Solving The Transportation Puzzle

Any grocery or foodservice distributor can tell you that delivering an order from one side of town to the other can be more difficult than it looks. Today it requires far more sophistication than simply loading the trailer with goods and handing the driver a map and a list of stops.

To help distributors manage their transportation operations, software developers provide today’s carriers with a host of programs to devise the most efficient routes, track whether the driver stays on that route, improves customer satisfaction (e.g. on-time deliveries) and helps reduce fuel costs.

Software solutions coupled with onboard computer devices, which transmit information from the home office to the driver in the cab, help turn what could once be described as orchestrating a circus into a smooth operation.

Navigation: The Backbone

Getting food from point A to point B is, at heart, the main objective of grocery distributors. But exactly how to get the food from point A to point B is a part of the solution that requires a lot of background information. Unexpected changes, such as road closures and bridge failures can completely alter a route. Dispatchers and drivers unarmed with this information run the risk of delivering late and creating dissatisfied customers. Route building systems rely on roadway and highway data, or digital maps, to feed them the information they need to devise the best route.

One such provider is ALK Technologies, Princeton, NJ. Since its inception in 1979, ALK has amassed 7 million miles of highway data throughout North America. The company has a team of a dozen employees completely dedicated to analyzing Department of Transportation reports, which announce road closures and structural failures, be it temporary or permanent, across all counties in the United States. All of the changes are coded into their database and are updated online immediately so routes can be adjusted accordingly.

ALK not only integrates their roadway and highway database with dispatch and routing software providers, but offers it directly to customers in the form of GPS units or mobile phone devices. The main advantage to ALK’s GPS, the PC*Miler Navigator 440, is that it optimizes routes for 18-wheel semi-trailers, not regular vehicles.

“The vast number of personal navigation devices used in the marketplace today are consumer-centric, such as Garmin or TomTom,” says Roy Schijns, vice president sales for PC*MILER solutions, ALK. “We have developed a truck-specific PND. For example, it routes around sensitive areas if you’re hauling hazmat, optimizes for avoiding toll roads and ensures you stay on the 48 or 53-foot highway network in the United States and Canada.”

ALK can also deliver its navigation content through drivers’ mobile phone devices through a service called CoPilot. CoPilot can run through nearly all carriers and cellular devices, including Apple iPhone, HTC Android, Windows Mobile and others.

Armed with accurate, up-to-date highway information, distributors can achieve higher efficiency by optimizing their routes.

The Next Step: Routing, Tracking

For some grocery and foodservice distributors, their needs require more than just getting accurate directions. In addition to optimizing routes, they need to track vehicles and problem solve on the fly to improve operations.

UPS Logistics Technologies, Baltimore, MD, provides a suite of applications that reduce time spent creating routes, improve productivity and decrease transportation costs. 

“The grocery and food distributors tend to run the same routes every day, called standard routes, and Territory Planner, a strategic route planning tool, helps to create very tight standard routes,” says Cyndi Brandt, director of marketing, UPS Logistics Technologies.

Tightening up routes or reducing the miles driven, can result in a reduction in fleet size, a significant cost savings.

“One of our customers was able to grow their business without having to buy any new trucks because they discovered they already had too many on the road,” says Brandt. “Without using our software, based on their old calculations, they would’ve purchased 29 more vehicles, and when trucks each cost about $100,000, that’s $2.9 million they saved.”

Descartes Systems Group Inc., Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, is another leading provider of solutions that can easily integrate with existing order management or transportation planning systems.

Descartes’ software is especially useful for creating new routes in real-time, according to Chris Jones, EVP solutions and services, Descartes Systems Group. As each new order is placed, the program re-optimizes in real-time, allocating resources to help maximize operating efficiencies, deliver priority service to the most profitable accounts and routes and maintain overall customer satisfaction.

Eliminating paper from the process is a main advantage of using route optimization software. Having route information only on paper can cause confusion within an organization.

