In Focus: Dispatch software

Since the early days of computerized management systems, fleet operators have faced a dilemma: namely, doing what the computer said was best versus what people expected to be able to do. The fundamental purpose of a software system is to “optimize” an organizational goal – such as maximizing the number of loads or the profit margin or minimizing fuel costs – within mandatory parameters, such as drivers’ hours-of-service or delivery appointments. In fact, today’s sophisticated optimization systems can provide fleet managers with detailed assignments on a daily, hourly and even real-time basis for drivers, equipment, loads and routes.

But it’s hard to run a trucking operation on data alone. While advanced dispatch systems are great tools, they don’t trump human nature. If a driver demands to be home in Seattle this weekend, it doesn’t really matter that the computer says his next “optimized” load should be one that puts him in Boston on Friday night. Yes, you probably will earn an extra few cents per mile – assuming he even takes the trip – but your driver probably will quit when he returns.

The latest trend in dispatch software seems to be developing decision support tools and features to help fleet operators match organizational goals with human needs and wants. Using highly visual and intuitive views of data – not mathematical models – fleet operators can make effective decisions without perfect data.

“We are taking an approach to supplying more visual cues so the dispatcher can make better decisions and more quickly,” says Tom McLeod, president of McLeod Software. “People are looking for and making use of new decision support tools to meet driver home and time-off commitments, as well as customer service requirements.”

For example, a dispatcher that uses McLeod’s LoadMaster enterprise management system can see exceptions or potential conflicts automatically highlighted on the screen – the moment the incident occurs. Possible alerts include a driver waiting for his next load assignment or a conflict with a driver’s home-time commitment. LoadMaster clients also can use a map integration feature to visualize the location of their loads, trucks and customers, as well as locate any exceptions geographically, McLeod says.

Last year, Schneider National Bulk (SNB) – the tank truck division of Schneider National – implemented a visual driver management tool from TMW Systems that Schneider calls the Situational Awareness Tool (SAT). TMW now markets DriverZone, the commercial version of Schneider’s SAT.

With SAT, driver managers – called team leaders – schedule loads and handle all driver communications and management duties, says Paul Janco, director of customer service for SNB. Team leaders are able to balance driver productivity and home time effectively by using SAT’s calendar-based view of drivers. The drivers are listed on the left side of the screen, and their load assignments span the right side of the screen as a horizontal bar, similar to a Gantt chart. Visual cues help team leaders quickly ascertain a driver’s status, such as a red line if a load is in trouble of being late, Janco says.

SAT has improved driver retention and satisfaction because team leaders are more aware of drivers’ status and can be more proactive in resolving problems, Janco says. And drivers can advance their own self-interests by sending accurate and timely information through Qualcomm, such as their hours of service, to team leaders to get better loads, Janco says.

In Trans+Plus Systems’ Fleet Manager Professional, the Trip Board is used to manage trips, says Vince Bull, business development manager. The top shows the dispatcher the active trips. The specific trip events can be found in the itinerary of the current highlighted trip, with the travel time for each event displayed to the right of the itinerary tab. The lower portion of the trip board displays freight that requires management: Stoplight icons on the left of the screen provide the dispatcher with a quick view of the pickup and delivery status of the freight.

“Visual tools such as the stoplight icons are just one of the many features designed to assist dispatchers with their job, enabling them to make decisions accurately at a glance and on the fly,” Bull says.

Innovative Computing, which provides the Innovative Enterprise System (IES), recently announced a convertible user interface (CUI) for its iSeries platform. The CUI will allow users to pick and choose what fields they want to see in a graphical view, says Kokesh Kadakia, Innovative’s vice president and chief information officer.

The CUI adds the flexibility to toggle back and forth between the green screen and a graphical user interface. To view data in a graphical format, fleets currently export the data to Excel or use third-party report tools such as Sequel.

The green screen combines visual cues with the productivity benefits of using keystrokes – as opposed to a mouse with Windows-based systems. “It is very visual,” Kadakia says. Once trained to use keystrokes, people generally do not want to touch Windows, he says. “It is very fast. It’s mind-boggling.”

The available loads screen in IES shows loads/orders on top, and power units on the bottom. Orders arrive by first-in, first-out. Available trucks appear by expected time of arrival (ETA) and drivers’ planned time of arrival (PTA), with colors to highlight exceptions.

Real-time results
Dispatch software providers also have incorporated quick access to reports for fleet operators to see – in real time – the effects of their decisions. Automatic, scheduled reporting is among the most recent features in PCS Software’s Express 15 system, says Sean VanDyck, PCS Software’s sales manager.

Express 15 customers can schedule daily or weekly reports to arrive automatically through e-mail. Anytime a dispatcher makes a load assignment that falls below the standard minimum profit level, the system will generate an exception message, VanDyck says.

The increasingly common metaphor and visual concept for managing key performance indicators is the dashboard.

“When I have a question about my business, I want to be able to look at a screen and have the answer now, and have everyone else looking at the same information,” says Bob Maddocks, president of Maddocks Systems, which provides the TruckMate enterprise system. Setting targets on the screen creates a natural competition that appeals to human self-interest – such as offering a pizza certificate to the top performers, he says.

“It is not difficult to get the line staff involved with KPIs,” Maddocks says. With color coding, important measures jump out for visual cues of what actions to take. “At the end of the day, the big thing about KPI screens is that it identifies problems as they are about to occur, so you have the opportunity to correct the situation.”

Some fleets use a combination of visual dispatch tools and optimization systems to achieve their objectives. Ward Trucking, a less-than-truckload carrier based in Altoona, Pa., uses Cheetah Freight from Cheetah Software Systems to dispatch its fleet of 400 trucks, says Greg Confer, director of process analysis and improvement.

The Cheetah system uses route optimization engines to compute suggested daily routes for drivers. A dispatcher’s screen displays the map of the service area with street grids and major highways. Stops, pickups and deliveries in the service area are plotted on the map with symbols. The system also maps drivers’ location and direction of travel using data from GPS-enabled mobile phones.

As changes occur – such as new pickups arriving during the day – a new symbol appears on the map for dispatchers to visualize the pickup’s location. They can click a button to locate the best driver given the current constraints, and the dispatcher can assign a pickup to the driver electronically, Confer says.

Ward Trucking monitors how its drivers adhere to routes, but gives drivers the flexibility to optimize their own routes, perhaps due to the condition of traffic, Confer says.

With the latest visual tools from dispatch software providers, managers actually can see the real-time impact of their decisions on the bottom line and in the life of a driver.