Leaders for trailers

Guardian Technology has developed a trailer monitoring system that features an integrated solar panel in its GT-300 base unit.

For Tractor Supply Co., the peak sales season begins in March and plows through June. To manage the increase in freight volumes each year, the company’s five distribution centers (DCs) ask the corporate office in Brentwood, Tenn., for more trailers.

Until recently, the company had few resources to determine if the DCs actually needed more trailers, says Todd Kane, carrier operations manager for the national retail ranch and farm chain.

Tractor Supply Co. leases its trailers from Xtra Lease and contracts with a provider of dedicated carriage to handle shipments from suppliers to the DCs and beyond to hundreds of retail stores. Since the start of this year, the company has used an untethered trailer management service from Qualcomm. Xtra Lease offers the service to its rental and lease customers.

By analyzing trailer utilization, only one DC needed to request more trailers this year; by comparison, four DCs requested trailers last year. Tractor Supply Co.’s business hadn’t fallen off; rather, the company had improved the efficiency of its trailer usage.

“We were finding trailers all over the U.S.,” Kane says. “Some had been sitting on our property for four to six months.”

Like Tractor Supply Co., hundreds of fleets are using trailer monitoring systems to remove the guesswork and false assumptions that inflate trailer costs. As these systems have entered the mainstream of fleet management technology, fleets are looking for advanced features and analytical capabilities to manage trailers and cargo with more precision than ever.

A growing market
The interest among fleet operators in trailer monitoring systems is high: 19 percent of 221 fleet executives said they are highly interested in being able to monitor the status and locations of trailers, according to a 2007 survey conducted by consulting and research firm C.J. Driscoll & Associates.

The survey found a direct correlation between the level of interest and fleet size: 33 percent of fleets with 100 or more trailers said they were highly interested in trailer monitoring, compared to 26 percent of fleets with 50 or more trailers and 19 percent with 20 or more trailers.

Only 13 percent of those with a high interest in trailer monitoring, however, said they were willing to subscribe to the typical price of the service – $500 in hardware and $10 to $15 per month in recurring cost per trailer, says Clem Driscoll, president of C.J. Driscoll & Associates. However, considering the cost of an underutilized trailer or the value of a load, the return on investment from a service may be easy to justify.

In 2006, Cargo Transporters installed Qualcomm’s untethered system. To quickly recoup the cost of the service – which is offered as part of Qualcomm’s OmniVision Transportation suite of products – Cargo Transporters installed the hardware on all but the oldest 50 trailers in the fleet. As utilization improved, the 50 trailers ended up coming out of the fleet and were not replaced, says John Pope, chief executive officer of the Claremont, N.C.-based company.

To continually improve trailer utilization, a full-time asset manager monitors trailer utilization by location and by customer, Pope says. Before using the trailer monitoring service, Cargo Transporters had 3.5 trailers to every one tractor; now the company has 3.1 trailers to every one tractor, with about 1,400 trailers in operation.

Greater intelligence
Location and time are the core data collected by a trailer monitoring system. Various sensors can be added to provide more visibility of asset status. Yet visibility becomes muddled when information builds up. To circumvent this problem, vendors use intelligent processors and applications on the devices to report information on an exception basis.

Smart Track is a standard feature in the satellite-based trailer management system from SkyBitz. This feature filters out all nonessential starts and stops – such as traffic lights and fuel stops – from the reporting. The only time a fleet gets a trailer location update is 15 minutes after a trailer starts moving and 60 minutes after it stops, says Roni Taylor, executive vice president.

SkyBitz also has developed a suite of Smart Sensor Tracking products, including the SkyBitz Cargo Sensor that uses ultrasonic technology to scan the entire length of the trailer to report loaded or unloaded status. Another product, Tractor/Trailer ID, reports the identity of the tractor at each hook/unhook event. Events captured by the sensors can be tied closely to the routing and sequencing of events in leading dispatch software systems, Taylor says.

A cargo sensor is perhaps the most significant tool for improving trailer utilization, says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager of transportation for Qualcomm Enterprise Services. Fleets can dispatch a driver immediately when a loaded trailer is available versus waiting for the shipper to send a notification. Fleets can set Qualcomm’s cargo sensor to check for changes in load/unload status every 20 minutes. “(The cargo sensor) can improve a lot of different aspects of operations,” Ellis says.