“Today there are many people who want access to the information about the routes,” says James Stevenson, vice president, Appian Corp., Reston, VA. “When using a paper system, if a company wants to know when their delivery is going to arrive, they call customer service or their sales representative. Then customer service or sales calls the dispatcher, the dispatcher calls or two-way radios the driver and the driver gives him an ETA, with no solid data to base his estimate upon.”

Appian’s solution to the problem is the DirectRoute, which gives any authorized personnel throughout the organization access to the route details. The program displays all the day’s stops and their sequence, how long the total route will take from beginning to end and how many minutes will be spent at each location based on the order size. This allows customer service to simply type in a customer number and view their exact ETA for the day.

The next essential component is tracking the vehicle to ensure it actually takes the route the authorized personnel view on their screen.

Appian’s DR-Track ties in with the truck’s onboard communication device to track the driver’s status. This tool is especially helpful when a driver is running behind. The dispatcher or customer service department can proactively see that a delivery will arrive 45 minutes late, and let the customer know ahead of time.

DR-Track is a versatile software system that integrates with nearly any onboard computerized device manufactured by companies such as XATA, Cadec or Qualcomm.

TMW Systems Inc., Beachwood, OH, provides another route optimizing software solution, IDSC TripAlert, with a variety of features and benefits. TripAlert tracks truck locations to see if drivers leave their routes, tracks the statuses of the loads and calculates hours of service for the driver.

“It also has a unique swap feature, so if a truck is behind schedule or breaks down and can’t make its delivery, the dispatcher can go into TripAlert and see what available trucks are nearby,” says Frank Mabry, director of professional services, TMW Systems Inc.

“The program will create the best route to take for the two trucks to intersect so one can pick up the other’s order and make good on the delivery.”

Having all the route details and tracking information available at the operations manager’s fingertips is a valuable resource, however, critical information needs to be communicated with the driver throughout the day so they can successfully complete their job.

Closing The Communication Gap

Today’s new onboard computers are increasing in their sophistication and capabilities.

Qualcomm Inc., San Diego, CA, has been specializing in onboard communication devices for the trucking industry since the 1980s. Its latest version, the MCP100, takes advantage of new technology for faster processing, improved graphics capability and touch-screen navigation.

The key benefit, according to Chris Silver, senior manager of product marketing, Qualcomm, is that it has both audio and visual communication components.

“We’re hearing a lot in the marketplace regarding distracted drivers and the dangers of texting while driving, so our primary objective is to make the driver productive, meaning they get information about where they’re going and what they’re supposed to be doing while making sure we’re not distracting them,” says Silver.

To achieve that, Qualcomm includes a text to speech engine in its MCP100. Instead of drivers having to pull off the road to read an email-type message, they simply use a remote control to scroll through their messages, listen to the subject line and choose whether they want to have the entire message read aloud.

Cadec Corp., Londonderry, NH, is another major player in the onboard computer device field. Complying with hours of service regulations is a major part of the driver’s work day. Currently, most companies require its drivers to log on paper every minute of the day, indicating whether they were on or off duty.

Cadec’s Mobius TTS and PowerVue include onboard electronic Department of Transportation log information, which helps reduce the time drivers spend doing paperwork. Audible and visual warnings from the onboard computer help keep the drivers informed and alert so they can maintain compliance.

Nearly all onboard computers, including Qualcomm’s and Cadec’s, integrate with the major route optimization software solutions; however, some onboard computer manufacturers also provide their own software for the back office, also.

XATA Corp., Eden Prairie, MN, provides both parts of the equation.

“We do provide onboard computers but the main value we provide is the software that goes on the computer in the truck in the office,” explains Tom Flies, senior vice president, product marketing, XATA Corp. “The onboard devices are a way of capturing and transmitting the data and getting it back to the home office, where our software can do its work.”

XATA also provides customers with the ability to monitor the truck itself. Their onboard computer connects to the truck’s engine to investigate things like hard braking and speeding.

“Companies can expect to save about 10 percent in fuel savings,” says Flies. “We monitor idle time, speeding and how the driver shifts the truck. We make sure they look at everything to get optimal fuel economy.”

