Phoning it in

Low-cost solutions for tracking and connecting mobile workers to the office help boost productivity – and you can even use them to talk to your employees.

Until recently, David Webb thought that tracking mobile workers was cost prohibitive. Webb, the office manager of Watsonville, Calif.-based Elyxir Distributing, looked at several automatic vehicle location systems to track the 70 vehicles it uses to service more than 1,500 customer locations. But the systems did not meet the company’s needs, and at $1,000 in hardware costs, they were too expensive.

While hardware costs for in-cab communications have come down in recent years, and features have grown, traditional solutions are still inadequate for Elyxir Distributing. “The thing about having fixed GPS on the vehicle is that it just gives you the location and how long it has spent there,” Webb says. “Our objective was to improve the productivity of field staff while ensuring that payroll was calculated accurately.”

Mobile workers for the distributor of beer and soft drinks deliver beverages, stock shelves, and service dispensing equipment. Instead of just tracking its vehicles, Webb wanted to keep electronic records of employees’ workdays, including the times, locations, and work performed.

For minimal startup costs, the company began using an application called TimeTrack from Xora that runs on GPS- and Java-enabled Nextel phones. The Xora application lets managers track the location of workers in and outside of vehicles and send them work assignments. Workers submit completed work assignments in real time to the office for immediate billing.

Today, fleets like Elyxir Distributing that communicate regularly with mobile workers inside and outside vehicles can track employees and automate business processes, such as sending and capturing data from the field, using a variety of low-cost and high-speed wireless solutions.

Connecting mobile workers to your company’s enterprise system for real-time information flow to and from the field can be as simple as using Global Positioning System-enabled phones that run a wireless application. The biggest challenge may be selecting and developing “future proof” applications as hardware and high-speed network options evolve. But if all else fails, you can still call your employees and talk to them.

A range of applications
Cell phones offer the most flexibility to communicate with a mobile workforce and are arguably the least expensive, as many employees supply their own phones for business use. But the standard voice and text messaging features of cell phones do not provide fleets with electronic records of their employees’ workdays, such as time spent on lunch breaks or when they actually began and ended work.

Software applications can automatically capture such time and location data with minimal investment. For less than $150, Nextel’s latest ruggedized Motorola phone models, the i58sr, i88s and i305, come with a GPS chip in the handset. (For more on why GPS-enabled cell phones are becoming the norm, see “Nearing complete coverage,” page 72).

By adding wireless, Java-based mobile resource management (MRM) applications, fleets can automate payroll, billing, and customer service functions, such as monitoring the time drivers spend at customer locations for detention billing, says Henry Popplewell, Nextel’s vice president of transportation and distribution. Fleets can subscribe to a variety of third-party application providers, such as Xora, @Road, Gearworks, TeleNavTrack, and ActSoft, or even develop a Java-based application themselves, he says.

One of the early adopters of such applications are fleets that make many calls in different locations during a single business day. Brandt Engineering, a San Antonio, Texas-based mechanical contractor, for example, uses @Road’s Pocket Edition on Nextel phones. The application costs $45.95 per unit and data plans for the Nextel wireless service start at approximately $10 per month.

The Web-based Pocket Edition application automatically launches when the phones are on. Kristi Boren, service supervisor for Brandt Engineering, says she uses the application to track each employee’s workday and to automate payroll by using online reports. She can also quickly pull up reports from the Pocket Edition website to verify the actual time spent on the job when customers have billing questions.

But transportation companies, including LTL and truckload carriers, are also beginning to use the location-based features available in some cell phones. Cleveland Express Trucking, a 40-truck carrier that operates within a 250-mile radius in the Cleveland, Ohio area, uses GPS-enabled Nextel phones for two-way voice and text communications between drivers and dispatch.

While a number of technology vendors offer vehicle-mounted devices as the hardware solution for location-based services, John Schuller, vice president of operations for Cleveland Express Trucking, says that a handheld system is more practical. “If a driver is out of the truck for 15 or 20 minutes, what good does it do us to have the device installed in the vehicle?” Schuller says. “It is critical we are able to locate our field staff at any time during the work day, whether they are in their vehicles or not.”

