Staying in touch

Using a Sprint Nextel i355 phone to operate a mobile freight delivery application, Benton Express now is able to plan routes, track drivers and capture important shipment details.

In January 2006, a driver for Benton Express made a delivery in Atlanta. Months later, the customer called the less-than-truckload carrier. His shipment – a section of an airplane wing worth $185,000 – was missing.

Benton Express management began asking questions, but no one had answers. The driver was no longer with the Atlanta-based company, and neither was his dispatcher.

It turned out that the company had all the answers in a database. When making the delivery, the driver used an application on his Nextel GPS phone. This application, a freight delivery system from Cheetah Software, captured when and where the shipment had changed possession and who signed for it – a guy named Fred.

“I knew exactly where the guy was standing when he signed for it,” says Mark Headrick, director of information technology for Benton Express.

A Benton manager then drove to the spot and entered the nearest building. “I’m looking for an airplane wing,” the manager said.

“I’ve got it,” Fred replied. “But I don’t know what to do with it.”

“Things work in mysterious ways,” Headrick says.

When selecting a new freight delivery system, executives of Benton Express chose to put mobile computing in the hands of its drivers. Its GPS handset and mobile application is one of many fast-growing solutions that companies are using for mobile resource management. MRM solutions help companies assign jobs to remote resources – equipment, drivers and workers – and capture the status of those resources in real time.

Rapid adoption
In 2006, more than 400,000 workers used GPS handheld devices for MRM applications, according to C.J. Driscoll and Associates. This number will double during 2007, predicts Clem Driscoll, president of the research and consulting firm that specializes in commercial markets for GPS-based products and services.

Technology and cost trends are driving this explosive growth. While GPS has been available for many years, pricing for hardware and software has dropped substantially, and GPS now is widely available even in cell phone handsets. Meanwhile, wireless networks have become much more competitive in pricing, services and user flexibility.

Nextel is the dominant player in the MRM market for GPS handhelds. Through its partnership with hardware manufacturer Motorola, the company has about 80 percent of the market, Driscoll says. GPS handhelds include more devices than just phones, however; much more durable and robust mobile computing platforms from manufacturers Intermec and Motorola – which acquired Symbol Technologies in January 2007 – are also in wide use.

Numerous software companies specialize in MRM applications for GPS handheld devices, including Xora, AirClic, @Road, Cheetah Software, KonaWare, Navtrack and ActSoft. Some also provide MRM solutions for fleets that prefer to use a computing platform fixed to the vehicle and connected to the vehicle’s ECM.

The major wireless networks also are playing a big factor in the fast-paced growth of handheld applications. Verizon now offers MRM solutions through various third-party software partners. Cingular plans to enter the MRM market in the second quarter of 2007, Driscoll says. And since Sprint acquired Nextel in 2003, Sprint Nextel is offering MRM solutions through Sprint’s CDMA network.

“Most all of our major application providers are moving quickly to incorporate CDMA capability,” says Lou Granberry, director of industry business solutions for Sprint Nextel. Through its application providers, Sprint Nextel continues to offer MRM solutions through Nextel’s iDEN cellular network, which is popular among fleets because of its nationwide Direct Connect walkie-talkie radio feature, he says.

Hitting the target
Handheld solutions for freight delivery systems come in many varieties. Hardware selection depends on preferences in screen size, memory, operating system, keyboard functionality and wireless connectivity options. Add in software and wireless network providers, and the number of possible configurations seems endless.

Consider Wessin Transport, a contract delivery provider that has between 6 and 12 vehicles at each of 17 locations. The Green Valley, Minn.-based fleet delivers between 20,000 and 30,000 parcels each day for customers such as Quixstart (Avon and Amway products) and DHL. When Wessin first eyed a handheld solution, its objectives were simple: to capture shipment information accurately and in real time from its drivers.

For many small and medium-sized businesses such as Wessin Transport, a Web-based subscription service is the most convenient way to deploy an MRM solution. Using only a Web browser, fleets can access their freight delivery system, which is connected in real time to a variety of different devices in the field. Web-based systems also provide various reporting capabilities, and through Web services and file transfer protocol (FTP), data captured in the field can flow directly into a company’s other information systems.

In 2006, Wessin chose a freight delivery solution from AirClic to run on GPS-enabled Nextel i355 phones, which the company already used to communicate with drivers in the field. The company also added an additional hardware component to the phones – the Motorola AC25 scanner.

“I’m the only IT person in the company,” says Allen Schostag, manager of information systems for Wessin. “We were able to roll this out in a couple of months.”

