To speed cash flow, more fleets are using document management systems to automate billing.
Months before the recent mortgage meltdown hit Wall Street, the trucking industry already was facing a credit crunch of its own when fuel prices surged to new records. Carriers essentially provide shippers with interest-free loans the moment a truck is dispatched and fueled. Before deregulation – when everything had to be done with paper, postage and, usually, typewriters – the Interstate Commerce Commission required shippers to pay freight bills within seven days. But now carriers pay for fuel in cash – typically by the next day – and often consider themselves lucky to receive payment for freight and fuel surcharges 45 days after delivering loads.
Carriers may not be able to control how long shippers take to pay their freight bills, but they can control how quickly customers get them. Because most shippers require proof-of-delivery documents prior to paying invoices, scanning and imaging systems can help process billing documents faster.
When document imaging systems emerged in the early 1990s, the cost of hardware – scanners and data storage – together with software licensing put the technology beyond the reach of most carriers.
Hardware costs have fallen precipitously since then. In-house software remains a big investment, but many vendors now offer Web-based software systems that sidestep the cost of software licenses. Combined with remote scanning and other outsourcing services, most document imaging systems and services are scalable to any fleet.
While document scanning isn’t new, vendors have developed new ways to automate and speed the delivery of invoices to customers – often within moments of delivering a load. And some carriers already are flirting with what many see as the inevitable solution – skipping paper altogether and billing based on a fully electronic proof-of-delivery process.
Managing the images
For many fleets, the big question is whether document imaging truly can make them more efficient. If the system merely digitizes existing processes – especially through cumbersome scanning of documents in the office – then a payback may be limited. The key issues are getting billing documents into the system quicker and managing them more efficiently once they are there.
Regarding the latter challenge, technology providers try to find new and better ways to automate business processes that are tied to documents. TMW Imaging, a division of enterprise software developer TMW Systems, supports a number of automated processes within the system and its integration with TMW operations software. For example, users can classify and process document images from e-mail or FTP automatically based on file names – thereby eliminating manual indexing.
Forms recognition with workflow is perhaps the most significant recent development in imaging technology. Combining forms recognition with remote scanning solutions and workflow automation allows trucking companies to bill customers quickly without human intervention.
Prior to forms recognition technology, scanned documents had to be indexed manually with a software-driven process that tied the images to order numbers and other index values in dispatch and accounting software systems. For example, clerks would have to use a keystroke such as “B” for bill of lading and “P” for delivery ticket to identify each scanned document.
To automate the indexing process, forms recognition uses optical character recognition (OCR) or optical mark recognition (OMR). Either of these technologies can index and extract information from documents without human intervention.
To use McLeod Imaging’s forms recognition technology, customers simply scan a document and pull up a template designer. McLeod Imaging, a document management operation of McLeod Software, offers its forms recognition product as an add-on to its DocumentPower management system.
At McLeod Software’s user conference in Nashville in September, Adel Harika, the company’s director of imaging, demonstrated how the template designer uses one of several document recognition methods. Users can identify a word that always will appear in a particular section of the document, or identify a document by topography – the percentage of black on a page by zone. Once a template has been designed, McLeod Imaging’s technology recognizes the document, even if it is scanned upside down. Once documents are scanned and indexed with Forms Recognition software, the images are tied to loads automatically in the McLeod LoadMaster enterprise software system.
“Forms recognition transforms labor-intensive office operations into an advanced electronic document management system,” says Tom McLeod, president of McLeod Software and McLeod Imaging.
EBE Technologies also offers an auto-billing feature that uses forms recognition and workflow technology to push the documents out to customers automatically via e-mail. As part of the auto-billing process, the software can be used to automatically validate that the weight and piece count on the BOL match with the original customer order in the dispatch system, says Larry Kerr, EBE president.
Over the past four years, Knight Transportation has grown its fleet to 3,800 trucks without increasing headcount in its payroll or billing departments by using Transflo, an in-house imaging and workflow software from Pegasus TransTech with forms recognition technology.
“The software (Pegasus) uses to ‘doc-type’ the images is very reliable,” says Dave Jackson, chief financial officer of the Phoenix-based truckload carrier. “We’ve been able to take that as a platform and do other things to really automate the reconciliation process.”
While using forms recognition and other tools to automate document indexing and workflow would ease the burden on office employees, its benefits for speeding cash flow are limited if documents are not scanned immediately. That’s why vendors and many carriers have searched for the best way to deliver scanned documents quickly and at a reasonable cost.
