Whenever you implement a new technology, you face the daunting task of planning for a future that may change in a very short period. In 18 months, today’s latest PC computers will be outdated. In six months, the most advanced cell phones and handheld devices will share the same fate. Software may become obsolete in an instant. Although these “outdated” and “obsolete” tools may perform well for years to come, the real worry is locking into a particular technology when something better is just around the corner.
Soon after Thomas E. Keller Trucking Inc. bought the necessary software tools to participate in electronic data interchange, for example, its largest customer decided EDI “was not the way to go” and subsequently developed a Web-based exchange.
“We were stuck with all of the necessary tools to put EDI into place and really had no need for it,” says Aaron Keller, sales manager of the 60-truck, Defiance, Ohio-based carrier.
Whether you invest in a certain technology to satisfy a customer requirement, to save money or for any other reason, you should make your decisions with the future in mind. If you expect few changes to the scope and size of your operation over time, a solution that works well today may be all you need. But if you expect to grow significantly in the years to come, some approaches offer a better value than others from the standpoint of integration and flexibility.
Today, software developers can create software that spans every platform – Windows NT, Unix, AS/400 – and communicate directly with non-similar business systems through Web services, a concept that experts believe is the next Internet evolution. Many technology vendors already offer this next-generation software through an application service provider (ASP) arrangement to help fleets gain flexibility by not locking themselves into expensive development projects and hardware that may soon become outdated.
Having the latest advancements in technology, however, is no guarantee that your investments are future proof. To endure the test of time, a technology must continue to receive widespread support in the industry and from your employees.
Smart carriers will continue to spend money on technologies to improve processes they have to do already, such as getting invoices out faster, says Tom Weisz, president of TMW Systems. Similarly, Weisz says that shippers and logistics providers continue to invest in technologies to help them cut the costs of communicating with multiple carriers. Squeezing costs from your business and your customers’ business has become a competitive necessity.
“Basically, if you’re not extracting cost out from the supply chain, you’re not surviving,” says Tom Toton, vice president of finance for Cardinal Logistics Management Inc., a 1,500-truck carrier and 3PL based in Concord, N.C. Both you and your customers have invested significant dollars in various information systems. Making these systems communicate with each other is key to increasing efficiency.
“We’re not going to be able to standardize, so we have to learn to customize,” Toton says. “You need software that makes it easier to talk to one another. Learn how to be customizable and find ways to be adaptable, not ways to force standardization.”
For many years, carriers and shippers have used EDI standards for computer-to-computer information exchange. The problem with EDI standards, however, is that they do not suit every customers’ information needs. EDI is not a real-time, interactive form of communication; it is a batch-processing system, says Bob Hilhorst, general manager of information systems for Cambridge, Ontario, Canada-based Transfreight. In other words, EDI transactions do not give customers live access to a database.
Many Transfreight customers, which include General Motors and Toyota, want to see a “Web component” to get away from EDI systems that “don’t give true visibility,” Hilhorst says. Drivers and dock workers at Transfreight, a 500-truck carrier, use handheld barcode scanners to track freight. The company also equips its trucks with satellite tracking and communications to continually update its management database. Through Transfreight’s website (www.transfreight.com), customers can search the location of a specific part number at any time, as well as the location of the truck carrying that part.
“EDI wouldn’t tell you that. EDI will only tell you if the load has been picked up or not,” Hilhorst says. “That’s not true visibility in the supply chain. The Web system gives customers the ability to see where their freight is – by part number or order requirement – at any point in the delivery.”
Offering customers access to your live databases through a Web browser, of course, is just one of many advantages of Web-based solutions. Another advantage is to reduce the costs of dealing with multiple business partners.
What is the No. 1 goal of your technology investments?
Although paperwork reduction and satisfying demands from customers for load visibility are significant concerns, productivity is by far the No. 1 driver of technology investments.
