When Schneider National signed a deal in 1988 to equip its fleet with a satellite tracking system from Qualcomm, the truckload giant was taking a big gamble on new and unproven technology. The gamble paid off not only for Schneider but also for the industry, serving as a major catalyst for a wireless revolution in trucking that continues unabated today.
For visible evidence of this revolution, look no further than the nation's truck stops. Gone are the lines of drivers who once waited to use pay phones, wasting precious "on duty" hours. Drivers now mostly use text messaging to communicate with the home office via an in-cab or handheld wireless device. And instead of phone banks, truck stops are installing "hot spots" enabled with Wi-Fi technology. Drivers can log on to the internet with laptops and PDAs equipped with Wi-Fi modems just by entering one of the hot spots and registering.
Innovation has accelerated as digital wireless networks have improved coverage, devices have become more versatile and the costs of hardware and transmissions have come down. Moreover, open standards for wireless communications enabled development of packaged software solutions, making implementation of wireless solutions easier, faster and less expensive.
"This is one of the big cost savings available to companies now," says Barry Freedman, principal in the performance improvement practice at Arthur D. Little. "In the past, companies had to develop their own network and own standards, so they ended up being in the software development business. By simplifying the standards, the total cost equation is simplified, which makes a big difference."
"Often the yard is a black hole of information - a disconnect between assets and mobile workforce."
Even more simple are hosting solutions like that offered by Descartes Systems. "One of the challenges of wireless in the past was the difficulty of installation," says Michael Jakab, senior vice president at Descartes. "We have eliminated that with our MobileLink: Gateway. We manage the communications for companies and send a bill every month that includes not only the communication charge but the software too. So for $49 to $99 a month, a company can have two-way communication with its drivers, all integrated with the back-end schedule-planning solution."
Similarly, GlobeRanger recently introduced a quick start package for transportation and logistics that enables companies to be up and running quickly with a wireless solution. "This application gives most customers 80 to 90 percent of what they need right out of the box," says Kris Barton, director of customer solutions at GlobeRanger. "Very little customization is required."
Software and integration also are helping companies expand the benefits of wireless well beyond asset tracking. "More trucking companies are putting themselves in their customers' shoes, and customers want to know not where the truck is but where their shipment or order is," says Adrian Gonzalez of ARC Advisory Group. "As a result, carriers are moving to link orders and inventory with moving assets." A wireless system alone doesn't do that, he adds. "The wireless piece is the medium for collecting and transmitting information, but you need applications to make use of that data."
Lisa Hebert, associate partner at Accenture, notes that shippers may use their own systems to manage much of this information, but "they are looking toward carriers to provide quality, timely data to feed their systems." The cargo security piece, since 9/11, has added a new spin to how this information is used, she notes, "though security concerns relate more to longer, broader global moves."
Paul Mueller, vice president of technology services at Schneider, stresses that "the real competitive differentiator today is in how well a company uses wireless technology." Having wireless communication in a truck, particularly in the truckload sector, has become "table stakes for companies dealing with significant customers," he says.
While Schneider, rather amazingly, still employs some of the same equipment it installed 15 years ago - a fact that Mueller attributes to Qualcomm's having "gotten it right" - the company continues to find new and creative applications for the technology. Schneider writes its own software programs to integrate vehicle-location data and driver communications into its dispatch process, fleet management and visibility solutions. "Over time we have modified many of our business processes to better use the data," he says. "In the beginning, what we bought was the technology, but the real objective and the challenge is to harness the power of the technology to modify how you run your business."
Effectively using wireless data to improve customer service has a high payback in terms of loyalty. "Schneider backs up its service commitments with its ability to tell you exactly where your freight is at all times through the Qualcomm system, which makes their marketability to a company like BAX Global go up exponentially," says Tom Smith, manager of line-haul services for BAX Global. In addition to its airfreight service, BAX Global has an extensive surface network throughout North America. Schneider is a preferred carrier and now is Smith's first choice to take on any new business.
"They go a step beyond in that they have an expediter group committed to our loads," he says. "This group watches the progress of our shipments and lets us know if something starts to fall behind. That way we have the opportunity to red-sheet that load so we can watch it ourselves, via internet tracking, and start planning contingencies. Maybe we want to stop the truck, strip half the shipments and put them on an aircraft so we can make our service commitments. If they didn't alert us we might miss that opportunity."
In addition to new uses for existing data, Schneider is also looking to augment its in-cab technology with an untethered tracking system for trailers. As with most trucking companies, Schneider has more trailers than tractors. "When a Schneider trailer is connected to a Schneider tractor we have good visibility of the trailer and of the customer's freight, by virtue of having Qualcomm in the tractor," says Mueller. "But it is not uncommon today for a Schneider trailer to be hauled by a third-party power. We do an increasing amount of intermodal transport and we support many customer trailer pools, so we feel that we want to know where that trailer is located."
