All knowing in an instant

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Updated Jan 13, 2010

Data integration helps managers and drivers work smarter, faster.

McAlister Oil used to depend on paperwork filled out by its drivers to provide customers with important details on fuel deliveries. After fueling, drivers would slide paper tickets into pump meters, stamp the quantity of fuel dispensed, fill in other fields by hand, and return the tickets to the office for processing.

In October 2007, Scott Shank, general manager of the Wellington, Kan.-based company that fuels locomotives onsite for a major railroad, started a project to provide real-time electronic delivery data to customers. McAlister Oil installed electronic fuel meters and the PeopleNet BLU onboard computing and mobile communications platform on all of the company’s 15 trucks.

Today, after fueling a locomotive, a McAlister Oil driver enters the locomotive ID using an in-cab touchscreen display. The pump meters transmit a signal to the PeopleNet computer through a hard-wire connection. BLU converts the signal into gallons and populates an additional nine fields of data that include the location, date and time of fueling.

Each transaction set is available immediately online to McAlister Oil and also is integrated directly into the customer’s information systems via file transfer protocol (FTP). “We were the first company nationwide to provide this service to the railroad industry,” Shank says. “This is the highest level of accountability we can give.” And in so doing, the company eliminated four daily man-hours that had been spent preparing invoices. The company also can hold drivers accountable for every gallon of fuel dispensed, Shank says.

McAlister Oil is just one of hundreds of fleet operations that are adopting an end-to-end integrated approach to improve the efficiency and integrity of its business information. The latest hardware and software applications are able to easily abstract and access data from one system, and read and write data to another system. This flexibility has opened many new possibilities for fleets to create more intelligent, automated workflows for drivers and managers alike.

Integration in the cab
Today’s mobile devices have virtually the same operating systems, database functionality and connectivity as the PCs and servers in an office environment. This next generation of mobile computing power has made it possible to manage increasingly complex requirements for data that originates on the vehicle and data that is shared between the vehicle and office.

For vendors and fleets, the preferred method of integrating data generated on the vehicle to an onboard mobile computing and communications platform is through the vehicle’s existing communication networks using the SAE J1708 or J1939 standard. By using these networks, integration means adding new software code to the onboard computer to manage what data is sent back to the office.

“You don’t need to put more plumbing in the truck,” says Tom Flies, senior vice president of product planning for Xata Corp. If the vehicle network is not conducive for the types of devices and data you wish to integrate, fleets can use a common office connection such as USB. Wireless connections such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or Zigby also are becoming more popular, Flies says, but wireless connections often prove to be difficult because of the multiple standards from which to choose.

McAlister Oil’s fuel delivery system is based on a custom configuration of PeopleNet’s Wireless Vehicle Area Network. Wi-VAN is a gateway or hardware component that enables PeopleNet’s onboard computer to receive communications from various sensors located on the vehicle and trailer, including trailer-tracking and tire pressure monitoring systems, says Randy Boyles, PeopleNet’s vice president of tailored solutions.

U.S. Foodservice, one of the largest nationwide food distributors with 5,400 trucks, plans to use its Xatanet onboard computing and communications platform as a gateway to multiple devices and sensors onboard its vehicles. The company currently is pilot-testing handheld computers that drivers will use to scan barcode packages, capture signatures and complete vehicle condition reports. The company also plans to integrate trailer temperature monitoring, lane departure warning and anti-rollover warning systems through its Xatanet system.

Working with Qualcomm Enterprise Services, C.R. England has developed an extensive, integrated reporting and management system for safety data collected from vehicles and drivers. The nation’s largest refrigerated trucking company is installing in its entire fleet of more than 3,500 trucks a camera-based driving assistance product called the Mobileye AWS-4000, which features warning systems for lane departure, forward collision and headway monitoring.

Using its onboard communications platform from Qualcomm as the gateway, C.R. England integrated the Mobileye system with Qualcomm’s Critical Events Recorder (CER), a Web-based software application that captures safety and performance data from all of C.R. England’s trucks. C.R. England also has integrated an anti-rollover warning system from Bendix into the CER, says Thom Pronk, vice president of training and safety for the Salt Lake City-based trucking company.