To purchase all the parts needed for P.A.M. Transportation’s 10 maintenance facilities, Carl Tapp, director of maintenance, uses a Web-based service from Velox Logic Inc. called iPartsCounter. The Velox Logic service interfaces with his company’s computerized maintenance system from TMT Software, giving Tapp centralized control over all daily re-orders and parts purchases for each maintenance facility of the 1,700-truck, Tontitown, Ark.-based carrier.
“From the business side, we control our vendors through centralized purchasing. By doing this, we can control ‘maverick’ spending,” Tapp says. Working directly from his AS/400-based TMT Software system, Tapp places orders directly to his vendors. Velox Logic transforms the order forms from the TMT Software system to each vendor’s business systems in the desired format: an e-mail order, or directly into their inventory system via an extensible markup language (XML)-encoded file. XML is a widely accepted format for exchanging data. Tapp says that one of his vendors, Arkansas Trailer, describes the system as “brilliantly simple.”
Web service evolution
Like P.A.M. Transportation, you may currently use a third-party, Web-based service or value-added network (VAN) to facilitate data exchange between you and your business partners. But these services cost money, and may not be cost-effective for small businesses with a low volume of transactions. The Internet has largely untapped potential for better connectivity between trucking companies and brokers, vendors, shippers and consignees through an evolutionary trend called Web services.
The difference between websites and Web services is that Web services enable the actual programs from one business system to be embedded into the programs on another business system – and vice-versa – via an Internet connection. (For more on the definition of Web services, see page 26.)
Two software developments that are shaping the future of transportation and logistics software systems by linking to Web services are Microsoft’s .NET and Sun’s Java J2EE, says Adrian Gonzales, a senior analyst at ARC Advisory group, a consulting group specializing in logistics.
Maddocks Systems Inc., the developer of the TruckMate for Windows (TM4Win) enterprise management software, is getting into Web services “in a big way,” says Bob Maddocks, the company’s president.
“Many of our customers are already trading loads and interlining with other Maddocks customers,” Maddocks says. To help its customers move away from EDI transactions, which can be “very expensive,” Maddocks says that phase one of Maddocks Systems’ .NET strategy is to link all TM4Win users through Web services. For example, carriers will be able to assign other carriers a load in their dispatch screen and have the information instantly appear in another carrier’s screen to create a freight bill with no keystrokes.
“That is the technology of the future,” Maddocks says. “Reliance on EDI in its legacy form will diminish and be replaced more with Web services. EDI is extremely expensive. Web services are virtually free.”
Don’t expect EDI to go away, however, says Regina DeBaker, director of electronic commerce and EDI services at Watkins Motor Lines Inc.
“There is a time and a place for [XML], but it’s not going to replace EDI if you already are using it with a customer,” DeBaker says. One example that DeBaker says is a good use of XML – at least for now – is to link non-similar business systems during growth through acquisitions.
“When you purchase a company that has another computer system, and you’re not going to convert them to your legacy system, it would really be nice to take information out of their system and roll it into your system,” DeBaker says. “You can use XML as a mapping guide or legend. In the future, when you decide to break portions of a business back off, all you have to do is cut the connection and conversion factor.”
The problem with using Web services as a replacement with existing EDI customers, DeBaker says, is that it could potentially lead to more proprietary relationships and become very time consuming and burdensome, as opposed to using industry standards like EDI to replicate information across the board.
Before Web services makes an impact between shippers and carriers, it must have industry approval and industry buy in – something it’s taken years for EDI to accomplish, DeBaker says.
Following the mainstream
Perhaps Web services won’t be the standard tomorrow, but it’s probably a mistake to look at the concept as a fad. As long as Microsoft, IBM and other “mainstream” vendors back the .NET and Java platforms and the Web services concept, they will be integral parts of future software technology.
“Nobody has a crystal ball, but history has shown that IBM and Microsoft are going to be around for the next number of years,” Weisz says. “The kind of platforms they endorse are going to make it the mainstream technology.”