Mueller envisions a GPS locator with sensors that can indicate cargo status, particularly whether the trailer is loaded or unloaded. "These are our revenue generating assets so it is very important for us to manage their use as effectively as we can," he says. "It would be valuable to know as soon as a trailer is unloaded and ready to dispatch to pick up another load."
Mueller says that trailer tracking and status reporting "will be as impactful for us as in-cab communications have been." The company is looking for a low-cost device that will use GPS technology to derive its position and either satellite or cellular technology for communications. "Instead of text-based messages, it will send small packets of data that identify the trailer, its location, cargo status and other factors, as well as a time and date stamp," he says. Schneider has yet to find a product or a technology service provider that meets its requirements.
Qualcomm is working on an untethered trailer-tracking product, but is not ready to discuss details. "We are always looking for ways to improve technology and take it to the next level," says Meg Davis, senior manager-wireless business solutions, at Qualcomm. As example, the company recently announced a portable handheld device capable of sending high data-rate transmissions - up to 200 times the existing rate - via satellite. High data rates previously have been available only via terrestrial networks. This new technology, now being tested, will enable secure transmission of load assignments and delivery confirmations, compete with electronic signature capture for satellite-based systems.
Satellite coverage has been the primary choice for truckload carriers, and increasingly for private fleets like Georgia Pacific and FritoLay, because of its reliable nationwide coverage. It also is the choice for some less-than-truckload companies. Roadway Express equips its city drivers and some over-the road driver teams with a Qualcomm text messaging unit. "What this allowed us to do was to move from an active form of messaging by radio or phone to passive communications," says Kevin Ridings, manager of field systems and industrial engineering. "We can send a lot of information and our drivers don't have to be in the cab to receive it. This allows drivers to focus on what we want them to do, which is deliver product to the customer."
As third-generation digital cellular networks are built out, more trucking companies are looking to the terrestrial option or to a hybrid. The MobilMax wireless solution from Aether Industries, for example, uses both satellite and land-based networks to locate vehicles and transmit information between dispatchers and drivers. "This multi-mode solution is the best of both worlds," says Michael Brown, vice president of product development. "Drivers can do a lot of messaging using the terrestrial network when they need to, usually when picking up and dropping off loads, while the satellite systems maintain visibility of the truck no matter where it is." MobileMax automatically selects the most appropriate network. The result, he says, is better coverage, faster message delivery, network redundancy, and no per-message surcharges. MobilMax also recently introduced an untethered trailer-tracking system.
LTL carriers increasingly are using terrestrial networks to improve productivity of pickup and delivery operations. Old Dominion Freight Lines, for example, is in the process of an accelerated rollout of handheld computers for local drivers. Installation of nearly 2,000 model 7500 devices from Symbol Technologies will be completed by September.
When an Old Dominion driver arrives for work in the morning, his route for the day is loaded into the handheld. At each stop, the same device scans the shipments that are loaded or unloaded and transmits this information back to the service center. Old Dominion's tracking system is then updated with real-time delivery information and dock managers are alerted as to what is coming back in, giving them a leg up on planning outbound loads.
"As the day progresses, we are able to see the freight build and understand where we might be able to make direct runs," says David Congdon, president and COO of Old Dominion. "If pickups are called in during the day, we can select the optimum driver to make that pickup and send the information to him with no phone call required."
Elimination of phone calls and paperwork is an important part of productivity gains from wireless. "We used to have drivers fill in a work card to record the time in and out at every stop and their mileage at every stop, plus they had to fill in more paper in cases of an exception or a return. Now we have all those processes automated on the handheld," says Congdon. In the first service centers where this system has been installed, pickup and delivery productivity has improved 10 percent, he says, compared with an overall productivity improvement in the first quarter of 3.5 percent.
Another significant productivity boost in pickup and delivery operations comes from on-the-spot reconciliation of orders and deliveries, says Barton of GlobeRanger, a provider of wireless systems. The driver can quickly scan what he unloads, and is able to get a quick readout as to whether the delivery matches the order and what the exceptions are, he says. "The customer signs off on the spot and that information is transmitted back to headquarters, so there is no second-guessing later on." There is a financial benefit as well. "A lot of times people can't bill their customers until they have gotten a copy of the bill of lading. When that information can be sent wirelessly as soon as delivery is complete it reduces days outstanding on payables by three to five days, which can add up to significant savings."
"Having the device totally independent of any equipment gives us a lot of freedom."
At Old Dominion, Symbol handhelds are just the latest wireless technology. The company installed RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on all of its equipment - tractors, trailers and dollies - more than two years ago. Yards and gates are equipped with wireless antennas, so trucks can be checked in and out automatically. "As soon as a trailer comes into our yard, all of the shipments riding on that trailer are automatically updated on our computers with an arrival time," Congdon says.