Most of the sensors that vendors offer require a wired connection to the base processing unit. That model is changing as radio frequency identification (RFID) and other wireless networking technologies join the mainstream. Last year, Guardian Technology launched a completely wireless trailer monitoring system. The base unit, called the GT-300, can integrate with any kind of sensor that has digital or analog communications, says Gary Hadfield, chief operating officer.

The devices on the trailer also are incorporating more processing power. In January, TransCore launched Sense & Track Plus. This most advanced version of its GlobalWave trailer monitoring product has an embedded application processor that makes it possible for fleets to write custom applications to the device, says Dave Roscoe, vice president of GlobalWave research and development.

Some fleets use the system to load locations of their distribution centers onto the device. By placing geofences around these locations, the system issues an automatic arrival alert as trailers cross the virtual perimeter of the geofence, Roscoe says.

Analyzing data
In addition to having devices and sensors with more intelligence, fleets are using new analytical and decision support tools to manage the information. All vendors offer Web portals as well as software integration tools based on XML Web services. These two delivery options eliminate the manual entry required when using spreadsheets and databases to manage trailers. Fleet managers can use these analytical tools to make quick decisions as to how to position and route assets for maximum efficiency.

“Our customers have moved from basic tracking to optimization of the full fleet,” says Darryl Miller, chief operating officer of GE Asset Intelligence, which offers the VeriWise trailer monitoring system. “That is what they are expecting and demanding.”

Some VeriWise customers simply want basic tracking, but many want to capitalize on their investment through deeper analysis of the information. In addition to using the online reporting features, VeriWise customers – both fleets and shippers – can tap the resources of GE, including a team of researchers and academia, to build custom reports and analytical tools to optimize their trailer fleets, Miller says.

The most popular features for fleets that use the Web-based SkyBitz Insight system are reports that show trailer counts and idle times by state and custom landmarks, Taylor says.

Qualcomm’s asset management service provides customers with a standard dashboard that focuses on the two most critical concepts of trailer management – dormancy and utilization. Xtra Lease provides the functionality to its trailer rental customers at no extra cost, says Steven Zaborowski, senior vice president. Lease customers pay for the service. The system uses a colored bar chart to show the dormancy status of the entire trailer fleet for the last seven days. Trailers are grouped into three categories by trailer count.

By clicking on the red bar – the group of trailers with the longest dormancy – users can drill down to the actual status of each trailer in the group. Users can view each trailer on a Google satellite map to see its actual location. A separate bar chart shows the utilization for the past seven days, in terms of hours used. If a trailer was used yesterday and the day before for only 30 minutes each day, it is poorly utilized even though it is not dormant, Zaborowski says.

Complete integration
A completely integrated trailer management system requires tying the data collected by trailer monitoring systems to the operational events in fleet enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. At least one software developer has developed such a system. The Trailer Monitoring and Management (TMMi) system from Add-On Systems is designed to interface with all major trailer monitoring services and the two major AS400-based ERP systems – the Innovative Enterprise Software system and TMW Systems’ TL2000.

The TMMi system helps manage trailer detention, utilization, security and pools. “You have got to have information from dispatch to compare with, or you really don’t know what is going on,” says Kent Hildreth, co-founder of software developer Add-On Systems. “You’ve got to describe the environment.” For example, did the trailer arrive at a location empty or loaded? If it came in empty, how long can it sit empty? If it came in loaded, when do detention charges begin?

At Cargo Transporters, the asset manager in operations is responsible for reviewing the trailer management screen from Add-On Systems. The manager monitors the number of days each trailer at a customer site sits in the trailer pool. When a trailer is loaded at the site, the TMMi system alerts the right person internally that the trailer is ready for dispatch.

“We’re not waiting on the customer,” Pope says. If a trailer needs maintenance, the system coordinates an “empty” message from the cargo sensor to schedule the trailer for repair. “All around, we are able to better manage the trailer pool and assets,” Pope says.

As technology providers and fleets refine the tools and techniques for managing trailers, what is considered a mainstream element of technology today will be the competitive advantage of tomorrow.