Java’s J2EE has been embraced by all of the major computer companies such as Oracle, Hewlett Packard, Compaq and IBM, says Tom McLeod, president of McLeod Software. At IBM, for example, more programmers are working in Java than in any other programming language. In 1998, Java was even supported in a big way by Microsoft until Microsoft dedicated itself to writing a complete copy of Java, McLeod says.
“.NET is their answer to Java technology,” McLeod says. “Microsoft has become the big bully, trying to lock everyone in to their system like IBM was 20 years ago.” If McLeod sounds like he’s playing favorites, he is. McLeod Software’s latest release of its LoadMaster enterprise software, version 7.0, is written entirely in Java. One reason for rewriting the software in Java was Java’s widespread industry support, McLeod says.
At the end of the day, .NET and Java really don’t matter to the business end-user, says Paul Hernacki, strategic solutions manager for Extreme Logic, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that designs and builds high-volume Web services-based applications.
“What matters most is the solution,” Hernacki says. “To the people tasked to delivering the software, however, that (.NET and Java) becomes very important. But businesses don’t have to choose one or the other. There may be economic reasons for choosing one of them, but both technologies make it possible for one service to communicate with another.”
Rolling out apps
One of the greatest benefits of Java is that when it’s time to upgrade your hardware or operating system, applications can be moved over to any operating system because it is platform independent. While some of the principles and concepts underlying .NET are supposed to be platform independent – and may be in the future – .NET currently requires a Windows OS, unlike Java.
Decatur, Ga.-based Allied Automotive, the nation’s largest automotive transporter with more than 4,000 trucks, is one example of how a company develops only platform-independent software applications as a strategy to “future proof” its technology investments.
The company’s in-house programmers exclusively develop Java-based applications, says John Ramspott, the company’s lead Internet developer. Through the company’s website (www.alliedautomotive.com), customers track their vehicles at any point in the delivery cycle by typing in the VIN number or other search criteria. One of the “critical applications” that enables the freight tracking is the company’s yard management system, Ramspott says. The yard workers use handheld computers that run a Java-based application to enter the vehicle VIN number as they receive new inventory.
“We can have people receiving vehicles and updating them to the inventory while standing by the vehicle.”
Originally, the software for the handheld application was written in C++, but Allied rewrote it in Java when the handheld computer manufacturer discontinued its product line that operates on C++.
“We’re not going to make the mistake again of locking into a particular make and model of hardware,” Ramspott says. The Java-based yard management program will run on any Web-enabled handheld. The handhelds are wirelessly connected to a Java application server in the office that updates the inventory database in the company’s mainframe computer.
Originally, the yard management system was stored on a Windows NT server. As the number of customer users grew, Allied moved the application to a Unix operating system with no code changes.
“The advantage of Java is that it runs on multiple platforms,” Ramspott says. “Smaller applications run on a Windows server; larger applications run on a big Unix box for heavy-duty processing. Some applications that started in Windows have grown and graduated to Unix – that’s the advantage of Java. You can literally move the application over – you start on one and graduate to another. You can even run Java on a mainframe computer if you are so inclined.”
Benton Express, a 300-truck LTL carrier based in Atlanta also runs a critical Java-based business application on the Nextel network from a Motorola i550plus phone, says Mark Headrick, director of information technology.
Benton Express supplies drivers with Motorola i550plus cellular phones using Nextel’s two-way radio (Direct Connect) and wireless Internet service. The Java application continually updates Benton’s database and customers can view real-time delivery information – time, date and the person who signed for it – via the company’s website (www.bentonexpress.com).
More than 350 different mobile devices – pretty much any phone that is Web-enabled – will work on the network and run the Java application, Headrick says. In other words, the application, the network, and the hardware are independent.
