A show of hands

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Many onboard computer systems offer optional handheld units to allow for bar-code scanning, signature capture and similar functions. In most cases, the handheld unit is just a deal sweetener; the real value lies in the capabilities of the onboard unit. Some companies, however, are beginning to use stand-alone handheld units to meet their specific information collection needs.

A complete journal
Agway Energy Products has more than 300 delivery truck drivers and 700 technicians who install and service heating oil and propane equipment. The company serves more than 500,000 residences and businesses in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont.

The drivers and technicians, who work out of 90 service centers, use Intermec handheld computers to record their activities while servicing accounts. Drivers use the handheld computers to enter when each delivery is begun and completed, how much product was delivered to each customer and track how much fuel is left in their trucks after a delivery is made.
Technicians use the handheld units to record when each work order is begun and finished, and to record the technician’s activities at each customer site, such as the type of testing done on a furnace and which parts were used, including a notation on the ones under warranty.

When a job is completed, the technicians use the computer to print two hard copies of the completed work order, which details each job function accomplished and the results of any tests performed. The technician and the customer sign their respective copies of the printout when possible. When appropriate, the technician collects the fee owed for the work done and enters the payment received.

After all the deliveries and work orders are done, the drivers and technicians return to their respective depots and use the computer to print out a sales summary, which they turn in to a supervisor, along with service or fuel delivery fees collected. The technicians also print out a work summary, which uses labor codes to note in detail what they accomplished that day.

Because an entry is made on the handheld computer whenever a technician uses a part, information on all of the parts used in a work day is matched against a database that lists all the parts that are supposed to be in stock on Agway’s vans. An order is automatically sent to Agway’s parts distributor, so every van’s parts stock can be replenished daily.
Drivers and technicians also enter their vehicle’s odometer mileage for the day, so data can be compared against credit card purchases. The analysis is done to detect unauthorized use of the company’s credit cards.

Then the computer is placed in a docking station so that day’s data can be uploaded into a UNIX computer at Agway Energy’s headquarters in Dewitt, N.Y., and customers’ accounts can be updated.

More than shipment tracking
Viking Freight, which operates in 11 western states, handles more than 13,000 less-than-truckload shipments a day. Viking and its sister company, American Freightways, make up FedEx Freight, a subsidiary of FedEx Corp.

To help keep track of its freight, Viking’s city drivers use about 1,400 Symbol Technologies handheld computers, equipped with a laser scanner to read bar-coded data, and an alphanumeric keypad to enter other information. The handheld unit also includes a wireless communications system so data can be transmitted between drivers on the road and dispatchers at Viking service centers. Information on each pickup that’s constantly relayed by
city drivers using the communications system, gives Viking’s operations personnel a head start on planning that night’s line-haul movements of outbound freight.
The cost of the total handheld computer system averages $2,000 per unit, says Jeff Davis, Viking’s director of business systems.

The freight tracking process for each shipment begins when a driver arrives at a pickup point and places a bar-coded label on the freight and on Viking’s and the shipper’s copy of the bill of lading. The nine-digit bar code, which has been imprinted at the driver’s Viking service center, reflects each shipment’s pro number.

In addition to using the handheld unit to scan each shipment’s bar code, drivers also enter relevant data, such as the consignee’s name, the number of pieces or pallets and the weight of the shipment. The application on the handheld unit prompts the driver to enter required information from the bill of lading and the delivery receipt.
Drivers’ keypad entries also include the time and the truck’s odometer reading whenever they arrive at, and depart from, each pickup point. The odometer information is collected for fuel-tax reporting purposes.

When drivers return to their cab following a pickup, they place the handheld unit in an electronic cradle on the dash, so information for the latest pickup can be automatically transmitted to the mainframe at the carrier’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters.

This immediate transmission of data for each pickup enables all of the carrier’s personnel to see shipment status information, including real-time reports that are accessible to consignors and consignees via the company’s website.

The handheld unit’s text messaging capability enables drivers to enter exception information, such as details on over-shipment or freight damage issues, as well as making a handwritten description of the problem on the hard copy of the BOL.

When city drivers make deliveries in the morning, their bar code readings and data entries on delivery receipts are comparable to their information-gathering activities while making pickups later in the day, says Davis.

After a consignee signs for delivered freight, the shipment’s bar code is scanned, and the driver enters the receiver’s name on the handheld unit’s keypad. The shipment documents are ready to be imaged and processed by Viking’s billing staff.

After drivers return to their service center and enter their final odometer readings, they download all the information they collected that day by plugging their handheld unit into a serial port that’s linked to Viking’s proprietary dispatch management system on the corporate mainframe. That process allows Viking to validate all the data that had been transmitted at each stop-off during the day, via the wireless communications system on drivers’ handheld units.

Each driver’s downloaded information is analyzed, and then the dispatch management system generates travel copies, which outline for service center dockworkers the bays that will be used to handle specific consolidated, outbound freight.

Davis says that information collected with the handheld computer is also used for more than shipment tracking and billing purposes. Viking’s payroll department, for example, uses drivers’ log-on and log-off entries at the beginning and end of a work day because they are paid on an hourly basis. Time and date data captured at each stop is used to create various productivity reports, to constantly measure the carrier’s cost of handling freight and to administer an achievement bonus program for personnel at service centers.