Before Wessin drivers make their deliveries, they login to AirClic. Using the phone’s keypad, they enter their truck number and starting mileage, and confirm their start time. AirClic tracks the time and mileage from the dock to their first stop (the stem miles) and the times and mileages between all subsequent stops.

By capturing this data, the company can evaluate driver efficiency by comparing actual times and mileages between stops to what they had planned using a separate routing software system.

Drivers use the scanner attachment to enter barcodes of shipments at each stop, capturing the location and time of each delivery. Wessin Transport uses this remote data collection to provide real-time shipment tracking to customers through its website. Drivers also enter any shortages, damages, overages and returned shipments.

Using the data captured by AirClic, Wessin Transport has built some custom applications to monitor driver efficiency and the status of freight delivery. One application uses a bar graph to represent scheduled deliveries in each route. Managers know if something is wrong with the route if a driver has not reached a certain percentage of his scheduled deliveries by a certain time of day.

“The system works really, really well,” Schostag says. “It took some work, but anybody can do this.”

Adapting to change
Handheld solutions from various third-party providers suit the needs of many types of fleet operations. But one of the challenges of selecting and using a handheld solution – or any technology, for that matter – is to “future-proof” your investment, as technology and business requirements change frequently.

One way to protect your investment from becoming outdated or obsolete is to choose a platform for your hardware, software and wireless communications that uses widely accepted technology standards – as opposed to a custom configuration.

In late 2003, CSX Intermodal – a subsidiary of railroad giant CSX Corp. – implemented a new dispatch system. Soon after, the company enlisted Air2Web to build the wireless data link between its host dispatch system and mobile devices so that its 450 drivers could receive and accept loads, and update their shipment status throughout their workday.

Air2Web uses a standard communication protocol to move data back and forth between the host software, various wireless networks (Sprint, Cingular and Verizon) and mobile devices. Air2Web says it designed the solution to be compatible with any handheld device or wireless network.

Originally, CSX Intermodal offered RIM Blackberry devices to drivers for less than $50, and drivers could sign up with any network. Today, management is gathering information from drivers, managers and vendors to identify the latest developing wireless technologies that will address its ongoing communication needs, such as tablet PCs and emerging smart phone technology such as the recently introduced iPhone from Apple, says John Dugan, technical director of CSX Technology.

Similarly, third-party software providers design their systems to work with a variety of mobile devices and wireless networks, but one potential disadvantage with using a Web-based system from a third party is the time it takes to send and receive data from the field. Each transaction may take several minutes to process.

Carriers with the resources to build their own mobile applications have a potential speed advantage. By building its own freight delivery solution, Old Dominion Freight Lines says it virtually eliminated any communication delays.

ODFL was an early adapter of mobile technology, says Barry Carver, director of fleet processing applications. Recently, the company rewrote its first-generation freight delivery system to conform to the latest industry standards for mobile computing: Microsoft’s Windows CE and Windows Mobile platforms.

Along with rewriting its software to fit a Microsoft environment, ODFL decided to use XML Web services as the standard protocol to move data back and forth between the host system and the handheld computers.

This decision to use XML Web services led ODFL to choose ViaXML2 from Odyssey as its wireless application infrastructure. ViaXML2 enables ODFL to integrate data with its existing backend systems and allows Web services on the mobile device to queue, store and forward. ViaXML2 also facilitates guaranteed delivery of transactions and the use of multiple wireless wide area network carriers for a single application.

ODFL began rolling out its next-generation platform in 2004. The advantage of using an XML Web services architecture is that ODFL does not have an intermediary server (a third-party solution) standing between its host system and its mobile devices. This, Carver estimates, saves more than two minutes in processing time per transaction. Communication is instantaneous as a result.

“We eliminated a point of failure,” Carver says. “Plus, we give real-time visibility to our customers.”

Phoning it in
One of the struggles businesses face in adopting any new technology is the lack of familiarity users typically have with it. That’s a bigger challenge when it’s technology that will be used by drivers, because rather than train a handful of office workers, you now need to train dozens – or perhaps hundreds – of people. But GPS-enabled cell phones are changing the MRM landscape. Fleets now can implement advanced solutions using mobile devices that drivers already know well.

Benton Express operates more than 350 power units at 26 terminal locations in the Southeast. Within 12 months, the company deployed the Cheetah Software freight delivery system at all its terminals, giving Benton Express advanced dispatch and route planning tools, Headrick says.

When a driver arrives for a pickup, he puts a PRO sticker on the shipment. A PRO number is a unique order number Benton Express assigns to each shipment. The driver enters the PRO number and the basic shipment information – weight, number of pieces and destination ZIP code – using the keypad on his phone.