The ASP option
Whether you develop your own software or choose to buy off-the-shelf technology, you’re investing in a solution that has hardware and software components. But chances are, developing your own software applications may not be financially feasible. Some vendors make it much easier to afford the latest advancements in technology through outsourcing and through subscription-based models known as an application service provider.
About four years ago, Clayton, Ala.-based Boyd Bros., one of the nation’s largest flatbed haulers, bought an in-house imaging system from Lanier, says Elaine Himburg, vice president of information systems. When Lanier quit supporting the imaging software, Boyd Bros. decided to outsource its document scanning to TMI’s TripPak Online overnight scanning services, even though it had “invested” $325,000 in hardware and software licenses.
“With Lanier we were very limited,” Himburg says. “All we had was all we were capable of having. When we merged with Welborn [now WTI Transport, a division of Boyd Bros.], we could not bring them online – it was too expensive. When we started our Logistics division, we couldn’t bring them online either.” Because of the cost of software licenses, the document imaging system from Lanier also restricted the number of users who could work simultaneously.
“We needed to expand that in order to grow and bring our logistics division in,” Himburg says. “We didn’t have to spend anything with TMI up front.”
Even carriers that have made up-front capital investments may prefer to use an ASP model rather than maintain their legacy systems. Innovative Computing Corp. markets IES Access, an ASP version of its AS/400-based enterprise software. Many Innovative customers converted to IES Access rather than update their AS/400s and software versions, says Kristy Connerly, Innovative’s general manager.
The ASP model surfaced in the late 1990s as a way to sidestep large up-front capital investments in hardware and software licenses, but it had a downside. “Not many people were really keen on the idea of having their customer data stored somewhere else,” says Dan Murrill, director of transportation management services at TransCore. So TransCore developed Keypoint for Carriers and Keypoint for Brokers, an operations management system that operates on a Linux-based server appliance called the Sun Cobalt “Qube.”
“We were looking for something that could be easily integrated and drop right into existing networks, along with being simple, reliable, and supportable,” Murrill says.
One of the advantages of using Keypoint for Carriers, notes Ron Darnell, president of Harmon Trucking, a 22-truck carrier based in Arlington, Texas, is that broker agents in different areas of the country can use his Keypoint system to enter loads. The database, which resides in the Qube at Harmon Trucking, can be accessed by any Web browser via a password-protected site. In addition, the subscription-based service beats “paying $2,000 a seat and a maintenance contract for something that we have to maintain here,” Darnell says. “I like the fact that they take care of the two Qubes we have. We don’t have to have an NT administrator.”
When looking at an ASP solution – especially a solution where your data is stored at your vendor’s location -some items you should address with the vendor are financial strength, system security, backup contingencies and your vendor’s ability to meet the changing needs of its customers, says Adam Galbreath, manager of vendor relations at Roadway Express. (For more on how Roadway Express evaluates an ASP, see “Don’t let an ASP bite you,” CCJ, May 2002, page 48).
Using mobile comm
Some ASPs enable carriers of all sizes to provide customers with real-time shipment visibility without developing the Web interface from their electronic dispatch system.
Messages, location reports and other real-time data needs to be integrated into your dispatch and your customers’ systems to derive maximum value, says Brian McLaughlin, director of marketing, PeopleNet Communications.
Web-based solutions, such as PeopleNet’s wireless fleet management system, give carriers of any size the ability to provide to their customers – shippers, consignee, or another party – an unlimited number of passwords at as many access points as they want. Shippers can log on to a website and check shipment status anywhere, anytime. Also, PeopleNet’s XML-based system is an open interface for any dispatch system, McLaughlin says.
“From our perspective the Web is the future,” says Norm Ellis, vice president of business development, Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. Ellis is referring to an ASP service where data is hosted in Qualcomm’s secure network and can be shared with anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Qualcomm’s ViaWeb is a secure website which carriers use to post their tracking information, branded with their logo, a picture of their trucks, etc., Ellis says. Their customers have access to real-time information about a load that the carrier controls. As soon as they make a delivery, they can stop posting information to that site.