Like other fleet operations that have decided to integrate data from a multitude of onboard sources, U.S. Foodservice has learned that the task requires patience and commitment. “You think it’s just a quick ‘plug-and-play,’ but you struggle,” says Bernie Cassetori, vice president of fleet management for the company. “It’s new technology. While it sounds great that you are able to do this, it takes a while to get it done. Once it’s done, it’s great.”

Integration with the office
In addition to integrating various sensors and devices on the vehicle with onboard computing and communications platforms, fleets are finding many useful ways to incorporate information into their daily workflow and business processes.

U.S. Foodservice uses its Xatanet system to transmit vehicle mileages directly into its fleet maintenance software system. Every night, mileage information is pulled into the system and used to schedule preventive maintenance work.

The company also has integrated positioning information from Xatanet into its routing and scheduling software. Through this integration, the company automatically tracks delivery times to provide more accurate routes and schedules. It also can track performance metrics by customer in a central database automatically, Cassetori says.

C.R. England incorporates the driver and safety information from Qualcomm’s CER into a sophisticated risk analysis program developed by FleetRisk Advisors, a company that provides technology-based risk management and loss control services for transportation companies.

In addition to using information from CER, FleetRisk incorporates data from across C.R. England’s information systems, including fatigue scores based on a system from Circadian Technologies that considers position histories and logbook information. All the data points – more than 2,000 in total – are downloaded on a regular basis and used to formulate a predictive risk model for drivers.

C.R. England uses the predictive model to target at-risk drivers and make other safety improvements. This program has led to a decrease in C.R. England’s chargeable accident rate and cost per mile by close to 20 percent, Pronk says. “We are able to be proactive about our driver base and their behaviors,” he says. “We have seen a reduction in major accidents -rollovers, left the highway, etc. – with this integration.”

Optimized driver workflow
Through integration, fleets can have immediate access to data from multiple sources. But data by itself is of marginal value. The ultimate objective is to leverage integration to create accurate, automated and intelligent workflows for the data you collect and process.

In 2006, management at U.S. Xpress saw that bad data in its dispatch applications – directions, in particular – caused drivers to waste time searching for customers and fuel stops. The Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company started adding integrated mobile applications designed to improve the efficiency and accuracy of its routes. These projects have centered on improving the workflow of drivers and managers.

To begin, in 2006 U.S. Xpress deployed the DriverTech TruckPC onboard computing platform with a Windows XP operating system and touchscreen display. Soon afterward, the company added ALK’s CoPilot navigation software in the cab for visual and spoken turn-by-turn directions for drivers. U.S. Xpress also added a fuel optimization application that integrates with the CoPilot navigation system to provide drivers with fueling instructions along their routes.

To make it easy and efficient for drivers to use its new mobile applications, U.S. Xpress wrote a custom driver interface for the DriverTech platform. The company continues to improve the interface by automating more steps in the drivers’ workflow. “Today, we are just stepping into this in the world of workflow,” says Ken Crane, applications manager of mobile technology for U.S. Xpress.

Today, the company uses automated messages between the office and vehicle based on vehicle positioning and other events, as well as to “auto-prompt” drivers to enter data when it is needed. U.S. Xpress will continue to automate more steps by integrating its DriverTech platform with more devices and sensors on the vehicle, such as fuel-level sensors, engine diagnostics and fuel consumption data.

“This is an evolutionary process,” Crane says. “There are so many dependencies on data and process on the back end. We are building technology in there to allow (the process) to become more seamless.”

While some fleets such as U.S. Xpress have significant resources to develop custom software, vendors offer services and applications for any size of fleet to improve their workflow through data integration.

This month, Qualcomm Enterprise Services released Work Flow, a new application for its OmniVision onboard computing and communications platform. For many years, Qualcomm users have trained drivers to use macros to simplify communications with the office; for example, a driver would enter a “12” to send a departure macro to the office when he was about to leave a shipper or consignee.

“(Macros) worked really well and drove a lot of value, but they put a lot of requirement on the driver to understand,” says Norm Ellis, vice president of transportation and logistics sales and services for QES. “Drivers, over time, could get it. But it wasn’t intuitive. Work Flow is completely intuitive.”

