google Android and BlackBerry.
These rugged devices cost significantly more than consumer phones, but experts say the additional investment can be recovered over a three- to five-year period. Within this lifecycle, consumer devices end up costing up to three times as much as an industrially designed device when considering hardware failures, additional IT support and device management, according to Venture Development Corp., an independent technology market research and consulting firm.
“A consumer device will not last for the expected lifetime of the solution,” says Jeff Sibio, director of industry marketing for Intermec Technologies. “You end up getting a lot of surprise costs.” Industrial devices also have integrated barcode scanners, advanced wireless capabilities and imaging technology unavailable on many consumer devices.
Companies that develop transportation-specific software for these rugged Windows Mobile devices have created simple, intuitive workflow applications for drivers. These applications integrate the latest data-capture technologies and prompt drivers to enter data only at the appropriate time and place, thus allowing fleets to block unproductive — and potentially dangerous — features such as texting and e-mailing.
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