Frozen assets?

Is your equipment in the Snow Belt, when you need it in the Sun Belt? Let trailer tracking maximize your capacity.

With the surging economy, strong freight, firming rates and challenges to productivity from the new hours rules, you might be tempted to run to the nearest truck and trailer dealers for more equipment. While growth may indeed be warranted, are you getting the most out of your existing capacity? Even if you can get the equipment – order backlog is growing – you might be better off focusing first on equipment utilization, especially if your driver turnover is high.

Knowing the location and status of your equipment and being able to use that information intelligently is central to improving utilization. Depending on your operation, knowing the location of your drivers and tractors may no longer be enough. You may need to monitor trailers independently.

Tight capacity and the new hours-of-service regulations have added a new wrinkle to the value proposition for trailer tracking – namely, billing for detention and other accessorial charges. The ability to show customers precisely when trailer doors opened or how long a spotted trailer has been sitting, for example, could mean real money. And trailer-tracking systems can address other worries, such as theft or condition of the equipment and cargo. (For more on how fleet operators use trailer tracking to prevent theft and monitor trailer status and load conditions, see “Eye on the Prize,” CCJ, February 2003.)

For Mesilla Valley Transport (MVT), the decision to install satellite-based tracking on its entire fleet of trailers “all comes down to utilization,” says Dean Rigg, chief financial officer of the 600-truck carrier based in Las Cruces, N.M. Rigg estimates that the investment in installing tracking units in all of its trailers will pay for itself in 4 to 6 months by giving the company the information it needs to reduce its trailer-to-tractor ratio. The company is also using its Skybitz Insight system to monitor detention times at shipper’s locations.

“We’ve already started collecting detention and accessorial fees,” Rigg says. “Our goal is not to charge, but to turn our trailers quicker.”

Using software applications, fleets can identify idle assets and put them to work. Powerful exception-based reporting tools allow fleets to gain better visibility and control of hundreds, even thousands, of trailers.

Tailored information
Fleet operators can use trailer-tracking data to customize reports by customer location, by asset type, and many other variables. With trailers in pools at different locations – at customers, repair shops, freight forwarders, and border crossings, for example – carriers can quickly identify problems, by exception, to know what changes to make to improve utilization.

Don Smith, manager of dispatch operations at Canada Cartage, a 400-truck carrier based in Ontario, Canada, visits the AirIQ website daily to determine which trailers have not been moved for three days at each location. They also can use AirIQ’s web-based reports to see where the company needs to position more trailers.

Rigg receives a report each day on which trailers have been “sitting” for more than three days. The report shows where Mesilla Valley Transport trailers are by location and customer name. Before using trailer-tracking technology to automate the reporting of this information, trailers could go unused for weeks at a customer location, and the company was buying more trailers than it needed.

“I can now dispatch a driver directly to exactly where a trailer is parked and ready to roll,” Rigg says. “I can maintain yard and area inventories to better manage freight flow, maintain visibility of equipment for better customer response and monitor shipper and consignee loading and unloading.”

The power of geofencing
Fleets can use a trailer tracking solution feature called geofencing to automate the reporting of pre-defined exceptions. Through the network, they can program the coordinates of a landmark, such as a shipper’s location, in a trailer-mounted tracking unit. When a trailer enters or exits the perimeter of an imaginary geofence – a radius around the landmark – the unit automatically sends the date and time it crossed the geofence. The signal can be used to trigger an alarm or to construct a useful report.

Pharr, Texas-based Transport Continental Inc. (TCI), a 65-truck flatbed carrier, uses geofencing to trigger a report each time its trailers cross the Mexican border. TCI has also designated landmarks at shippers’ locations in Mexico and in the U.S. to automate reporting of when a trailer arrives or departs from its destination and crosses back into the United States.

“I can take that information and can track the turnaround time to Mexico,” says Jim Cowart, company president. Turnaround time is a useful benchmark for Cowart to determine asset utilization, and one which he uses to decide whether or not to buy more trailers.

“I’ve had salespeople say we need more trailers, but I need information to base these financial decisions on,” Cowart says. “I can now say either we are efficient or nonefficient.”

