From push-pins to PDAs

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When dispatch-oriented management systems were introduced well over a decade ago, many users probably thought that they would never need anything more powerful. But then software developers began integrating modules – functions such as operations, driver management, safety, claims, accounting, payroll, settlement, billing, electronic data interchange, broker management and maintenance. And they added seamless interfaces with mobile communications, mileage and fuel card systems. Early adopters were sold for life, and thousands more jumped on the bandwagon.

Yet even today, thousands of fleets’ dispatch departments still use color-coded cards posted on boards, or magnets and push-pins on maps. For quite a few carriers, the low-tech approach may be appropriate and cost-effective. But many others may change their minds when they see how system developers have made dispatch systems more useful and less intimidating to the technically challenged. What’s more, competition seems to be increasing, in part because the distinction between integration partner and competitor is blurring. This is especially true of mobile communications providers that are offering – through their own products and through interfaces with other systems – many of the same capabilities as traditional enterprise and dispatch systems.

In essence, dispatch systems have gone from merely converting functions from paper to computer to allowing trucking operations to perform far more work with fewer people.

Simple systems
Dispatch system developers freely admit that the early systems, while a significant leap over previous technology, bear little resemblance to today’s state-of-the-art systems.

When operations personnel first started using dispatch-based software, those systems “were basic order-capture devices,” says Bob Maddocks, president of Maddocks Systems, of Langley, British Columbia, Canada.

“Loads were entered, assigned drivers and equipment were attached after the fact, and trailers were repositioned based on manual yard checks,” Maddocks says. “Dispatch and back office functions were only slightly benefited by automating the dispatch department.”

Tom McLeod, president of Birmingham, Ala.-based McLeod Software, has a similar view. In the early days, “most dispatch software was, basically, kind of a front-end order entry system for the accounting side of the business,” McLeod recalls.

“There was not a lot of decision support for the operations side,” McLeod says. “The planning tools and the support for dispatchers making real-time decisions was pretty basic. In some cases, non-existent.”

One of the reasons why it took a while for dispatch management and personnel to embrace real-time decision support tools was because it takes awhile, even years, until they can fully absorb the information tools and features, and how they are going to use them, McLeod says.

Tom Weisz, president and CEO of Beachwood, Ohio-based TMW Systems attributes the limitations of those fledgling systems to several factors:

  • Most carriers didn’t have the ability to communicate with their resources – drivers in trucks on the road – and there was no ability to transfer, and act upon, real-time information.
  • The available hardware and software could not or did not support the graphics requirements needed to provide visibility of resources, such as online maps displaying where a carrier’s trucks are located. “Consequently, and additionally, they couldn’t provide decision support capabilities. It was a static, isolated environment,” Weisz says.
  • Trucking professionals – drivers, dispatchers, IT personnel and managers – didn’t have the benefit of the last 10 years’ experiences. “Today, we now know what we need.”

Chuck Melton, president of Melton Technologies, Winston-Salem, N.C., points out a “major philosophical difference” in how the industry approaches dispatch systems and truck management software today compared to the early days.

“In the days of DOS software, we focused on the trucking company and its internal processes – a ‘micro’ approach,” Melton says. Primary applications were booking and assigning the load, billing the customer, tracking and settling with the driver. And most tracking was done with check calls via the telephone. “Today, we view the trucker as one component in the supply chain and his information flow is much more global,” Melton says. “Mobile communication on vehicles, combined with the rapid growth in Internet applications, make instantaneous communication with drivers, shippers, receivers, suppliers and other third party logistics providers critical to the success of many carriers.”

The most important changes over 10 years, says Kristy Conerly, general manager of Innovative Computing in Oklahoma City, are the “increased advancements” made by the developers of mobile communications systems, used primarily by truckload carriers, “and the integration of this technology into dispatch systems.” As a result, continues Conerly, there has been great improvement in the ability of dispatchers to communicate effectively, in real time, with drivers.

The increased sophistication of technology has also “efficiently addressed the need of interaction between shippers and carriers,” via EDI, and it also has improved a fleet’s ability to plan trailer swaps, Conerly says.

Reliability and support
Among the primary considerations for dispatch system users are reliability, support, flexibility and ease of use. Those were all goals for San Antonio-based Express Carriers when it switched systems a couple of years ago. The previous system lacked the “bulletproof reliability needed for a 24/7 operation,” says Jon Osborn, the carrier’s vice president of accounting who had been responsible for the company’s MIS functions. Also, the old system’s supplier was unwilling to make a commitment to continuing to support its system.

The company formed a search committee to look for a replacement system that would “allow the company to grow, have ongoing technical support and be a workhorse,” Osborn says. And it “had to allow for everyday user errors and equipment failures that occur, without grinding to a halt.”

The system Express Carriers selected, McLeod Software’s LoadMaster, “just doesn’t break no matter how hard some of our dispatchers seem to try,” Osborn says.

Osborn assumed deployment would be a little complex. But when the IBM RS/6000 computer arrived at the carrier’s office with the software already installed, all he had to do was take the server out of the box and plug it in. “It’s been running ever since.”

Saving on programming
Often, the inadequate system being replaced is the carrier’s own handiwork. Tulsa-based Melton Truck Lines used its own proprietary dispatch system before it switched about 14 months ago to the Enterprise Software system developed by Innovative Computing Corp., which has been providing operations software to carriers for more than 30 years.