Recently the carrier added Xora’s TimeTrack’s Web-based application to track and manage dispatch of its workers and vehicles. In addition to the cost of Nextel’s voice and data plan, the company pays $11.99 a month per unit to run the Xora application, which also includes a one-time setup fee of $24.99 per unit.

One of the main benefits of TimeTrack is corroborating drivers’ handwritten time sheets with the electronic record of their workday, Schuller says. “Prior to having the phones with the Xora technology, we relied pretty much on what the drivers were putting on their daily trip sheets.”

The company also uses the system to monitor arrival, departure and detention times at shippers’ docks. “With the new hours-of-service rules, we have to get drivers in and out quickly,” Schuller says.

Simplifying data management
Besides having an electronic record of time and location of mobile workers, some MRM solutions provide communications to automate billing information by having mobile workers enter customer codes, the type of work performed, and other information such as parts used or accessorial charges.

“With Xora, you have some manual entry you can put in there,” Webb says. When an Elyxir Distributing employee pulls up to a customer site, the worker enters a customer number, which automatically reports the time and location to the office for billing. If the employee needs to change a bar tap, he enters a ‘T’ and the office knows that a tapping device was used. If he uses any chemicals to clean the drafting devices, he can identify that as well, Webb says. An accountant at Elyxir Distributing exports this captured information from the website into a spreadsheet for billing purposes.

In addition to entering data through the keypad, Nextel customers can use optional hardware and software applications to automatically update the company’s enterprise systems through barcode scanning, credit-card swiping and signature capture to provide complete supply-chain visibility to customers, Popplewell says.

Benton Express, a 300-truck LTL carrier based in Atlanta, uses Motorola cellular phones operating Nextel’s two-way radio and wireless Internet services. The company developed a custom Java-based program on its phones for drivers to enter shipment information to update the company’s database and the company’s website for real-time shipment tracking.

In April, Benton Express began to upgrade to GPS-enabled phones, says Mark Headrick, director of information technology. Going forward, Headrick says management is considering adding barcode scanners to cell phones, as well, to input all pickup information from the field. By scanning a barcode on a package, terminal management would know how many units are coming as well as their destination ZIP codes. In addition, Nextel’s location-based services could be used to announce and identify shipments when they pull into the yard. A dispatcher could then radio drivers and direct them to a particular bay for more efficient cross-dock operations, he says.

Options for mixed fleets
As new wireless solutions for mobile workers, such as low-cost hardware and high-speed data networks, continue to become available, having MRM applications that will work on a variety of hardware and networks is a primary strategy for many companies. One way this feat can be accomplished is to use Java-based software applications which work on a wide variety of hardware platforms and networks, says Marc Mitchell, transportation practice director of Enterprise Information Solutions, a systems integration and computer engineering firm.

Carriers that operate a mixed fleet of company drivers and owner-operators, or a brokerage, for example, may want to use a common software application to send work orders and track shipments on a cell phone used by an owner-operator or small fleet. One such solution available for cell phones is Qualcomm’s OmniOne, a CDMA-based version of its OmniTRACS solution. C.H. Robinson, one of America’s largest third-party logistics companies, recently announced that it would allow contract carriers to receive load assignments and send shipment status updates via OmniOne.

With OmniOne, carriers and brokers can send drivers load assignments, and drivers can accept or reject loads and send shipment status updates by using the same messages currently used with the OmniTRACS and OmniExpress systems, Qualcomm says. OmniOne can provide location information, as well. Verizon CDMA phones can provide the latitude, longitude and elevation of the phone itself by using Qualcomm’s SnapTrack technology. This information will be available in the OmniOne solution when Verizon turns on the location feature in its network.

What do you need?
In deciding whether advanced mobile phones alone will work for your operation, consider how important it is for you to know the location of the vehicle independent of the driver. This alone may disqualify any handheld solution that doesn’t also include a fixed in-cab device. And this concern may only grow if suppliers begin to bundle in-cab communications with untethered trailer tracking.