The company recently outfitted its entire fleet of 300 trailers with trailer tracking from Tyler, Texas-based Teletouch Inc. The company has about 60 trailers in Mexico at a time since 80 percent of its business crosses the Mexican border through interlining with Mexican-based carriers.

Geofences can be used in combination with other events to provide useful information. GeoLogic, a satellite-based trailer management system from Aether Systems, for example, enables fleets to program multiple geofences into the GeoLogic units and only be notified when things do not happen according to business rules set up in a web-based system or into a carrier’s dispatch system. When a GeoLogic-equipped trailer enters (or exits) a geofence, the system can report location-based exceptions, such as a door being opened at the wrong location or a trailer being dropped at the wrong location. In addition, the system can use geofences to report exceptions to pre-defined detention times at shippers.

More than location
In addition to using software tools to provide visibility of trailers and customizable reports to fleet managers, some fleets have developed applications to monitor various trailer status information, such as loaded/unloaded, open/closed and hooked/unhooked.

J.B. Hunt Transportation Services, for example, uses Terion’s FleetView system on 98 percent of its van trailers. The system is equipped with a cargo sensor to detect loaded/unloaded status.

“We pay close attention to trailers that register loaded events but have no corresponding order in our system,” says Elaine Chaudoin, a transportation consultant at J.B. Hunt. “This is an effective tool allowing us to drive out time between loaded events and load tender for us and our customer, and keeps our drivers moving.” In addition, the cargo sensor helps the company improve detention times.

“We can track loaded and empty information and if that status changes. We can know when a trailer arrives at the receiver and when the load is emptied,” Chaudoin says. “This allows us to see if the driver is being detained in a loaded status longer than appropriate so we can address and attempt to reduce the delay.”

Terion’s website provides most of the data J.B. Hunt needs and serves as a check and balance to the host system, Chaudoin says. “We also create daily exception reports combining Terion data with that from our DB2 tables.”

One carrier that invests considerable effort in integrating a variety of trailer status information into its information systems is Schneider National, which currently uses Qualcomm’s TrailerTRACS tethered system. In addition to pulling trailers behind company-operated tractors, Schneider National moves its trailers on rail cars and through third-party carriers, leaving gaps in coverage when not pulled by a Schneider tractor equipped with satellite tracking, says Paul Mueller, vice president of technology services.

Currently, Schneider National is in the process of beta testing a cellular-based, untethered trailer tracking system that Qualcomm plans to offer commercially this summer. Together with Qualcomm, Schneider developed a magnetic sensor that detects hooked/unhooked status of trailers in all modes of transportation – by rail or by a third-party power unit. When a trailer is lifted onto a rail car, the kingpin is hooked to a small version of a fifth wheel, which the sensor detects. The system then sends a hook/unhook status along with location tracking through the Qualcomm system.

“I think it will be a differentiator for us,” Mueller says. “Visibility on railroads as well as over the road is important to customers. We surveyed our customer base and found that shippers are likely to give more freight to a carrier that has the technology implemented.”
Although this status information can lead to greater visibility and information for fleet operators to make better decisions, companies that want to install cargo, door and connection sensors, for example, need advanced software systems to integrate this data into business processes, says Jay Folladori, vice president of trailer operations and management for Landstar.

“We decided in the beginning of the program that we wanted to equip the trailers with just tracking before going with other sensor opportunities,” Folladori says.

Integration is the key
In order for trailer tracking information to be tightly integrated into business processes, many trailer tracking vendors provide tracking and other data to fleets in a downloadable XML format. Fleets can transfer this data into spreadsheet applications or to their enterprise-wide operations software. In addition to providing quick visibility for fleet operators, trailer information is powering advanced customer service applications, such as real-time load tracking.

Every morning, James Brown Trucking, a 200-truck carrier based in Lithonia, Ga., receives an automatic download of trailer information in an XML format. The company uses the GlobalWave trailer tracking system, owned by TransCore. Position, direction, speed, and battery life from each GlobalWave unit is automatically downloaded in an XML format into its Maddocks Systems TruckMate for Windows software database, says Kevin Slaughter, vice president of operations.