Managing power: Solar power, better batteries keep things going
Early last year, Wal-Mart announced it was using solar-charging capability from GE VeriWise to support a 10-year trailer maintenance requirement. The solar power feature effectively eliminates the need to touch the VeriWise system to exchange batteries during a 10-year trailer lifecycle, says Darryl Miller, chief operating officer of GE Asset Intelligence.

Some trailer monitoring systems use a self-contained lithium battery pack. Others rely on rechargeable batteries in combination with external power such as the seven-pin connection from the tractor. Solar power adds another external power source to extend the battery life of a trailer monitoring system, but it comes with downsides: the cost and adding another piece of hardware to the trailer.

To address both of these challenges, Guardian Technology developed an integrated solar panel into its GT-300 base unit for trailer monitoring. One of the engineering challenges solved by the company is regulating the amount of power collected during the summer, says Gary Hadfield, chief operating officer.

TransCore developed a power-efficient satellite modem for its third-generation GlobalWave trailer monitoring products to operate for multiple years with an integral lithium battery pack. For fleets that have extra power requirements, such as the use of cargo and door sensors, TransCore offers trailer monitoring products that run on external power when connected to a tractor.

“The solar power option is one that we haven’t exploited,” says Dave Roscoe, vice president of GlobalWave research and development. “Rechargeable batteries have their own lifecycle.” Lithium batteries are not rechargeable, but they have a longer lifecycle and are more durable. “When you look at a solar panel configuration, cost-wise it is a wash,” Roscoe says. “We are really looking at it from a reliability standpoint.”

Reefer monitoring heats up: Exception alerts quickly becoming the norm
For refrigerated carriers, information pertaining to the condition of a load during transit is just as important as the load itself.

“Everybody is being finicky on temps,” says David Freymiller, president and chief executive officer of Freymiller Inc., a 250-truck fleet based in Oklahoma City that specializes in time- and temperature-sensitive freight.

The GE VeriWise trailer monitoring system on the company’s trailers immediately notifies Freymiller of any exceptions, such as when the temperature on a load goes out of range for an established number of minutes. “I can be more proactive than reactive,” he says.

The VeriWise system also has helped resolve disputes with customers, many of which put their own temperature sensor into trailers to record temperature. In one instance, a customer said a load of cheese was frozen when it arrived at the receiver. By using VeriWise, the carrier was able to pull down a historical record of temperature to show that the environment in the trailer never went to freezing. “The product was loaded frozen,” Freymiller says. “We were able to give that to them within minutes to repute it.”

Freymiller Inc. also provides customers access to its website to track the location and temperature of loads themselves. Freymiller says he soon will use the VeriWise system to communicate with reefer units to set temperatures remotely. “We will be able to have a trailer in California and tell a driver ‘Go pick it up. It needs to be minus 10. I’ll pre-cool it and have it ready to go when you get there.’ ”

The latest refrigeration units from Thermo King and Carrier Transicold interact with all leading trailer monitoring systems. Both companies have developed a standard interface protocol to allow third-party providers of trailer monitoring solutions to also transmit information to the reefer unit, such as changing temperature set points.

In addition to reporting location and time, fleets are monitoring parameters that include reefer power status, operating mode, return air temperature, setpoint, operating hours, battery voltage, fuel level and any fault codes or alarms issued by the microprocessor onboard.

Because trailer monitoring systems can use the reefer unit’s power supply, some vendors offer systems that do not use an internal battery power supply. CarrierWeb recently introduced a product called ReeferMate that provides real-time exception alerts, historical reporting and two-way communication with reefers. The system is installed on about 1,700 trailers and growing, says Norman Thomas, vice president of marketing.

Carriers that operate a mixed fleet of trailers don’t have to use separate information systems, however. SkyBitz recently added a reefer control solution that allows carriers to use one website to monitor the operating conditions of a reefer unit as well as control certain parameters such as temperature set points. The reefer product is offered through Star Trak’s cellular-based platform to manage reefers, but all the information is integrated with the Web-based SkyBitz Insight system.

“We have many customers that have mixed fleets of dry vans and reefers,” Taylor says. “We wanted to be able to provide a complete solution so customers just have one system to use.”