An Extra Set of Eyes

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Updated Aug 5, 2011

Carriers that use trailer management systems find new ways to cut costs, manage risk

It’s a warm evening in June, and a driver for Pegasus Transportation parks in South Carolina to begin his 10-hour break. At 2 a.m., he gets a call from John Winters, the carrier’s onsite fleet manager, who has just received an alarming text message: The trailer’s refrigeration unit is shut down.

Pegasus Transportation, based in Louisville, Ky., runs a dedicated operation for a customer with extremely temperature-sensitive freight. All 25 reefers assigned to this account must run continuously to maintain a deep freeze.

Winters asks the driver to verify the information. Indeed, the reefer is dead and will not restart. Winters then contacts Thermo King for emergency assistance. The nearest service center is only six miles away, but the driver is off duty and cannot move. While the service center searches for a technician, Winters shares information with Thermo King from the fleet’s refrigerated management system, R:Com, from Blue Tree Systems.

Through the R:Com Website, Thermo King is able to diagnose the problem before the technician arrives. The data reveals a three-way valve likely went out at 1:16 a.m. The technician installs a new valve, and refrigeration is restored within 90 minutes. “We might have lost 6 degrees total, but we were still 9 degrees colder than it had to be,” Winters says.

Pegasus used technology to avoid what could have been a disaster, and the R:Com system paid for itself 50 times over, Winters says. A shutdown is a rare occurrence; the more common risk is when doors are left open for too long. For either event, Winters can see when they occur and their immediate impact on the load’s temperature.

All trailer management systems report time and location, and while this information can be used to target cost-saving opportunities, this capability barely scratches the surface. Carriers also can use technology to determine the condition of their loads, information that in many cases is just as valuable as the freight itself.

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The number of fleets that use trailer management systems continues to grow slowly but steadily. The technology currently has an overall market penetration of between 10 and 15 percent, and is more common among refrigerated carriers, with as much as 50 percent market penetration.

Dry van carriers were the earliest to adopt the technology as a way to increase cargo security and improve equipment utilization. Brown Trucking, a Southeast dedicated short-haul truckload carrier with about 850 trucks and 3,700 trailers, has used the technology for several years to cut costs, both internally and for its customers.

Brown Trucking prices its services on a variable-cost basis, trailers included. Each trailer has an expected weekly amount of line-haul revenue. Any excess or unused trailers assigned to a customer incur a weekly charge.

“In a situation where customers are charged money, we want to reduce that charge and will work with them to take trailers out of the system if they are not using them,” says Brian Kinsey, president of the Lithonia, Ga.-based carrier.

The company’s dispatch and operations software, TruckMate by TMW Systems, stores the coordinates of each customer site where trailers are assigned. The software builds an imaginary radius or geofence around each site to organize the data supplied by the company’s trailer management systems into useful reports for fleet managers and customers.

As a service to customers, Brown Trucking automatically sends out reports every morning to show trailer location, how long they have been there and how they are being used.

“We are trying to find ways to save customers money in ways that don’t cost us to lose money,” Kinsey says. “This is one where everybody wins. When you manage trailers, the customer saves money, and you use fewer trailers.”

The company recently expanded its use of the SkyBitz trailer management system. In September 2010, Brown Trucking acquired Schrader Trucking, and in November, Brown purchased West Brothers Transport (See Market Movers, p. 76). After both transactions, Brown installed SkyBitz GLS units on all of its newly acquired trailer assets.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced with other trailer tracking solutions in the past was the battery life of the device itself,” Kinsey says. “It became too cumbersome to tether each trailer to a truck for power each time we wanted to use a trailer, and it was harder to find trailers that sit for a long time without a power source. But with SkyBitz’s trailer tracking solution, we are able to operate our trailers for years without having to tether to a truck for power. This saves us time and helps us run better operations, which in turn equates to providing better service to our customers.”

Cargo protection

Refrigerated carriers have the most compelling need to manage trailer assets because of the quick action that is required to avoid cargo claims. Many also can use the technology to conserve fuel.

At Pegasus Transportation, Winters uses the R:Com system to capture readings from two temperature probes inside the trailer. The probes are submerged in a glycol solution to record the freight’s actual temperature. “I have to be able to download and get real-time data on two of those probes,” he says.

The probe readings are captured and displayed in a graph-style report along with information captured by the reefer’s microprocessor that includes the set point and return air temperature. Pegasus also uses R:Com’s unified report to display door openings.

“When I bring up a graph, I can see in an instant what trends are happening,” says Winters, such as whether the temperature is warming too fast or if there are too many door openings. “I know just by looking if something needs to be done or if (the temperature) will settle itself down on its own. I have to be able to know that in a matter of moments.”

Smarter devices

A growing trend among providers of trailer management systems is to use more intelligent devices to apply logic to the data locally – at the trailer – rather than transmit data back to a central operations center to process and display to users. This method provides new opportunities for fleets to tailor the systems to meet specific requirements. Combined with real-time communications, the technology gives carriers new opportunities to serve new markets and expand their service offerings.