In the Maddocks system, the carrier’s customers are programmed into the database by latitude and longitude. The Maddocks system also enters a radius around the locations – similar to a geofence, Slaughter says. The Maddocks system automatically matches up the trailer positions in the database by customer locations, including consignees. The advantage of having all this information in its Maddocks database is so that the company can configure a wide variety of reports, such as an idle asset report by customer location, Slaughter says.

Since installing the GE VeriWise trailer tracking system in January, Lenoir, N.C.-based Caldwell Freight, an LTL carrier that specializes in furniture transportation, is working to fully integrate the data from its GE VeriWise trailer tracking system into its enterprise software, says Ron Burroughs, vice president of operations.

Caldwell Freight downloads files each day from GE VeriWise to update its internal system. At a glance, dispatchers know the last reported coordinates of the trailer and can compare, through inventory systems, where the trailer should be. Dispatchers are able to sort trailers out by state, equipment number, equipment type and by equipment moving on the road right now.

Currently, Caldwell Freight offers Web-based shipment tracking on the information collected through barcoding about the load at pickup and delivery. Customers can track their shipment status through the web by entering an invoice or purchase order number. Soon, the carrier will offer real-time tracking using the GE VeriWise system. Customers can view location as well as status updates on their freight, such as “in warehouse,” “loaded on trailer” and “ready for delivery,” Burroughs says.

Both Slaughter and Burroughs say that their companies do not need satellite tracking and in-cab communications systems for the power unit. Tracking trailers serves their business’ needs better than tractor-based solutions, they say.

Despite the initial reasons a carrier may have for investing in trailer tracking – theft prevention and recovery, utilization, or reefer monitoring, to name a few – trailer tracking is really a platform to build on, one step at a time. Being able to locate your assets is an immediate advantage, with more benefits to follow.

“In a short period of time we have seen a remarkable gain in efficiencies,” Folladori says. “Those people that are sitting back on the fencepost, it’s their loss.”

Know what you need
Landstar takes step-by-step approach

With many competitors in the trailer tracking market in the past few years, the technology has become very affordable and carriers have more choices. Hardware prices for trailer tracking are in the $300 to $700 range per unit with monthly service costs starting below $10 and up per unit, depending on a fleet’s reporting requirements.

As with other technology decisions, implementing a trailer tracking solution to meet your business’ needs today and into the future requires a lot of homework and hands-on testing. Landstar Inc. recently decided to install the Skybitz Insight solution on its 9,000 trailers. To navigate through the decision process, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based carrier formed a decision support group, says Jay Folladori, Landstar’s vice president of trailer operations and management. Group members included trailer utilization and maintenance professionals as well as personnel from information technology, marketing and accounting.

The group came up with a document stating why the company should invest in the technology and the type of product and characteristics it should have. Before comparing prices, the company evaluated different product offerings based on the following requirements:

  • Reporting of trailer location on a scheduled basis as well as an on-demand basis;
  • Geographic coverage;
  • Reliable data transmission;
  • Product lifecycle support;
  • Viable technology for at least seven years;
  • Hardware to withstand a harsh trailer environment;
  • Minimal installation;
  • Power source independent of the tractor;
  • A device concealed from view.

The carrier’s type of operation helps determine the importance of certain features. Battery life is a good example. Satellite-based systems typically have longer battery life since cellular-based systems have to be “always on,” says Stan Graff, director of transportation sales for GlobalWave, a trailer tracking solution owned by TransCore. Some satellite-based solutions may last several years without being tethered to a tractor.

But battery life may not be a big worry for carriers that don’t typically have trailers idled for long periods. Most systems can be powered by rechargeable batteries that last more than 30 days. Batteries charge up through the electrical connector on the trailer each time a tractor is connected, or tethered. On the other hand, systems that do not require recharging offer easier installation since the only work required is to tighten a self-contained unit to a trailer.

Finally, and perhaps the most important, is the financial strength of the vendor. In a wireless world, it’s a good idea to look at a vendor’s financials, years in business, and customer base. Before deciding to buy, for example, Landstar had been testing various trailer-tracking products for five years; some of the vendors are no longer in business, Folladori says.

Even after deciding on a particular vendor and product, the fast-changing world of technology makes it necessary to keep your options open. Folladori says that the company is already looking ahead three years – the time which Landstar’s management estimates to be the depreciable life of trailer-tracking products.