Trailer Tracking: Ready at last

The basic technology for untethered trailer tracking has been around for at least five years, but transforming the concept from vaporware to practical commercial product has been a series of frustrating stops and starts. Many fleets quickly understood the advantages of locating trailers anywhere and anytime, and they've been waiting with some impatience to adopt a workable system. Developers, too,

The basic technology for untethered trailer tracking has been around for at least five years, but transforming the concept from vaporware to practical commercial product has been a series of frustrating stops and starts. Many fleets quickly understood the advantages of locating trailers anywhere and anytime, and they've been waiting with some impatience to adopt a workable system. Developers, too, felt great frustration as they struggled with coverage, reliable power supplies, and above all else, cost.

The wait is finally over. A number of fully functional, cost-effective trailer tracking systems have entered the market in the last year. A few fleets at the leading edge have already moved their entire trailer inventory to the untethered systems, and there is at last some real-world fleet experience to report.

In general, the news is good. No matter which system was deployed, the fleets have encountered few problems and are finding that both performance and benefits are living up to expectations. More importantly, everyone contacted says they wouldn't go back to running a fleet without it.

“It would be like going back from an automated software dispatch system to a manual card dispatch,” says Debra Martin, director of operations for Menasha Transport, the private fleet operation for Menasha Corp. “We could do it, but it would seem very cumbersome, and we'd be handicapped because our customers have come to rely on that (trailer tracking) information.”

With 26 tractors, 50 drivers and a fluctuating trailer fleet, Menasha Transport provides a variety of services in the Midwest for it's paper manufacturing parent, hauling scrap paper to company mills, finished rolls of paper to customers and paper packaging between company facilities. In Oct. 2001, Menasha began using a third party to install Terion's FleetView system in its trailers and now has it's entire trailer fleet hooked into the system, including 60 new trailers that came from Great Dane with the tracking equipment already installed. “We also rent trailers sometimes for our internal customers, and we're now renting them only from Xtra Lease because they use the Terion system,” Martin says.

The goal for the project was to improve productivity, and the tracking system has delivered. “We've been able to eliminate 15% of our trailer fleet,” says Martin.

Additionally the system has helped improve customer service. “Better control of our assets has allowed us to help our customers better manage their operations,” says Martin.

For example, tracking data has allowed the paper mill to re-engineer its trailer lot. The system indicates where trailers should be dropped and which dropped trailers should be pulled for unloading. “We're now moving all trailers (out of the lot) in three to five days,” Martin says. In the past, trailers in the back of the lot tended to sit and if tire pressures dropped or a trailer was damaged, it might be there for up to six months.

“We no longer have to ask customers - internal or external - to do yard checks for us, or drivers either,” adds Martin. “That helps us eliminate waste and costs for customers and improve driver utilization and productivity.”

While “payback has been wonderful,” Martin cautions that “outfitting the entire fleet takes time and dedication. Just corralling the equipment to bring it to the installer took some fairly intense management.”

Teething pains also included some initial battery problems with the untethered tracking units. Part of the problem was due to installation, part to defective product and part to fleet management issues. “Terion stepped up to the plate with training, product enhancements and customer support,” says Martin. “Now the first thing we seen when we enter our account (on the web tracking site) are low battery warnings so we can tell our coordinator in that area to tether those trailers to tractors for recharging. Our low-power numbers have dropped to just a few a day.”

Currently Menasha polls the entire trailer fleet once a day before the start of business. The web site for managing the trailer tracking system “is easy to use, but at this point we don't go into it as often as we should because it's not integrated with our dispatch,” says Martin. Instead, the fleet prints out the location reports for dispatchers. Eventually, however, that data will be integrated and displayed on a single screen.

TWICE A DAY

Menasha is also weighing a second position poll at the end of the business day. “Since one trailer can haul up to three loads a day in our operation, sometimes it's tough to manually keep track of inbound trailers available for customers' next day expectations,” Martin explains. “Getting a second position at the end of the day would give us a better snapshot of that.”

Pacer Transport runs approximately 600 van trailers with owner/operators, mostly providing tightly scheduled parts deliveries to automotive manufacturing plants. As with many fleets that lease all or part of their power, untethered trailer tracking was particularly attractive as a way to get real-time wireless data for both customer service and optimization systems.

In March, the fleet began a three-month trial, installing 150 tracking units from SkyBitz, a provider that uses an alternative to GPS for calculating location. The main benefit of its technology, which it calls GLS for global locating system, is low power use which allows units to operate with non-rechargeable batteries that do not need to be periodically hooked up to tractor power.

The trial a success, Pacer expanded trailer tracking in June to the rest of its van fleet. Company owned trailers were equipped with SkyBitz units by the supplier, while others leased from Xtra came fitted with Terion systems.

