Tech in Focus: Shipment tracking

Many fleets use handheld devices to connect drivers to the office and to capture and track shipments – even individual packages. But for the companies that use them, the popularity of handheld devices could make purchasing decisions difficult. Sorting through the latest hardware, software and wireless technologies can be a daunting task.

Businesses have different needs in a handheld device, but the process for evaluating devices is largely the same from fleet to fleet. Some of the factors to consider in selecting the hardware include calculating the total cost of ownership; determining present and future application requirements; and finding the right “form factor” – the physical characteristics – of the handheld that will maximize the adoption rate of the new technology by drivers.

In general, handheld devices can be categorized from “low-scale” to “high-scale” in terms of price, ruggedness and functionality. Devices commonly considered low-scale in price and ruggedness include smart phones, Pocket PCs, notepads and other handheld consumer devices.

These devices have all the voice and data capture functionalities a company may need at an affordable price, but a common shortfall is their lifespan. In many cases, this factor leads to a higher total cost of ownership (TCO) when compared to a high-scale device, experts say.

To evaluate TCO, managers must estimate the replacement rate of lost, stolen, damaged or even outdated equipment. The average lifecycle expectation of handhelds in the transportation environment is 5.5 years, says Jerry McNerney, director of supply chain execution for Symbol Technologies.

Typically, 30 to 40 percent of low-scale devices need to be replaced during the first year, says Kevin Moore, senior business development director for Intermec Technologies. Typically, over 3 to 5 years, a company may have to plan on replacing the hardware completely two or three times.

“Low-cost devices are great for semi-white-collar work. Even then, if you take a scanner and phone and drop it five or six times, you’re looking for a new device,” Moore says. By comparison, high-scale rugged devices, such as Intermec’s 700 series mobile computers, have a 12 to 15 percent failure rate over the lifecycle. This failure rate is primarily a result of lost, stolen or abused equipment, Moore says.

Besides total cost of ownership, present and future functionality is a key differentiator in the selection process. Today, many consumer devices let users scan barcode labels and enter alpha-numeric data – the same functions that, up until a few years ago, would require a high-scale handheld. Smart phones are created primarily for voice and e-mail type messaging, but they now are enterprise-compliant for higher levels of data capture and ruggedness, McNerney says.

A traditional rugged handheld device would cost more than $1,000, but now you can turn a smart phone into a barcode scanner by adding a simple attachment that costs about $250. Nextel has worked with hardware and software development partners to combine the Direct Connect feature in its handsets with a barcode scanner attachment.

Pickup and delivery companies can use the barcode scanner with a GPS-enabled phone to capture the time and location of a barcode scan to track shipments and inventory into and out of their enterprise system, says Robert Consolazio, Nextel’s senior director of marketing, corporate accounts. Drivers also can use scanners in tandem with the phone’s keypad to record actions and exceptions in a business process, such as “start route,” “arrive at” or “damaged freight.” Drivers can print out a cheat sheet of “smart codes” for these actions and use the scanner for data entry.

Most carriers use laser barcode scanners to enter package information at pickup or delivery. But the trend in data capture technology is 2D barcodes and data imaging, McNerney says. A 2D barcode label enables much more information to be stored and read by an imager than a traditional 1D barcode.

Fleets also can use handheld devices with an imbedded imager, such as Symbol’s MC-9000, to capture pictures of a damaged package at pickup or delivery. In the future, imagers may be used to photograph documents such as a bill of lading to reduce paperwork. But the current imaging technology in handhelds is not advanced enough to produce high-quality pictures, McNerney says. According to Intermec’s Moore, some companies are attaching an image from a digital camera in a jpeg or gif format to a handheld as part of a business process or workflow document.

These data-capture requirements lead to another key decision point in choosing between low- and high-scale devices. High-end devices typically can use multiple networks to transfer data back and forth from the office. A company may program the device to use a wide-area cellular network to transmit time-sensitive information while the driver is in the field, and switch to an 802.11 local area network when within range at a company’s dock or terminal to transmit large files, such as digital images.

Another key distinction between handheld devices is the ability to switch between different wireless carriers by changing the SIM card in the device, Moore says. A company can change from one carrier to another in the GSM/GPRS network (such as T-Mobile, AT&T or Cingular) or CDMA network (Sprint and Verizon) to take advantage of competitive prices and coverage.