Once in the yard, hostlers with wireless devices are directed to the precise location of trailers, along with instructions where they should be moved. A local area or Wi-Fi network within the dock keeps track of freight that is scanned when loaded and unloaded and directs dock workers.
The wireless system also is useful when Old Dominion rents a terminal facility. "The fact that we go in with a wireless system allows for portability of this hardware and saves the expense of running cable all over the place," Congdon says. "It really is effective in that way."
RFID is making important inroads in yard management. WhereNet Technologies specializes in such systems, in which sensors are deployed around the perimeter of a yard every 750 to 1,000 feet. These sensors "read" tags and communicate with WhereNet's Visibility Server Software. Tags can be attached permanently or assigned to a piece of equipment when it enters the yard. "Once you have this infrastructure in place, any device can be located and monitored within three meters of accuracy," says Matt Armanino, vice president of business development at WhereNet. The small tag sends out a very low-power signal at a pre-programmed rate every few seconds or minutes. The system also can capture arrivals and departures and status information, such as temperature of reefer units and when a trailer door opens.
"Very often the yard is a black hole in terms of information," says Armanino. "There is a disconnect between assets and the mobile workforce trying to locate and work with those assets. We bridge that divide by providing constant connectivity."
Local area networks (LANs) also are used in yard management. Yellow Freight Systems employs such a solution from Psion Teklogix, says Dave Hack, director of network services at Yellow. "This system controls workers within the yard - hostlers who are moving road trailers and spotting them against doors and pulling them away from doors and hooking them together to go back on road again." Workers receive instructions via a handheld, locating trailers by sight. "Local wireless systems are very beneficial in terms of labor savings in the yard and on the dock as well as in routing freight more efficiently," he says. Docks at Yellow's major service centers, each of which has from 150 to 200 doors, are equipped with a LAN system and handheld devices from Symbol.
Yellow equips its pickup and delivery drivers with handsets from Nextel for wireless voice communication between the driver and dispatch. But the carrier chose not to use phones for data transmission. "Our drivers don't have a device for data entry or signature capture," says Hack. "We have done a number of pilots over the years and we just have not seen the productivity gains in that." The major reason, he believes, is that Yellow centralized customer service in the '90s and now captures specific information on shipments when a pickup order is placed. "We sort that information and send it down to the local managers so they can plan loads and labor. In effect, the customer service center stole the benefit stream from wireless. It's the same results, we just did it another way."
Voice-only communication runs against the trend. But multi-function phones, or handsets, are strong competitors with computer-like handhelds. Recently General Motors gave handsets a boost when it announced that it would equip small commercial trucks and vans with Nextel's Java-enabled i58sr phone, which also has GPS capabilities. In doing so, writes wireless analyst Ephraim Schwartz, "GM in essence said no to Palm, HP and Microsoft."
The GM deal also comes with software from Gearworks and a year's worth of wireless service. Gearworks' application provides GPS-based driving directions, two-way text communications, tracking, and reporting tools.
Scott Hull, vice president of marketing at Gearworks, agrees with Schwartz's assessment that cell phones are better for a workforce unfamiliar with computers because they are "non-threatening and familiar."
"We are finding that being able to run software on a phone is a big advantage," says Hull "One, the hardware is less expensive; two, you get everything on a single device, including voice, which people still need in certain circumstances; and, three, it's more flexible in that the worker does not have to be in the vehicle to get the information. And the fact that it is a device that is familiar to people can be an advantage to getting something like this implemented."
Whatever the medium, functions will continue to increase as vendors push to develop a do-it-all device. Nextel's latest phones, for example, support voice and data transmissions over either GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) or CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) networks, in addition to a GPS chip and proprietary Direct Connect, a super walkie-talkie feature soon to go nationwide. They also can incorporate a barcode scanner from Symbol. "The incredible thing about this is the affordability," says Nextel's Popplewell. "Our phones are very inexpensive."
The latest devices from Symbol and Intermec, the leaders in ruggedized handheld devices, also are extremely versatile, capable of voice transmission over local Wi-Fi networks and automatic or "hot button" data transmissions over multiple wide-area networks. In addition, they can scan 1D and 2D barcodes. Recent rollouts by United Parcel Service and by FedEx, including regional trucking unit FedEx Freight, go a step further, incorporating Bluetooth technology in the device. Bluetooth is the standard for close-range wireless transmissions of 10 to 15 feet, enabling "personal area networks."