A single daily location report allows Pacer to monitor trailer detention and to offer customers online tracking, reports Mark North, manager of fleet service. “If a delivery is running late or if a trailer is sitting, our agents can be proactive with customers,” he says. It can also help drivers find trailers for pickup anywhere in the country and gives Pacer a way to corroborate locations reported by drivers during twice-daily check calls.

All of Pacers agents are currently tied into both tracking systems, although neither system has been integrated directly with the fleet's dispatch maps. The two provide “fairly detailed maps” through their web-based management applications, North says. While both systems have proved to be “very accurate,” he is particularly impressed by SkyBitz' freedom from even periodic tractor-power hook ups.

Having followed the development of trailer tracking for some time, North says that based on his recent experiences, “the technology has come a long way. We aren't experiencing any errors or problems. In fact, I don't know how we could do without it now.”

UNEXPECTED ADVANTAGE

When truckload carrier RFK Transportation Inc. began seriously investigating trailer tracking three years ago, it settled on GlobalWave from Vistar because it combined the complete coverage of a satellite-based wireless system with the ability to poll untethered trailers for locations at any time. While most competing systems now offer similar polling ability, RFK has moved ahead over those three years to integrate the Vistar system quite deeply, even using it to find added effectiveness from an automated tire inflation system carried by all of its 300 trailers.

“We poll the entire fleet every morning and download the data to our tractor/trailer move record and our trailer pool record,” says Bob Kazimour, RFK founder and CEO. “Our software provider - Classic Software --- wrote the interfaces for that, as well as programs for eight or nine other reports using the trailer location information.”

One of those reports, for example, tracks how long a trailer has remained without moving at a customer location or pool. “We've been able to cut pool trailers by one to three units at a savings of about $300 per trailer per month,” says Kazimour. “We've also been able to identify trailers that were just sitting and to cut the number of trailers we're operating on the road.”

Integration of the trailer system also allows RFK's management system to automatically calculate actual arrival times and compare them to estimates, alerting dispatch and customer service if the comparison turns up a problem. While RFK's 150 tractors carry wireless messaging systems, the trailer system provides the basic location information at a lower cost, Kazimour points out, allowing dispatchers to contact drivers directly only when the system identifies a problem.

One unexpected benefit of the trailer tracking system came from pairing it with a Pressure Guard automatic tire monitoring and inflation system that the fleet was testing.

“If the system detects a serious air loss, a warning light mounted on the trailer is suppose to alert the driver, but often the driver won't notice the light,” says Kazimour. “Someone in our shop had the idea of hooking the warning light to the tracking system, and it turned out that Vistar was able to help us do just that. Now if we get a low-air alert for more than five minutes, the dispatcher contacts the driver and has them check out the tire. We're able to solve the problem on the road before we lose the casing.”

Kazimour estimates that the two systems combined are paying for themselves in less than 24 months, “and that doesn't count the problems we've ducked without even knowing it.” Operating separately, the return on investment for the tracking and inflation systems would have been much longer, he believes.

Now the fleet is working with its trailer-tracking provider to develop a load status sensor that will work with its drop-and-hook mode of operation. “We're actually playing with a digital camera that would give us a true picture of what's in the trailer,” says Kazimour.

While cameras can be had for as little as $20, bandwidth to send photos over the wireless network still presents a problem. “But I believe it will be the next step,” says Kazimour.

TRIPLE PLAY

Just over half of Eagle Global Logistics' 1,400 trailers are equipped with tracking systems from three different providers - Terion, SkyBitz, and one of the newest entries to the market, GE Tip's VeriWise.

“And we just signed new leases for 800 trailers — 400 from GE Tip and 400 from XTRA — where tracking was a major determining factor,” says Bill Bauldrige, director of vendor relations. “We expect to save over $5 million over five years with those leases.”

Actually, Eagle has been using trailer tracking for 2 1/2 years, originally deploying units as a Terion test fleet for XTRA. “As a non-asset based carrier, it's an important technology,” says Bauldrige. “We have 150 owner/ operators, and we also have inter-fleet hauling agreements with two major TL carriers. Trailer tracking has cut our costs tremendously because we've been able to increase utilization through daily verification of trailer inventories.”

The next step is switching to new fleet management software from TMW Systems, which will allow Eagle to integrate all three tracking systems with its dispatch and other management functions.

While Bauldrige says he would recommend all three tracking systems without reservations, he gives GE VeriWise a slight edge based on its ease of use. The web interface is particularly well designed and “you can get right to the information and trailer you want,” he says. “The others take a few more clicks to get the data. Also, I can't say enough about VeriWise's customer support.”

No matter which system is on his trailers, Bauldrige, like the other fleet executives, says: “Now that I have trailer tracking, I can't see operating without it.”

In this cost conscious industry, that's about as strong a recommendation as you can have. So while the wait for untethered trailer tracking has been long, the early reports from actual users indicate that it's been well worth it.

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