March 2006 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Where's the Beef? Check the Onboard Tracking Unit

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Vehicle location technology helps a foodservice supplier feed hungry customers, and a truck leasing firm feed customers hungry for information.

It's dinner time in a south Florida restaurant and prime rib is selling fast. The kitchen nearly runs out. The next day, the restaurant manager calls meat supplier Miami Purveyors, asking to move up the next scheduled delivery. The supplier promises more prime rib ASAP, which means quickly diverting a delivery driver who is already on the road.

When a situation such as this arose in the past, "we had to scramble to find drivers through their cell phones" without knowing where they were or who could best handle the delivery," recalls Rick Rosenberg, president and CEO of Miami Purveyors, which serves restaurants, hotels, and institutions in south and central Florida.

But today, when a customer calls with an emergency, it is easier for Miami Purveyors to help. Dispatchers look at an on-screen map that displays the location of every truck in the fleet. Checking details about drivers' upcoming stops, they choose the one best-positioned to make the delivery. Dispatchers then contact drivers via cell phone or mobile radio, or by calling the location where the driver is currently stopped.

This ability to locate drivers comes from Gator Leasing, Miami, which supplies Miami Purveyor's trucks. Gator offers the ActiveTrac Locate (ATLocate) system from Miami-based Neoris as an option to its leasing customers.

Miami Purveyors installed the automatic vehicle location (AVL) system last fall on all seven of its trucks. "If we add more vehicles to our fleet, I expect to put it in every one," Rosenberg says.

Locate You Later, Gator

Gator has installed ATLocate on 42 of its approximately 2,600 trucks. Included in the 42 units are vehicles in Gator's long-term leasing and rental fleets, trucks in its dedicated transportation business, and several mobile service vehicles that come to the rescue of Gator trucks that break down on the road.

Those 42 units are only the beginning of the company's plans for the AVL system, says George Pfeiffer, vice president of sales for Gator Leasing. The company is considering installing the system in its 850-unit rental fleet—an expensive proposition.

With the system installed, Gator could track equipment in case of theft, and insurance premiums would drop. That alone would save enough to pay for the technology, he says.

Gator offers ATLocate on leased vehicles as a value-added service, installing units as requested. "ATLocate enables us to win customers that we might not have gotten before," Pfeiffer says.

ATLocate is part of ActiveSuite, a collection of transportation and logistics solutions from Neoris. The onboard equipment for ATLocate includes a global positioning system receiver and antenna, and a chip for communications over a cellular network—Cingular Wireless, in Gator's case. Installed behind the dashboard and connected to the vehicle's ignition, the system operates whenever the engine is on, without driver participation.

In addition to location, the onboard units record vehicle speed and miles traveled, says Nancy Troutman, Neoris' vice president, distribution and logistics. The units transmit that data over the wireless network to a web server in the user's office. Any user authorized to log on to the system can access real-time fleet information.

Each vehicle appears on the screen as a push-pin; when users click on the pin, the screen displays information about the vehicle including its current location, whether and how fast a vehicle is moving, what stops it has completed, and where it's headed next.

In addition, Neoris hosts historical information on its server. "Gator's clients can go to the web site, click on their company name, and view all the historical data about that fleet," Troutman says.

Neoris also offers several options for the onboard unit. One is a device—a simple display screen or a personal digital assistant—that plugs into the onboard unit to provide text communications between driver and dispatcher.

Customers may also opt for links to onboard sensors—to monitor temperature in a refrigerated trailer, or to bar-code scanning terminals, for example. Gator includes these options as needed for its leasing customers.

Gator first sought an AVL system for use on its mobile service trucks. These "shops on wheels" carry generators, welders, tires, and a wide range of automotive parts, says Pfeiffer.

When a customer's leased vehicle breaks down, rather than send another truck, swap the loads, and tow the problem truck, the company sends a service technician to get the customer up and running again, hopefully in time to meet its delivery windows.

With AVL systems on the service trucks, Gator can protect against theft and make sure technicians are doing their jobs effectively, Pfeiffer says. And because not all the technicians remember to record which parts they use, Pfeiffer hopes eventually to attach a scanner to the onboard unit for inventory management.

"If a technician puts a new filter on a vehicle, the filter would be bar coded; that information would run down the system over the wireless link to the company's information system," he says.

Keeping the DOT Happy

When officials at Gator chose the Neoris system, they decided to use ATLocate in their other fleets as well. Installed on rental trucks that operate across state lines, the system helps Gator collect information needed to file logs with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"Theoretically, it's the customer's responsibility to meet that federal requirement, but because the unit is tagged as ours, it falls back on us if they don't fill out their log sheets," Pfeiffer explains. "With ATLocate on board, we alleviate those potential problems and have the information right at our fingertips."

Gator uses ATLocate units on trucks in its dedicated fleet to offer more effective customer service and improve accountability. For one customer, for example, Gator delivers steel studs to Home Depot. If it doesn't meet the assigned delivery window, Home Depot charges a penalty.

"Sometimes, because of personnel shortages, our drivers get to the dock and no one is there to receive the shipment," Pfeiffer says. With ATLocate installed, the company can prove that the truck arrived on time.

ATLocate also offers users the ability to send alerts. If the onboard equipment includes sensors connected to the engine, a refrigeration unit, or other device, the unit monitors conditions on that system.

If a function goes out of range—an engine breaks down or the reefer's temperature rises too high, for instance—ATLocate sends an alert to the home office. Users can also configure the system to warn of possible hijackings. "And it can be set up to send an alert if a vehicle is, for example, more than 15 miles off route," Troutman explains.

Keeping drivers honest is the biggest benefit Miami Purveyors has gained from ATLocate so far, according to Rosenberg. Drivers who make overnight runs for the company work on the honor system, using paper logs to record their hours. But honor doesn't always come easily.

When Gator first installed ATLocate for Miami Purveyors, the foodservice supplier started comparing its paper logs to the hours of service recorded by the system.

"The results showed some drivers fudging their hours," Rosenberg says. "Now they know we're monitoring them, and their paper logs come in within minutes of the computer reports."

Rooting for Routing

Officials at Miami Purveyors also hope to integrate ATLocate with their third-party routing software. The routing system would load each day's stops into the tracking system so they appear on the route map, explains Scott Sheetz, manager of technical business development at Neoris.

"We'll also be able to add any stops—such as emergency early-morning deliveries—that are called in before the driver is dispatched," he says.

Eventually, the system could alleviate pressure on the company's customer service representatives. "Right now, nearly 15 percent of our customer service department spends the early hours of the day dealing with customer delivery questions," Rosenberg says.

Miami Purveyors is currently developing a web site where foodservice operators can access ATLocate and find out when to expect their orders.

In a part of the country where "rush hour has become an all-day event," Rosenberg says. ATLocate helps Miami Purveyors manage its fleet more efficiently and better meet customer needs. During periods of heavy congestion, diverting a driver to make an extra delivery or backhaul goods from a supplier is no easy matter.

These tools foster the dynamic, instant communication Miami Purveyors needs to keep customers from asking, "Where's the beef?"

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