For Melton, word-of-mouth recommendations and compatibility with current hardware were key considerations, says Randy Rhines, vice president of information technology. “We knew of several successful trucking companies that were using the Innovative system, and we wanted to stay on the IBM AS/400 platform.”

Replacing its proprietary system eliminated Melton’s need for a staff of programmers, Rhines says. The more sophisticated Innovative system also “cleaned up” the carrier’s operations procedures and forced the dispatchers “to do things right,” he says. As a result, there are fewer problems with billing and driver payroll issues.

Rhines also likes the new modular system because back office personnel no longer waste a lot of time integrating data from independent payroll and accounting programs.

Integrating benefits
Integration often is one of the most important factors in the payback equation. Air-Land Transport’s previous dispatch program wasn’t linked to any of the other departments at the carrier’s headquarters in Morton, Ill. As a result, personnel working in the company’s back offices had to manually enter data for each shipment into their respective systems. That not only slowed down Air-Land’s productivity and negatively impacted their cash flow; it also created opportunities for errors.

But by using TMW Systems’ Power Suite integrated client-server system, order data entered by the operations staff automatically flows into the TMW modules used by Air-Land’s billing, payroll and accounting departments, explains Jason Montgomery, a financial analyst for the carrier. “Now they just audit the data.”

The new system helped enhance Air-Land’s relationship with Caterpillar, its biggest customer, Montgomery says. That’s because TMW’s electronic data interchange module allows easy and automatic transmission of and response to EDI transaction sets for each of the engine-builder’s orders.

P&P Transport, which uses the TM4Win version of Maddocks’ TruckMate system, is a load-to-deliver LTL carrier based in Pennsauken, N.J. That makes P&P unusual because TruckMate is usually considered a truckload software product.

Integration of data is key for P&P. Customer service representatives no longer enter information of shipments by hand on four-part NCR forms, which were then hand-carried to dispatch and back office departments. Now details on each order are entered into the TM4Win system, and the data is automatically transmitted to the carrier’s other departments.

And the system’s cross-docking capability records the transfer of each shipment, from more than 40 city trucks to over 110 line-haul units at P&P’s terminals. The transfer records also support the system’s shipment track and trace program.

Customized operation
Just because today’s dispatch systems are quantum leaps beyond the pen and paper, doesn’t mean everyone wants to give up the familiarity of old systems and procedures. Steve Pfeffer, vice president of Bob’s Transport and Storage, Baltimore, is particularly enthusiastic about customization opportunities offered by the Horizon system, developed by Melton Technologies, of Winston-Salem, N.C.

It’s “very easy” to train a dispatcher on the system, Pfeffer explains, because the system’s order screen was customized to replicate the hard copy order form that was used before Bob’s Transport deployed Melton’s Windows-based system about 20 months ago. And an expensive technician from an outside company wasn’t needed to do various system-customization projects, he added.

Pfeffer also likes the system because it has enabled the carrier to reduce its billing staff from three to two persons. Much of the savings came from the billing module’s automatic rating capability.

Bob’s Transport was one of the first carriers to use the system’s EDI module. The 80-truck fleet handles about 4,000 loads a month – approximately 80 percent of them ordered via the EDI module. “That saves a lot of order entry time,” concludes Pfeffer.

Looking toward tomorrow
The pioneers that successfully developed dispatch systems aren’t complacent about future opportunities. They see further evolution in the decade to come.

Melton envisions “rapid development in mobile solutions and use of the Internet applications, which will have great influence on dispatch applications.” To cope with carriers’ tremendous cost pressures, Melton sees a decline in the cost of mobile communications systems by employing Palm devices and other PDAs. Melton Technologies has focused on developing Palm OS-based solutions.

Also, Melton says, “dispatch technology will be available over the Web with a ‘pay-as-you-go’ approach, allowing smaller carriers to employ the technology. It will be exciting!”
According to Innovative’s Conerly, “The next 10 years will see an ongoing adoption of technology in automated load matching and other automated system integration features, such as in optimization packages and trailer tracking.”

McLeod sees decision support as the next challenge. “As the quality of the data improves, dispatch optimization and even more improved decision support are going to come into their own in the next 10 years.”

Also, McLeod says, “dispatch systems are going to offer a lot more connectivity via the Internet. Feature-by-feature expansion and connectivity are making it a lot easier for dispatchers to access and share information.” For example, trading and business partners, logistics providers and customers all access the dispatch system from any location.

Maddocks envisions systems in the next decade that will enable drivers and equipment to be automatically assigned without dispatcher involvement, by using GPS technology and more sophisticated dispatch and routing optimization software.

And details on each shipment and real-time tracking of the movement, adds Maddocks, will be e-mailed to customers or accessible to them via the Internet. Also, customer service will have a higher priority, as dispatchers’ focus will change from “load administrator” to “resolution director,” based on the systems ability to automatically alert them to potential problems.

TMW’s Weisz sees a coming evolution in information that far exceeds what we consider advanced today. Tomorrow’s systems will provide “instant, 360-degree access to information,” Weisz says. They will offer “real-time and dynamic service that take into consideration raw materials providers, manufacturers, distributors, shippers, carriers, customers. So, if there is a shortage of titanium dioxide forecasted that affects one of your shippers, the system will tell carriers what the implications will be for their inbound and outbound freight and what scenarios they should consider. They will help redeploy assets that have just become available to ensure full utilization.”

Concludes Weisz, “It still comes down to speed, knowledge and action. The speed of processing real-time data into chunkable information that is easy to digest, enabling firms to take action that delivers measurable results.”