This information is fed back to the dispatch system for Benton Express to begin its outbound load-planning process. Once loads are planned, the company uses Cheetah Software to optimize its delivery routes. While vehicles are in the field, the company provides customers with real-time shipment tracking and accurate, minute-by-minute ETAs for pickups and deliveries. Customers can access this information online.

Benton Express also has improved customer service by giving customers a single point of contact for all their freight movements. Dispatchers can assign a truck to make a pickup at a location outside the area normally covered by their terminal. For example, a dispatcher in Miami can assign a truck in Atlanta to make a pickup for freight destined for Miami.

Previously, the customer would have to call or be transferred to the Atlanta office to arrange for a pickup, Headrick says.

While GPS-enabled phones are growing in use for freight delivery systems, the strongest demand may come from fleets that need to track the time workers spend at customer locations working on specific tasks. Besides capturing time for billing purposes, fleets can get real-time visibility of the status of workers’ jobs to increase productivity.

Aramark provides professional services in the food, hospitality, facility management and work apparel industries. About six months ago, a small Aramark fleet in Denver began using an application from Xora called TimeTrack, along with Nextel i833 and i355 GPS-enabled phones.

“We can really hone in on what drivers are doing,” says Nate Ormond, general manager of the 11-truck Aramark fleet that provides office equipment, supplies and refreshment services. “We can match them up against sales tickets, see their route efficiency, and see if they are where they say they are.”

Aramark drivers use their cell phones to clock in and out of each job, while on location. Each week, Ormond selects a day at random and uses the Web-based TimeTrack system to audit how drivers spent their day. He pays particular attention to how much time they spent at each location.

“Early on, before drivers knew we had that capability, some were sitting somewhere for three hours for a 20-minute stop,” Ormond says. He also can use the system to track the efficiency of service technicians that perform maintenance on different types of office machines. And he has visibility of job status and location to route drivers to new jobs that arrive throughout the day.

LTL and other fleet operations that have multiple stops per vehicle each day need to communicate with drivers frequently, so handheld devices that stay with the driver are in wide use. In truckload operations, however, communication is much less frequent, creating less demand for handheld devices.

Increasingly, truckload carriers are looking to add more specialized local and regional services such as dedicated contract logistics, says Kevin Moore, senior business development manager of Intermec. As carriers enter these new markets, their wireless needs change. Handheld computers such as Intermec’s latest CN3 device have the features to capture what was done, where, by whom and how well, simply by capturing a digital image of a shipment, Moore says.

“Customers want proof of delivery, more service and more information than a driver can capture by sitting in the cab of a truck,” Moore says.

With the advanced data capturing ability of mobile devices, including cell phones, even seasoned IT managers might be surprised at the goldmine of data they can bring to an organization – like the story behind a missing $185,000 airplane wing.

“You have to be willing to think outside the box,” Headrick says.

A technician in the cab
Your office computers require regular monitoring and maintenance to function at peak performance. Mobile computers are no different, but managing devices spread out all over the country through a wireless network can pose a significant IT challenge for some. But fleets have the capability to troubleshoot problems, install updates to software, and manage these devices just as they would any PC in a fully networked office environment.

“In many ways, you are extending the help desk out to the driver,” says Gerald McNerney, senior director of Motorola, which recently acquired mobile computer manufacturer Symbol Technologies.

Motorola, as with other major hardware providers, offers device management software that is designed specifically for their products. Fleets also have many choices of device management software from third-party providers.

Last year, Thomasville, N.C.-based Old Dominion Freight Lines completed a companywide deployment of its second-generation mobile computing platform. As part of the upgrade, the company shipped mobile computers to 3,500 drivers at 180 service centers.

To manage these devices, ODFL uses a software product called Athena from Odyssey Software ( Athena gives the company the ability to remotely troubleshoot its Windows Mobile devices and apply software updates, says Barry Carver, the company’s director of freight processing applications.

When ODFL’s first-generation devices encountered a problem, the terminal would ship devices back to headquarters to be diagnosed and repaired, Carver says. Now the company can access its devices directly when they are within range of a wireless local area network (LAN) at a terminal, or by using a cellular wide area network (WAN) while the device is in the field.

Tom Briones, chief executive officer for wireless communications solutions provider ICM, says that device management is evolving into a duty that more carriers are looking to outsource.

“It is a pretty interesting place for us right now,” he says. “We see a big push on device management. We are getting more requests to manage devices remotely.”