C.R. England, the world’s largest refrigerated transporter, leveraged this type of technology in 2004 when it began offering refrigerated intermodal transportation. Along with modifying its standard 53-foot trailers with larger fuel tanks, the company added a wireless trailer management system from StarTrak to roll out its trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) services. Last fall, the company launched a new rail intermodal service, TempStack, which uses container-on-flatcar (COFC) technology to double-stack two high-volume reefer containers on a railroad flatcar.

C.R. England uses the StarTrak system for all equipment assigned to its intermodal group. “We wouldn’t do intermodal without the tool,” says Zach England, vice president of intermodal. “The combination of railroad service improvements and communication, including telematics, has made putting perishable products on rail a viable offering.”

Temperature and location data currently are integrated into C.R. England’s dispatch system. The company uses the StarTrak Website for all other purposes, such as to monitor door openings and fuel levels, change the temperature set point or turn a reefer unit on or off remotely.

Fleet managers occasionally will receive an alarm that requires immediate attention, such as a reefer low on fuel. When alerts require quick action, fleet managers notify the railroad vendor to pull the trailer or container before it leaves the railyard or at the next stop.

In the near future, C.R. England plans to leverage the StarTrak system to save more fuel. At a customer location, a geofence could be placed around the portion of the lot where its empty containers are placed. If a container is detected running while in the empty lot, the device could be set to turn the reefer off automatically. Also, by geofencing a railyard, an automatic pretrip diagnostics check can identify a potential problem before the unit departs on rail. “We are just scratching the surface,” England says.

Trailer management systems not only can help carriers cut costs by boosting asset utilization and reducing cargo claims, but in the long run, the technology also can be a strategic tool for responding quickly to new opportunities.

Managing trailers within dispatch software

If location is all you need to know about the status of your trailers, then visiting a Website once a day may be all you need to manage these assets. If you require more frequent updates or more information, consider using integrated two-way communications between trailers and a dispatch and planning software system.

The LoadMaster dispatch and enterprise management system from McLeod Software can retrieve trailer positions and various sensor events and alarm occurrences and display the pertinent information directly in its order planning and driver management screens.

TruckMate from TMW Systems integrates data from the SkyBitz and Qualcomm T2 trailer management systems into its dispatch program. When searching for an empty trailer, a column shows the dispatcher the closest customer in the database where a trailer is located. The software also can pick up detailed reefer information from the trailer.

Since this information is logged into the database, TruckMate can use TMW’s real-time alerting systems, either The Dawg or Command Center, to e-mail alerts or to display information, says Martin Schmidt, mobile communications specialist for TMW.

For fleets with refrigerated trailer management systems, LoadMaster can display the actual set point and return air readings from the trailer. LoadMaster also can compare these settings to the load that the trailer is hauling. If the set point is not in compliance with the load’s specified temperature, an alert is displayed in the order planning and driver management screens.

When the software receives a door-open event, it will generate an alert if the trailer is not at a scheduled pickup or delivery location on the assigned route. Users also can define geofences for trailers within LoadMaster, which then sends the information to the trailer management application. LoadMaster sends an alert when a trailer moves outside the defined geofence.

Instead of having data feed into LoadMaster from trailers, the system also will push managerial information out to third-party systems. Customers have the capability to click on a “hot link” command within LoadMaster that will direct them to the location in the vendor’s Website to perform the desired function, such as to change the temperature set point of a specific trailer, says Robin Hamlin, product manager for McLeod Software.

Low-maintenance devices

For any mobile technology, fast installation, low-cost communications and low maintenance are desired traits. When it comes to deploying technology on trailers scattered across the country, those traits are essential.

Installing a tracking device on a trailer can take about 15 minutes. Sensors for detecting cargo and door open/close status can be added without running wires. Some devices also operate for several years on power supplied by common AA lithium batteries.

The Trailer Inventory and Protection System

(Tr/IPS) from TrackPoint Systems uses an integrated solar panel to recharge its internal battery. Companies that use Tr/IPS can receive hundreds of messages per month from the unit without any battery deterioration, says Alan Smith, president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based company.

TrackPoint uses wireless sensors to provide information such as loaded/unloaded, door open/close and reefer temperature, while GSM/GPRS cellular communications enable seamless roaming throughout North, Central and South America.

This fall, SkyBitz plans to release a new modular product platform called Galaxy GTP. The platform features a new Iridium satellite modem that harnesses SkyBitz’s energy-saving GLS technology. To conserve power, SkyBitz’s GLS technology performs the location calculations at the company’s own data center rather than locally on devices.

The Galaxy GTP platform also will have the option to have onboard GPS along with GSM/GPRS cellular communications and short-range radio to communicate with sensors and yard management systems.

Private fleets and common carriers that transport containers and assets beyond the United States will be able to use Galaxy GTP devices to track assets for several years without replacing batteries. The device is designed to fit inside the grooves of containers, says Craig Montgomery, senior vice president of marketing and business development for SkyBitz.

Qualcomm Enterprise Services plans to release its new TT210 cellular trailer tracking system in early 2012. The one-piece system – terminal, solar panel and antenna – is designed for easy installation with a rechargeable battery pack that will last for more than five years.

To save on communication costs, Qualcomm customers that use trailer tracking and in-cab computing devices can suppress the reporting of trailer positions when connected to a tractor, says Jeff Griswold, product manager.