Because fleets have diverse operations, having fast access to document images may require multiple capture methods. One of the largest truckload carriers, Schneider National, gives its drivers several options to send documents to the office by the next day after delivery.
Drivers can drop their trip envelopes in a TripPak box at a truck stop. ACS-TripPak Services scans the documents overnight, matches the trip documents to Schneider’s dispatch system and then exports the images to Schneider.
If drivers stop at a Schneider operating center to fuel, they can scan documents themselves from a Pegasus TransTech scanner; the images are moved from the Pegasus TransTech scanner by Schneider to ACS-TripPak Services for indexing.
And if drivers use truck stop scanning from either Pegasus TransTech or TripPak, a clerk at the fuel desk can scan the documents for them; the images are sent to TripPak by Schneider for indexing and verification against dispatch data, says James Waters, director of finance shared services for Schneider National.
Schneider’s brokerage business unit also uses multiple document capture methods. Carriers can send proof-of-delivery documents to a post-office box at TripPak; the mail is scanned, and images are available the same day. Another option is to receive faxes from carriers through an 800 number; carriers that participate in Schneider’s same-day Quick Pay program regularly use this option. The faxes go to TripPak and, in turn, are fed into Schneider’s business software; documents also can be scanned at a truck stop. In any case, TripPak gets the documents to Schneider within one hour, says Kirk Babbitt, national account sales executive for ACS-TripPak Services.
Drivers for Knight Transportation, which pays its drivers daily, have an incentive to scan their bills relatively quickly at truck stops and company facilities with Pegasus Transflo Express scanning. “As long as we received the image by cutoff, we will process (payroll) the same day,” Jackson says. All BOLs that enter Knight’s in-house Transflo system during business hours are processed each evening and sent to customers the next day.
Remote scanning at truck stops and by a centralized service like TripPak allows carriers to produce an invoice the same or following day of delivering a load. In terms of cost, truck stop scanning may not seem like much – about 25 cents per document. But costs also might include extra time and mileage for drivers to stop and scan documents.
A faster method for capturing documents is in-cab scanning. This method has been talked about for several years, but making it a reliable and cost-effective solution always has been challenging. In addition to the cost of high-quality scanners, sending large file attachments through satellite and cellular networks also has been cost-prohibitive. Until now.
In August, Abenaqui Carriers began using an in-cab scanning system called DTScan that runs on the DriverTech DT4000 TruckPC, an onboard computer that uses an embedded Windows XP operating system. When a document is scanned by a driver, the images are sent to the office through a Wi-Fi network if one is available; otherwise, the TruckPC uses a cellular network.
Abenaqui Carriers – an 85-truck petroleum hauler based in North Hampton, N.H. – currently is testing the system on a handful of trucks with plans to expand the service across its fleet. “Our biggest complaint from drivers is not having scanners in each truck,” says Paul Marston, chief executive officer. “The ones that don’t have scanners are going to trucks that do have them and scanning paperwork.”
In the petroleum business, customers want to have delivery documents as quickly as possible, Marston says. At the price of $3.50 per gallon of fuel, a 10,000-gallon load is more than $35,000 of receivables for Abenaqui’s customers. By providing customers with signed delivery documents only minutes after delivering a load, Abenaqui’s customers now are able to bill their own customers the same day the carrier delivers the fuel, he says.
Abenaqui Carriers uses DTScan software with an auto-billing workflow solution from EBE Technologies. Once documents are scanned in the truck, they go to the EBE Technologies server in Abenaqui’s office. “We’re adding a new piece that is an alert to us if any paperwork is not to the customer in 24 hours,” Marston says.
In September, DriverTech and McLeod Imaging announced a full integration of DriverTech’s DTScan in-cab scanning solution and McLeod’s forms recognition product. This year, Tacoma, Wash.-based truckload carrier Interstate Distributors became the first company to use DTScan with McLeod Imaging.
Currently, about 30 fleets are using an in-cab scanning software system from Pegasus TransTech, says Frank Adelman, the company’s senior vice president. Pegasus TransTech developed the in-cab scanning application as a downloadable file that owner-operators can put on a laptop PC. Scanned images are sent directly to the fleet through an Internet connection, either through a cellular aircard or Wi-Fi network.
Fleets that use the Pegasus TransTech software can choose to allow drivers to index their scanned documents remotely. Customers also can choose to transmit documents to Pegasus TransTech’s servers and use forms recognition software to index the documents automatically, Adelman says.