But it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition. As prices continue to drop for vehicle-mounted devices, some carriers now use both types of solutions to support a range of requirements.

Talking to drivers at the job site and while en-route to pickups and deliveries is more critical than knowing the location of trucks for Reeve Trucking, says owner Don Reeve. The 126-truck, Stockton, Calif.-based carrier hauls construction and building equipment to job sites and has used Nextel phones for more than 10 years.

Company trucks return to one of several yards at the end of the day, so Reeve initially thought that tracking systems did not offer any value in addition to the cell phone service he already used. Last year, however, Reeve decided to use @Road’s GeoManager, a Web-based tracking solution for the vehicle. Reeve can now track vehicles independently of the driver. The primary benefit of the system is to quickly resolve disputes with accurate online reports of arrival and departure times at shippers and consignees, he says.

Another obvious concern is handset life. Phones are subject to loss, theft and damage, and controlling their return to the company is a potentially big headache for fleet operations suffering high turnover. To address this issue, Elyxir Distributing requires that drivers and merchandisers return their phones to the office every day. A dispatcher checks to ensure that all phones are returned and charging at the end of the day, Webb says.

The company’s salespeople are not required to return their phones each day, but the company requires them to sign an agreement which holds them responsible for the cost of the phone if it is lost or damaged, Webb says. Overall, Webb says the company expects about three years of life from phones before replacing them.

“In the past year, we’ve only had a couple of guys damage phones and two that were stolen,” he says.

The need to track vehicles independently of the driver and the headaches of managing dozens of mobile devices are not insignificant challenges, but if you can get past them, the mobile telephone may just be the solution you are looking for.

Nearing full coverage
GPS-enabled phones should be common by 2005

As of late 2002, the Federal Communications Commission’s mandate known as enhanced 911 (e911) required that cell phone networks provide public safety answering points (PSAP) – i.e. the recipients of 9-1-1 emergency response calls – with the location of the caller, in addition to his/her name and callback number. To meet this mandate, the wireless community spent millions investing in new technologies and upgrades in conjunction with their vendor partners. One of the main impediments in the process was not the technology but the PSAP’s readiness to receive this location data, a Nextel representative told CCJ last year.

From a technology standpoint, network providers had two methods to comply with the FCC: network-based systems using the cellular signal as a navigation/timing measurement or the Global Positioning System (GPS). The three largest networks, Nextel, Sprint and Verizon, chose GPS-based handset solutions along with upgrades to their networks to have a “network assist.” According to Nextel, assisted GPS (A-GPS) involves a location database that helps the handset know where the GPS satellites are likely to be and based on pre-existing data helps to pinpoint the location of the caller.

With A-GPS, a cellular network can locate a unit within a few seconds and in a wide range of challenging environments where normal GPS will not work, including inside buildings, moving vehicles, under heavy foliage and in urban street canyons.

In addition to meeting the federal mandate, Nextel jumped out to an early lead in offering location-based services to its subscribers. A-GPS has been standard in Nextel/Motorola phones since the third quarter 2003. The other major networks, such as Sprint and Verizon, have also complied with the FCC mandate and are planning to make location-based services available by the end of 2004 and early 2005, industry experts say.

“There will be a lot more location-based services springing up this next year,” says Jan Dehesh, vice president of Qualcomm’s Market Enterprise Division. “A lot of enterprises are asking for this data.” Qualcomm supplies the location technologies used by CDMA networks Sprint and Verizon. The chips in CDMA phones today use Qualcomm’s SnapTrack and gpsOne technology, Dehesh says.

Cell phones have the technology capability to offer location-based services to subscribers today, Dehesh says. But these services depend on whether or not the GPS device is turned on by the hardware manufacturer and if the wireless carrier collects the data and passes it through to the end users.

It’s just a matter of time, therefore, before tracking and mobile resource management services offered by Sprint, Verizon and other carriers are readily available.