Just the fax?

Many fleets have improved cash flow by using digital imaging systems to process freight bills quickly and more efficiently. Even with the technology to process and mail invoices within minutes after loads are delivered, waiting for drivers to turn in their paperwork often delays the billing process by several days.

With the advancements in wireless technology, Tom Brooke, president of Rideway Transportation, a 40-truck carrier based in Ontario, Canada, has considered the possibility of having drivers fax documents to the office from their trucks. Brooke says this could lead to invoices being sent out in a matter of hours after a delivery.

“We deal with some large 3PL companies who still demand a signed copy of the bill of lading,” Brooke says. “I know in our case we could possibly gain a one-time impact of over $200,000.” Brooke recently tested the concept of in-cab scanning himself, with a portable fax machine that cost $80.

“I tried it from my car phone to office phone, and it worked OK, but it is not really suitable for use in a truck environment. We need a unit that has a power inverter so that you can plug it into a cigarette lighter socket, and a built-in cell phone, so you don’t have to use a cumbersome coupler,” Brooks says. “The technology is there – someone just has to adapt it for our industry to use.”

Since many supply-chain partners use electronic data interchange and signature capture to skip paperwork altogether, it’s not surprising that the industry hasn’t given much attention to systems that still use paper, such as in-cab fax machines or scanners.

Molex Inc., a large manufacturer of cabling systems for the automotive industry, recently developed TelEnable, a small module that makes it possible to send faxes through a digital cellular network such as Nextel or Sprint, says Eric Smith, Molex marketing director. The TelEnable device, which sells for $500, is a small box that includes ports for a fax machine/scanner, a cell phone and a power inverter. The company currently has one fleet customer using the system, Smith says.

GoSof is another vendor that has developed an in-cab scanning solution, which it calls Mobile-i. Three fleet customers, representing more than 1,000 power units, currently use the device, says Stephen Crandall, president and CEO of GoSof. Mobile-i consists of a scanner inside a plastic briefcase. A driver feeds his documents into the scanner and the system automatically sends the images through a digital cellular network to GoSof’s network center. The images are then sent via the Internet to the company’s office and can be integrated with existing imaging software, Crandall says.

Crandall argues that the ability to simply scan documents rather than enter data reduces errors and eases the driver’s work. On the other hand, new hardware can be cumbersome to operate and maintain.

TMI TripPak and PeopleNet Communications developed a solution to convert paper into electronic images without adding new hardware to the cab. This month, PeopleNet will begin beta tests of an application called eDocument Transfer to enable carriers to provide customers with signed proof-of-delivery images with no in-cab scanning involved. The solution does require some driver input, however. In fact, TMI TripPak and PeopleNet see this as a major strength. eDocument Transfer takes data entered by a driver and merges it with a bill-of-lading template managed by TMI to create an original document, says Brian McLaughlin, PeopleNet’s director of marketing.

Increased bandwidth in local and wide area wireless networks will also help fuel the growth of some in-cab scanning solutions. Qualcomm recently tested technology that will allow carriers to send data at transmission rates of up to 200 times the existing rate. Such data rates, available later this year, will let carriers send digital images over Qualcomm’s satellite network, says Glenn Spangenberg, vice president and general manager of transport logistics for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions.

Capturing and entering information electronically is replacing the need for mailing, shipping and even in-cab scanning. But exceptions will always remain, which is why fleet owners like Brooke would consider investing in mobile fax machines.