Since November 2007, Berry and Smith Trucking has been testing an in-cab scanning system offered by PeopleNet, the fleet’s onboard computing provider. In August 2007, PeopleNet announced an in-cab scanning product through a partnership with Microdea. “We are working on how best to handle the paperwork once it gets into the office,” says Dorthy Vankoughnett, controller and IT manager for Penticon, B.C.-based Berry and Smith, which operates 110 trucks. “With anything new, you have to plan it out properly, but from a driver perspective, it is very easy to use.”
In October, Qualcomm Enterprise Services announced the release of its own in-cab scanning product, available for a per-document transaction fee or as part of a bundled pricing plan. “We are fine with doing it either way,” says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager of transportation and logistics sales and service.
Going fully digital
Speeding the flow of documents from drivers to the office and out to customers is not the final goal. Fleets are looking to eliminate the need for paper documents altogether.
With a fleet of nearly 200 tanker trucks, Hudson, Wis.-based Northwest Food Products Transportation hauls millions of pounds of dairy products each day for more than 15 major dairy companies. To comply with its customers’ requests and a dairy regulation called the Federal Milk Marketing Order, NFPT keeps detailed records of the raw milk it picks up from milk producers (called patrons) and delivers to processing facilities. The information captured for each load includes the patron ID, weight, temperature, date and time, receiving location and silo number.
Drivers used to capture this information by using paper forms and turning in the paperwork to the office for processing. This delay in collecting documents was followed by clerks spending hours each day to enter the information into the company’s computer systems, says Roger Nordtvedt, general manager of NFPT.
Today, drivers enter all required information directly from the cab by using an electronic form in the company’s Mobius onboard computers from Cadec. Once entered, the data is sent instantly and automatically to a central database where it is checked for accuracy and ready for NFPT’s customers to retrieve the following day.
By using this electronic process, customers are billed the next day, and cash receipts are collected every two weeks. NFPT’s customers also benefit by retrieving the information automatically from NFPT’s server into their own supply chain management and electronic payment systems. Customers can pay milk patrons electronically and speed their milk buying and selling activities, Nordtvedt says.
“The driver is the only contact person that does data entry,” he says. “We have really changed the concept.”
On-demand paperwork saves both time, money
One way to reduce the cost and time to manage paper documents is to receive and print hard copies of documents in the cab. Highway permits, pay statements, bills of lading, cross-border documents, violation notices and logs for enforcement officers are all documents that can be printed only as needed, saving time and money.
Mobile thermal printers already are a popular item for fleets that do direct sales and delivery to retail stores, as drivers can print out receipts at the point of sale. Thermal printers do not use ribbons; the printer head emits an electrical charge to paper that is chemically sensitive to the electrical charge.
Mobile thermal printers typically feature a 4-inch design that can fit the same number of characters on a 4-inch piece of paper as a full-page printer. “You don’t have to change reports or report formats, which makes it a much more direct transition for companies,” says Jon Rasmussen, industry marketing director for Intermec, a manufacturer of mobile computing systems.
In combination with an Intermec handheld computer with a 2D imager, fleets can eliminate duplicate copies by having drivers take a picture of an invoice or receipt printed at the customer’s site with a signature. Overall, companies are able to save 75 to 80 percent of their printing and document scanning costs with thermal printing, Rasmussen says.
DriverTech says it delivers high quality at a low price
When DriverTech developed an in-cab scanning system earlier this year, the scanner it selected to use with its DTScan software was the Kofax Visioneer XP220. Visioneer scanners have virtual rescan (VRS) technology to produce the highest-quality images possible, says Mike Nalepka, DriverTech’s vice president of fleet imaging solutions.
Until 18 months ago, no scanner with VRS was available for less than $1,000, Nalepka says; today, most VRS scanners on the market still cost more than $500. “Nobody wants to spend $500 for a scanner for every cab,” he says.
DriverTech sells Visioneer scanners to customers at cost for about $249. The DTScan software is available for $7 per month, per truck, for an unlimited number of images.
Flatbed and form-fed scanners require a driver or clerk to insert a document into a feed tray, but such moving parts are susceptible to damage. Honeywell Imaging and Mobility recently released the 4800dr, a full-featured document imager designed to digitize paper documents for paperless processing, storage and retrieval. The company says the device, which costs about $500, offers a lower lifecycle cost because it has no moving parts that can fail or require routine maintenance.