What matters most
When it comes to future proofing your technology investments, whether a technology is offered as an ASP has little relevance to its endurance. Even if you have the most advanced technology, the support and commitment from your staff and from your customers and vendors are key to future proofing technology, says Tony Cobb, vice president of business technology at Nadiscorp Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based non-asset-based logistics provider.
When Nadiscorp implemented a Web-based tracking service, for example, it raised customers’ expectations to a new level, Cobb says.
“If we fail to continue to provide timely, accurate information, our customers are going to see that. Therefore, we make diligent use of technology, knowing that our clients are looking at it everyday,” Cobb says. The key to ensure data integrity for customers, Cobb says, is continual retraining of employees. Employee turnover and attrition of staff are two of the greatest threats to your technology investments.
“Your knowledge starts to be reduced,” Cobb says. “Therefore, retraining is key for internal users more so than external users.”
The commitment of your vendor is just as important as the commitment of your employees. One of the most important features of any software is the vendor’s commitment to the ever-changing trucking industry, says Thomas E. Keller’s Aaron Keller. When searching for software, Keller says the best way to research a vendor is to ask for a list of truck lines that use its product.
“Upon receiving this list, go out and visit these truck lines, and see how it works for them, and if you can adapt the software to your organization,” Keller says. “It’s also a good idea to get a list of trucking companies who purchased the same type of software and didn’t like it, and visit with them to find out why.”
Keller argues that if the vendor is confident enough in their product, it will agree to give you a list of non-satisfied customers. After all, many implementations that fail are because the customer lacked the commitment to fully utilize the product.
“The important thing is to find what works for you and your business,” says Watkins’ DeBaker. “You have to decide what’s best for you. You know your business better than anyone else. Vendors can make recommendations, but it’s like taking antibiotics from your doctor. Only you know if you’re getting better, or if you should stop taking it and do something different.”
What type of system do you use to manage dispatch?
Almost three-quarters of very small trucking companies – those operating between 10 and 25 trucks – still dispatch their trucks without using computers, according to a CCJ survey conducted last month. By the time a carrier reaches 50 trucks, however, computerized dispatch dominates.
The survey, which drew responses from 201 for-hire trucking companies of varying fleet sizes, shows that 71.7 percent of carriers with 10 to 25 trucks still rely solely on tools such as dry-erase boards, chalkboards, paper forms and other non-electronic systems. Another 12 percent rely on basic computer applications, such as spreadsheets, word processing programs or standard scheduling applications. A small portion – 6.5 percent – use PC-based dispatch systems, but very few use other platforms, such as the Web or AS/400s.
Technology changes substantially as carriers grow to 50 trucks. Among carriers operating 26 to 50 trucks, 29.4 percent reported using a PC-based third-party dispatch system. A bit more than a quarter of carriers in that range, however, still rely on manual systems, according to the survey. Response from larger carriers suggests, not surprisingly, that manual dispatch virtually disappears after 100 trucks.
The benefits of being agnostic
The trend is toward greater flexibility in hardware, communications
Even though wireless solutions providers make money when you use their network, some have opened up their hardware to work with multiple networks – even competitors’ networks. It’s another way suppliers are trying to win loyalty by making their systems as open, flexible and “future proof” as possible.
Carriers that use Qualcomm’s OmniExpress, for example, can also use a digital cellular network, such as Sprint, to communicate data from a handheld computer to the in-cab computer. In addition, Penske is among a few carriers that have implemented an 802.11b wide local area network (WLAN) by putting a PC card in the handheld and in Qualcomm’s MVPc computer, to communicate data back and forth at no cost, says Norm Ellis, vice president of business development, Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. For long distance communications from the truck to the office, Penske uses Qualcomm’s wide area satellite network.