Many factors that contribute to fuel efficiency are directly linked to the driver’s habits and performance. Keeping track of that information can help greatly reduce your company’s transportation costs.

Monitoring Driver Performance

“Fuel continues to be one of the largest expenses in a distributor’s transportation budget,” says Silver. “You never know when a huge spike in fuel prices will happen, so if you at least control the things you can control, as in your drivers’ habits, you’ll be in a better position.”

Qualcomm’s MCP100 can be a useful resource for monitoring driver performance. The system can identify when a truck is idling, hard-braking and speeding.

“With some of the EPA regulations being discussed at both the state and national level, it’s important to know what drivers are exhibiting the type of behavior that increases emissions and decreases miles per gallon,” says Silver. “Based on the data we provide, companies can incent their drivers who have higher MPGs and coach drivers with poor records.”

Another ongoing problem for distributors and 3PLs is drivers not sticking to their routes. Brandt explains how quickly the savings from eliminating this problem can add up.

“If a driver goes five miles off the route for lunch everyday and five miles back, that’s 10 extra miles a day,” she says. “If you’re paying $2.20 per mile, that’s an extra $22 per day. Multiplying that by the 261 delivery days in a year shows that you’re spending more than $5,700 a year. If this is going on with only 10 drivers a day, that costs $57,000 a year. So driving out of route can be very expensive. It’s important to know if drivers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

TMW’s TripAlert has an interesting feature that sends email alerts to management based on different parameters. It can be set to alert when a truck is out of route by 10, 20 or 50 miles.

Looking Ahead

As technology improves and foodservice and grocery distributors ask for increasingly sophisticated tools, today’s logistics service providers will be here to answer their needs. In fact, some are already looking ahead for tomorrow’s solutions.

Schijns says the next big thing in route optimization may be time of day routing.

“We’re working on collecting data that will tell you if it’s better to leave at 4 a.m. from Connecticut to get through New York City, or better to leave at 1 p.m.,” he says. “We have many customers voluntarily giving us that kind of information, such as how fast trucks can go through a certain area at a certain time of day. We can then model and map exactly how fast you can go through an urban area depending on the time of day and the route you take.”

Another trend Schijns foresees coming to fruition is the integration of visual imagery. Using technology similar to Google Earth, this feature would display a picture of the actual dock the driver is supposed to pull into on their onboard computer. This could eliminate driver confusion when arriving at an address that doesn’t have a clear shipping and receiving bay.

Silver says many features and applications Qualcomm is preparing for the future are significantly driven by regulatory compliance.

“The Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 will play a key role in some of the applications we’re considering moving forward,” she says. “A lot of time these regulations come from the top down, without a lot of understanding within the industry, so we work closely with the American Trucking Association to try to identify where there are implications to our systems.”

UPS Logistics’ RoadNet currently offers a carbon emissions reporting tool that Brandt believes will become increasingly valuable going forward.

“I think we can expect to see big changes regarding emissions laws in this country,” says Brandt. “We’ve seen it in Europe and the talk is becoming more serious here in the United States.”

The report works using data from the planned route, such as number of miles in the route, the MPG for the vehicle and the translation of a gallon of gas to emissions, and determines each vehicle’s carbon footprint. The report can then calculate the fleet’s total emissions.

“With these reports, distributors can compare their carbon footprint to what the averages are and benchmark themselves,” says Brandt. “If you can reduce your mileage, burn less fuel, reduce your idle times, maintain your vehicles and increase your MPGs, you can reduce your carbon footprint.”

Routing programs, dispatcher software and onboard computers each play an integral role in moving food throughout the supply chain. These sophisticated systems do far more than simply give drivers turn-by-turn directions.

The ROI from purchasing any combination of software and hardware systems is clear: better customer service, reduced labor costs, decreased fuel consumption and easier regulatory compliance.

Mabry believes that there is no time better than the present to invest in a complete routing solution.

“Many operations are a bit down right now, so this is the perfect time to imbed these solutions into your operations,” he says. “Then when everything picks up, you can hit the ground running. Although the investment may seem significant, you can’t afford not to do this.”

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