November 2006 | Commentary | IT Matters

The Time is Right for Wireless Automation

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The public for-hire motor freight market has been growing consistently, while significant consolidation has occurred. Even for the best operators, however, margins remain in the low single digits.

Motor freight carriers are challenged to improve service levels, reduce damage, optimize pick-up and delivery, and significantly improve shipment visibility.

To date, mobile communications solutions aimed at motor freight required expensive in-cab integrated hardware, and monthly recurring airtime charges of $50 or more for limited usage and functionality.

A "perfect storm" to develop driver communications and wireless automation is brewing. Today, a variety of technologies offering improved functionality, availability, and price points attack motor freight carriers' operational issues. These technologies allow carriers to achieve dramatic supply chain efficiency improvements while reducing total cost of ownership.

Solutions use standards-based off-the-shelf hardware, GPS, public wireless networks, handheld devices, and flexible software. Thanks to mass market economies of scale, carriers can deploy these technologies for less than $1,000 capital cost per driver, and no more than $25 per month for multi-mode terrestrial and satellite service. Terrestrial wireless services can be secured for even lower monthly fees.

By using wireless automation and the right mobile software solution, motor carriers can expect to improve productivity in the following operations:

  • Pick-up and delivery applications and solutions.
  • RFID portal and handheld solutions for piece-level control and Wal-Mart EPC initiative compliance.
  • Trailer, tractor, and driver tracking, control, and security.
  • Arrive/depart status both at terminal and customer locations.
  • DOT-compliant automated accounting and logging for driver hours of service.
  • Yard management and control.
  • Dock automation.
  • Freight bill imaging and capture using driver handheld devices.

When considering wireless automation, several factors—including clearly defined project objectives, senior leadership buy-in, and rigorous vendor selection—can greatly influence the project's success or failure.

The starting point must be to scope, prioritize, and rationalize business problems with the greatest ROI, while at the same time determining technical feasibility and vendor viability. Once a carrier completes this initial step, and gains concurrence from operations and information technology leadership, the process of assessing and selecting technology vendors can begin.

Start with Software

The best place to start on the technology side is with the mobile software solution. The success of the wireless automation project will largely hinge on the mobile software; the hardware and network pieces have become commodity items.

Mobile solutions within the logistics industry have been dominated by tightly integrated, proprietary, point systems that solve only one or a few business problems, and are difficult or impossible to extend as new opportunities for wireless automation arise. The selected mobile software architecture should support not only the solution of the most pressing wireless opportunity, but also allow for modular addition of new applications.

When assessing mobile software vendors, motor freight companies should look for those with an architecture based on open standards, such as J2ME and .NET, which allow for multiple device choices and networks.

A middleware-only solution is not likely a good choice. Look for companies with a strong service-oriented software architecture offering out-of-the box applications that meet a host of wireless automation needs such as pick-up and delivery; intermodal; and fleet, dock, and warehouse management. Vendors should allow motor carriers to modify or create their own applications.

The software architecture should also facilitate rapid back-end integration with transportation and warehouse management systems, whether homegrown or third-party.

And the architecture should support unfettered user data capture and interaction with the client application, even when network coverage is not always available. This "occasionally connected" model ensures the driver, dock worker, or other supply chain action-taker can perform job functions without being concerned about wireless coverage.

With the widespread availability of affordable wireless devices and networks, coupled with the right mobile software architectures, the time is right for motor freight companies to include wireless automation in their short- and long-term capital plans.

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