Innovation: Insider Insights

In April 2005, at a Princeton, N.J., conference of trucking technology suppliers and users, Alain Kornhauser declared the just-in-time era dead.

“Just-in-time logistics is inherently deterministic,” said Kornhauser, a Princeton University professor, and founder and chairman of mobile transportation solutions provider ALK Technologies. He then held up a mobile phone.

“This is the new paradigm,” he announced.

His declaration kicked off the conference with a touch of drama meant to illustrate that innovative technologies such as mobile phones free truck fleets from inflexible operations.

“Even the largest fleets now have the agility to respond quickly to rapidly changing circumstances,” he said.

Trucking technology innovations continue to create operational possibilities that meet shipper needs, as well as efficiencies that help control costs—which benefits all parties in the transportation industry.

The phone Kornhauser held up at the conference, for example, was a global positioning system (GPS)-enabled Motorola handset that works on the Sprint Nextel network. GPS allows the phone to transmit its position and other information to dispatchers and fleet managers.

The phone provides turn-by-turn directions using a simple on-screen display and—for safety’s sake—clearly audible, spoken directions from a truck-sensitive mapping database.

Resting on a dashboard mount, the phone can steer a truck driver away from restricted roadways and low bridges and directly to a specific street address, for example. That’s a particularly productive tool in an industry where high driver turnover rates can put a lot of less-experienced drivers behind the wheel.

Whiz Bang Mobile Phones

The phone can also be equipped with a bar-code scanner for data collection, and can run Java-based software, including an array of dispatch and fleet management applications.

It’s the kind of onboard computing power that once required expensive, wired devices, and it provides mobility those devices cannot offer. The phone stays with the driver, gathering and communicating data, while an onboard system remains in the truck.

By comparison, when Qualcomm launched its mobile communications system in the late 1980s, the onboard computer and antenna cost almost $5,000 per truck. Because of the expense, communication between drivers and fleet managers was often limited to timed location reports and brief text messages.

By contrast, fleet managers today can purchase GPS-enabled cell phones in bulk quantities for less than $200 each, and communicate large amounts of data for a low cost.

Comparing satellite communications with ground-based systems is not exactly apples to apples. Satellite-based systems handle more data, and cost significantly less than they used to. They also provide wider service coverage than cellular systems, even in remote areas.

The emergence of inexpensive cell phones as competition to onboard computing systems is only part of the trucking industry’s innovative evolution. The past year has seen, if not actual breakthroughs, substantial technology developments that benefit shippers through increased trucking productivity.

Carriers that deploy such technologies are better able to meet shippers’ needs at competitive prices.

Tracking Efficiencies

Carriers, for example, now widely utilize trailer tracking, a technology that debuted with much fanfare but limited use more than five years ago. Major commercial truckload fleets, such as Schneider National, Swift Transportation, and others, are rapidly deploying trailer-tracking systems.

The few early adopters with systems already in place are upgrading or deploying new tracking systems, adding functions that enable them to pinpoint trailer location, determine if a trailer has strayed from a predefined area or route, and identify whether it is loaded or empty, among other parameters.

Trailer tracking enables carriers to document delay time and assess detention charges where contracts allow—an annoyance to shippers perhaps, but also a boon to more efficient fleet utilization.

Some fleets claim that tracking technology lets them handle large freight volume increases with little or no investment in new trailers—an efficiency that serves the entire logistics community.

Other, more visible technology innovations have helped shippers increase transportation efficiencies. FedEx Freight’s Advance Notice system, for example, alerts shippers by e-mail or fax when a shipment may be delayed. This enables shippers to make adjustments and minimize or perhaps avert problems a delay might cause.

Map to the Future

Werner Enterprises, an Omaha, Neb.-based transportation company that operates the fifth-largest truckload carrier in the United States, has rolled out Werner iView, a new web-based tool that extends digital reporting and mapping capabilities to shippers,” says Anthony DeCanti, Werner’s vice president of analysis and information systems.

Werner customers can now access the same kind of mapping technology previously available only to Werner employees.

Using Werner iView, shippers enter their locations—such as manufacturing, distribution, or retail centers—on a digital map, and can scroll through the map, zoom in and out, and search and analyze data in a variety of ways.

“Users can set the system to generate automatic reports,” DeCanti says. “They can, for instance, have Werner iView create a report each Monday morning with the previous week’s data.”

Werner iView automatically e-mails the report to addresses the customer specifies. The system can also create and e-mail reports in Adobe PDF format, which can render images—maps in this case—as well as text. Reports and visual images offer data from the truckload level down to SKU level.

Shippers can also use Werner’s information technology as their own transportation management system, says DeCanti.

Such customer-friendly technology is not restricted to large carriers. Small truckers are also implementing innovative technologies to help shippers improve their supply chains.

One example is Monroe Transportation Services Inc., Addison, Ill., which provides LTL, distribution, and consolidation services in a U-shaped territory around Lake Michigan from Green Bay, Wisc., to Holland, Mich.

Monroe and a large shipper launched an innovative system using new technology to streamline inbound shipment consolidation from suppliers in the Chicago area. They worked with Enterprise Information Solutions (EIS), a wireless trucking technology provider based in Downers Grove, Ill.

“Monroe’s customer has more than 200 suppliers shipping product to more than 35 different facilities in the United States,” explains Marc Mitchell, EIS transportation practice director.

Monroe provides one single phone number for its customer’s Chicago-area suppliers to call for pickup. The carrier consolidates inbound shipments and ships them, often at truckload rates, to various facilities, says Mitchell.

The consolidation setup itself is nothing new, but EIS technology provides Monroe’s manufacturing customer an innovative tool—a constantly updating window into its freight as it moves through Monroe’s network. This enables the manufacturer to manage inbound freight in real time.

If the manufacturer needs a certain product in a particular place, for example, it can instruct Monroe to send a consolidated shipment to its destination—as a truckload, stop-off, or LTL shipment. Or, it can have the carrier send an individual shipment via expedited service.

Because Monroe uses wireless communications with handheld driver devices, the customer can view its freight in Monroe’s system from the actual time of pickup, before it even reaches the Monroe terminal.

The program went live Nov. 1, 2005, and is expected to shave 35 percent off the manufacturer’s regional transportation costs, while also providing an extra measure of control, according to Mitchell. This solution can also be applied to similar operations where the consolidating carrier uses wireless communications.

There is hardly space here to note all of the evolutionary steps trucking technology providers and users have taken over the last few years. But pieced together, they present a picture of ongoing change, innovation, and improvement that will continue in 2006 and the years beyond.

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