No Cradle or Cable
The just-completed rollout at FedEx Freight equipped 1,400 pickup and delivery drivers with an Intermec handheld. The device is totally integrated and portable with no cradle or in-cab installation required. "You just put it on your hip and that is all you need to do," says Frank White, director of systems and operations planning at the carrier. "It's a big deal in our operation to be portable because our tractors are dual-use and you don't want to be moving that cradle between tractors. Having the device totally independent of any equipment gives us a lot of freedom."
The handheld is compatible with GPRS wide area networks and also is able to hook into local area Wi-Fi networks when in service centers to download information and messages. Once out of range of the LAN, it goes out and picks up the WAN signal automatically, White explains.
The Intermec handheld also can scan 1D and 2D barcodes and is equipped with a GPS chip and with Bluetooth. These latter two capabilities are not yet activated but are included to support future add-ons.
Bluetooth and UPS
Bluetooth is an active and important part of the wireless technology initiative at UPS. When this rollout is complete in a couple of years, UPS will have invested $120m and will have created the world's largest Wi-Fi network.
A new system called UPSCAN involves 1,700 UPS package centers throughout the world. It will replace 55,000 old ring scanners used by employees who unload trucks with a new version based on Bluetooth technology and developed in conjunction with Symbol Technologies. The Bluetooth scanner communicates to a wireless terminal on the employee's belt, eliminating a cable previously required. "One of the problems we had before was that these cables were constantly breaking and they were unwieldy for our workers," says Donna Barrett, technology public relations manager at UPS. "This equipment is lighter and more comfortable, and we eliminate the cost of maintaining the cable."
Another advantage of the Bluetooth scanner is that the battery lasts twice as long, through an entire shift.
"So here is the scenario," she says. "An employee unloads a truck and scans the customers' packages. The Bluetooth scanner transmits the information in the barcode to the terminal on the worker's waist. Then the terminal transmits that information wirelessly to the computer server located in the package center and, ultimately, that gets transmitted to our main databases. All of that happens extremely quickly so that a customer tracking his package on a web site knows the status almost immediately."
The biggest challenge to overcome with this rollout was a technical one. Bluetooth and the centers' Wi-Fi technology both operate in the same 2.4G band of the wireless sector. "So you have two technologies competing for air time," says Barrett. "Working with Symbol, we developed a scheme that allows them to coexist. In layman's terms, each has its time to communicate and each knows the other's times. It's a time-access scheme."
UPS also is implementing a complementary technology for drivers, the fourth generation Delivery Information Acquisition Device or DIAD that drivers use to capture and transmit delivery information. Bluetooth in the DIAD IV is used within UPS facilities to hook into the Wi-Fi network, so that the DIAD simply becomes another peripheral. "This can come in handy," Barrett says. "For example, if a box was left off a truck or comes in at the last minute, we can scan it with the DIAD and that information goes right into the data base and the driver is good to go." When on the local network, the DIAD also can be used to communicate with other devices, such as printers.
"Customers want us to electronically download information directly into their computers."
Even greater potential exists in the customer-service realm. "For example," says Barrett, "say a driver delivers 20 packages to a business that has its own Wi-Fi network. We see customers wanting us to electronically download information on those packages directly into their computers, on the spot. Rather than generating paper receipts or manifests, just put the information into their system. The Bluetooth technology sets the stage for that." This is not something that will be done immediately, she says, but it clearly is in the picture for the future. Since the DIADs are being used globally, they are equipped with both GPRS and CDMA wide-area technology. GPRS is the de facto standard in Europe and many other countries, Barret explains, and both technologies are being used in the U.S.
Finally the DIAD IV has GPS capability. "The benefit of that for customers is that we will now be able to know exactly where a driver is on his route and, more importantly, will be able to select the best driver to go for an "on call " pickup," says Barrett. The GPS capability will not be brought up with the initial rollout of the DIADs next year, but will likely come online the year after. "We have 70,000 DIADs in use throughout the world, so bringing on all these features takes time," she says.
Getting accurate directions to drivers is the focus of wireless solutions from mapping vendor ALK. Its CoPilot Truck product runs on a laptop or PDA. It has a GPS receiver and provides audio as well as visual instructions so drivers' can keep their eyes on the road. "It will only take a truck on truck-useable roads, not under a bridge where it won't fit or over a bridge where it can't go because of weight restrictions," says Ed Siciliano, ALK vice president of marketing. In future, plans are to also provide traffic information via the same network. "We want to enable the driver to make intelligent decisions about rerouting himself."
As wireless technologies continue to converge, Jakab of Descartes sees companies bringing all the elements together under an umbrella of Mobile Resource Management (MRM). "What we see is that all the core foundational elements are coming together to provide automatic vehicle location, tracking, communication, schedule management, dispatch and visibility in what we are calling the MRM marketplace," he says. "Looking at it this way, the numbers are greater by an order of magnitude than any one of the elements on its own, which opens up fascinating opportunities."
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