Currently, Aether Systems has applications running on close to 10 different networks, says Mike Brown vice president of sales and marketing. Fleets that use the MobileMax on-board computer can choose the satellite network for longhaul and the cellular network for local deliveries. This multi-mode ability is possible because Aether has invested millions in a proprietary platform called Fusion that allows for that independence, Brown says.
The term for this capability is “network agnostic,” and it goes to the heart of “future proofing.” As cellular, satellite, and radio networks reach higher speeds, better coverage and lower costs, the ability to switch among them gives a user maximum flexibility – especially as one alternative becomes more popular than others. Even a year is an eternity for the fast-changing network improvements.
“The wonderful thing about cellular is that it will evolve,” says Brian McLaughlin, director of marketing for PeopleNet Communications. “We’re network agnostic going forward.” The only thing that will need to be swapped out of PeopleNet’s system, which currently uses the analog cellular network, is the base unit phone, McLaughlin says. This will not cost PeopleNet customers anything because of PeopleNet’s wireless assurance plan, he says.
Cadec Corp., developer of the Mobius TTS on-board vehicle computer, designed a product called CommManager that resides on the on-board computer and the host server at the customer location. For events that do not need to be sent in real-time, CommManager will send data from the onboard computer through a wireless local area network (WLAN) installed at the customers’ distribution centers, warehouses and shipping docks. If the message is to be sent in real-time it can use a variety of wireless wide-area cellular and satellite networks (WWAN).
According to Cadec, should a new wireless network appear in the future that offers a significant cost savings, the Mobius TTS can adapt to it by using CommManager to select the proper modem. Mobius TTS users can also use the systems to select the best wireless option for their needs based on price, performance and geographic operating area of a particular vehicle in the fleet.
What are Web services?
The exact definition of Web services is, like many concepts in information technology, a subject of some debate. The general idea behind Web services is to provide a standardized framework that allows businesses to easily exchange data via the Internet, computer-to-computer, regardless of what back-office applications and databases they use.
“Essentially, Web services enable application integration at the business-logic level, without forcing the developer to use specific message, data or application structures,” says Lee Hamilton, vice president of development, Maddocks Systems Inc.
Web services use the Internet instead of value added networks (VANs) to provide the infrastructure for business-to-business (B2B) data exchange. By moving the business integration infrastructure to the Internet, the nature of the data exchange shifts from EDI transaction sets to XML-based data definitions, Hamilton says.
Key components in the XML-based Web services framework used to abstract the message content, transportation, and implementation language, and standardize the exchange of data include:
Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), an XML-based protocol for messaging and communication between applications;
- Web Services Definition Language (WSDL), a standard for defining application interfaces. WSDL can be made available to business partners (customers, carriers) and published to the public domain;
- Universal, Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) Registry, a universal directory – the “Yellow pages” of Web services. Industry leaders such as Microsoft, IBM and Ariba are spearheading the early creation and design efforts of a UDDI, Hamilton says. In time, UDDI will be turned over to a standards organization, with the continued commitment of the cross industry design teams and advisory boards that initiated UDDI.
To put all this technical jargon into a transportation context, consider this example. Have you ever shipped a package via FedEx and wanted to find out the status of your shipment? If so, you may have called FedEx directly or gone online to trace the package from FedEx’s website or even received an EDI status update (a 214) from FedEx.
Suppose you wanted to provide the ability for your own applications to check on the status of the package to save the trouble of visiting the website each time. To do this, Hamilton says you would first consult a UDDI registry to see if FedEx has published any Web services that provide this functionality. You would then embed the “Web service call” for the tracing function from FedEx’s website into your application – be it a website, dispatch system, or any other system.
In addition to using Web services to trace shipments, Hamilton says other potential uses of Web services include, but certainly are not limited to: load tenders, status updates, invoices, payment receipts, POD requests, rate requests, road and weather conditions, currency exchange rates, available trucks and loads, rate lookups and credit checks.
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