Rather than having drivers use macros or enter information into blank forms, Work Flow presents drivers with information through integration with a fleet’s dispatch software systems. When presented with a bill-of-lading number or weight, for example, the driver can verify the number is correct based on the paper copy he receives from the shipper and make any changes if necessary.

In addition to pre-populating information into driver forms, Work Flow uses a voice prompt it calls “Jill” to guide drivers through the proper tasks, which are customizable to individual fleet operations. Work Flow also will integrate with navigation software, for example, to route the driver to his next stop automatically, Ellis says.

Besides automating more driver communications with the office, private and for-hire carriers increasingly are choosing to implement electronic log applications voluntarily. Vendors say fleets are beginning to integrate up-to-the-minute drivers’ hours-of-service information into their dispatch planning software systems.

Currently, PeopleNet has integrated its eDriver Logs application with Bolt Software, McLeod Software and TMWSuite from TMW Systems, and is working with several others. Using a Web services architecture, a driver’s hours and status can be exported from Xatanet to any system for integration, the company says.

Qualcomm has integrated its hours-of-service application with TMW Systems, McLeod Software and Innovative Computing.

Optimized office workflow
Besides improving workflow of drivers and managers, fleets are using data integration to minimize human errors, particularly in instances where paperwork is involved.

Salson Logistics, a 350-truck carrier based in Newark, N.J., uses the Ships business process management software from EBE Technologies to manage its accounts payable and several other processes that involve paperwork.

Salson Logistics operates 12 terminal locations; when a terminal receives an invoice, an employee scans or faxes the invoice into the Ships software. At the central office, a payables clerk opens up a “virtual paper basket” or queue of invoices and enters information from each invoice into the company’s accounting software from Great Plains. When the clerk finishes all of the work in the queue, the Ships software verifies that the invoice information in Great Plains matches the vendor code and invoice number entered when the document was scanned.

“It has totally eliminated issues where we pay an invoice twice,” says Paul Manheim, director of information technology. Besides improving accuracy, the integrated workflow has reduced clerical time by 1.5 people, Manheim says. “The accuracy and ease of doing this stuff has improved tremendously.”

With virtually unlimited possibilities for data integration, the latest technologies are forcing fleets to look beyond what the technology can do today – and to what they want it to do in the future.

Keeping tabs on carriers
RayTrans Distribution manages risk with real-time integration

The basic goal of all freight brokerage and logistics companies is the same: minimize risk without compromising speed. Recently, Jim Ray says he has seen this business model challenged like never before.

For years, RayTrans Distribution Services has experienced few difficulties finding carriers with proper levels of cargo insurance. With the recent rise in commodity prices and high-value consumer products, the value of freight has increased significantly. Together with the downturn in the economy, the risk of transporting freight also has increased significantly for brokers and shippers, says Ray, chairman of RayTrans Holdings, a Boston-based company with three divisions that provide trucking, freight brokerage and logistics services.

Ray estimates that five years ago, only 1 percent of loads in the market were at risk of being hauled by carriers that either were underinsured or unsafe. Today, he estimates 30 to 40 percent of loads are at risk, primarily because small carriers and owner-operators – the carriers brokers typically work with – are unable to pay higher insurance premiums.

RayTrans Distribution uses an integrated software system to minimize risk without compromising the speed of its transactions. Its homegrown software system, White Lightning, is integrated with a version of TransCore’s carrier monitoring and validation program called CarrierWatch. The version of CarrierWatch, called Connexion, is an XML-based Web service that integrates with the workflow of White Lightning for immediate access to information on carrier insurance and safety.

If a RayTrans dispatcher finds a new carrier to move a load, for example, White Lightning automatically submits a request to CarrierWatch in XML. In turn, CarrierWatch sends information directly into White Lightning. Dispatchers know immediately whether or not the carrier is approved to haul the load, Ray says. Every night, White Lightning sends CarrierWatch a list of all carriers that currently are booked on loads. Any negative changes to the carriers’ safety or insurance status on file is flagged immediately, Ray says.

“Every time we add a carrier to a load, we compare them to CarrierWatch and to our internal qualifications,” he says. “CarrierWatch allows us to keep a more live, tangible handle on carriers.”