Paper to pixels and beyond

Aaron Huff is technology editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail ahuff@randallpub.com

When an express carrier delivers a package, you get a firsthand demonstration of a paperless system. Using a handheld device, a driver scans a barcode, hands over the package and captures your signature. Within minutes, the shipper will be able to determine by telephone, e-mail or the Web that the package was delivered and, if necessary, find out who signed for it.

The technology behind this is no mystery. Several handheld devices based on the Palm OS or Windows CE systems run software applications such as electronic bills of lading and proofs of delivery with electronic signature capturing. Data from a handheld device is transmitted to and from an in-cab computer or “gateway,” and sent to the office – or a web-based service – through satellite or cellular communications, says Tom Campbell, product manager of the mobile computing group at Symbol Technologies.

So the technology is there, but paperless systems using electronic forms and signature capture are far from the norm. To be sure, many supply-chain partners use electronic data interchange and skip signature capture altogether. But for those parties unwilling or unable to use EDI, paper dominates.

“If you can send this stuff across the wire, why do you need an image of everything?” asks Dan Baird, chief financial officer of E. Stewart Mitchell Inc., a 72-truck petroleum asphalt carrier based in Baltimore. “Signature capturing is huge. It leaves you a trail. If I can capture the signature and send it through the air, why generate a piece of paper?”

Today, when an E. Stewart Mitchell driver makes a pickup or delivery, he enters the weight and temperature of his load into his Qualcomm MVPc onboard computer. The data is sent through the OmniTracs service into the company’s dispatch and accounting system, where the other necessary billing information has already been entered.

“We could send a bill out 10 minutes after he dropped the load off,” Baird says. Instead, the company waits until drivers return a signed proof of delivery before mailing its invoices. Baird hasn’t found a cost-effective solution for using electronic forms and signature capturing. But even if Baird found a solution, he’s not sure his customers are ready for it – or want to be.

That’s not to say all the resistance is coming from shippers. Far from it. Carriers are concerned about costs, standardization and lack of integration with existing systems, says Brian McLaughlin, director of marketing for PeopleNet Communications. PeopleNet is addressing cost by offering Palm or Symbol handhelds that serve as both the in-cab text message unit and the interface for multiple applications, such as signature capturing, barcode scanning and electronic driver logbooks.

Efforts to standardize data elements in bills of lading and other shipping documents are being driven mainly by carriers and their technology vendors, McLaughlin says. Each shipper has different preferred methods of the billing process and different data elements included in its bill of lading, but most of the data elements are the same. Handheld devices store hundreds of different forms, but only become practical to use when carriers have a few standard forms, he says.

“We’re working on the ability to get a more manageable number. We’re almost there now – probably in another six months it will be ready,” McLaughlin says.

But will the industry be ready? Old habits die hard, but perhaps an intermediate stage, already underway, will help. Many carriers already use digital imaging systems, and increasingly, shippers are accepting scanned copies in lieu of original bills of lading and PODs.

TMI, which offers the TripPak Online document imaging service, works with shippers and third-party logistics providers to show that imaging is a valid replacement for original documents, says Mark Cleveland, TMI’s executive vice president. The company also works with shippers to develop more standard, scanner-friendly forms.

In the long run, imaging’s greatest contribution may be to wean shippers, carriers and 3PLs off paper. The first step is for everyone to accept that the image on the paper, not the paper itself, is the POD. Then it’s not much of a leap for people to accept that it’s the data that produced the image that really matters.