Driving ahead

Fleet owners relying on first-generation green screen computerized dispatching systems let alone those still using white boards will be wowed by what the latest-generation dispatching software can do. To be sure, a lot has changed since enterprise-level, fleet-management programs began appearing on the trucking scene in the 1980s. While dispatching is typically a key function of all so-called software

Fleet owners relying on first-generation “green screen” computerized dispatching systems — let alone those still using white boards — will be wowed by what the latest-generation dispatching software can do.

To be sure, a lot has changed since enterprise-level, fleet-management programs began appearing on the trucking scene in the 1980s. While dispatching is typically a key function of all so-called “software suites,” today it is often the driver of the information flow that is a hallmark of an integrated solution and that ultimately benefits the entire trucking operation.

“Enterprise” or “enterprise-level” remains the best description for these do-it-all, business-management solutions. The software driving these solutions is developed in-house by the vendor to be comprehensive for a wide range of applications and generally allows interfacing with select “partner” software so that no stone is left unturned to make the trucking operation efficient.

GETTING IT

Bear in mind how the enterprise software product is actually delivered to the customer — and updated and serviced — can vary by vendor. While the traditional approach is for the independent software developer to install and maintain their software for a customer, some providers deliver their product via the web-enabled “software as a service” method. This on-demand delivery requires the software vendor to maintain enterprise software on its own computer servers and provides customer access to the software over the Internet.

The software vendor executives speaking to Fleet Owner here are among the leaders in their field, and they generally concur it is remarkable so many fleets that could benefit from the enterprise-level dispatching solutions now on the market continue to operate with, at best, software that was rolled out back in the 1980s, or at worst, with nothing more than Excel spreadsheets or even just a board hanging on the wall.

“We do find most fleets of, say, 40 to 50 and up trucks have some kind of dispatching system in place, but they may be on a ‘first-generation’ system that provides only limited visibility [of their activities] and serves them mainly as an order-entry platform for accounting,” points out Tom McLeod, CEO & president of McLeod Software.

GENERATION GAP

McLeod says what distinguishes what he terms today's current “second- or third-generation” systems from their circa 1980s precursors can be boiled down to three key features: visibility, flexibility (including “alert” capabilities) and integration with mobile communications.

David Mook, COO & CTO of TMW Systems Inc., relates that the firm's founder, Tom Weisz, “often observed that first-generation dispatching solutions were essentially accounting systems. Keep in mind, 20 years ago, the computer dispatch ‘solution’ was to print an invoice. But Tom recognized that the dispatcher was charged with making decisions constantly, minute after minute, and really needed better management tools to work with before even accepting a load. From there, it's been a continual improvement process [for software] that has moved the front line of data capture right to the truck and onto the shipper as well.”

According to Gary Dennis, vp of solutions development for Trimble Mobile Resource Management (formerly @Road), first-generation “green-screen” dispatching solutions were all about lists — “lists of workers and their skills and of the jobs that needed doing” in terms of dispatching mobile-service personnel. “Service technicians were dispatched manually based on the transaction driving each job [task],” he explains. “Today, the latest-generation systems are browser-based, whether running over a private intranet or using the Internet.”

Marla Grant, director of sales for Innovative Computing Corp., says the biggest benefit of enterprise solutions remains efficiency. “An enterprise-wide system will address operations, accounting, maintenance and safety functions through one-time key entry of the data,” she points out.

“The information that surrounds a dispatch — including the order itself, the customer's requirements for it and your truck, trailer and driver to move the order — starts the flow of information that drives the entire integrated system and its dispatch planning tools,” she continues. “Once the truck is dispatched, the related data drives the finance and regulatory functions and informs the customer service” component of the enterprise system.

In terms of computerized dispatching, visibility refers to a number of key attributes. “Think of visibility as what you can actually see when using the system — and for your operation and customers,” says McLeod. “Having greater visibility into what is happening with loads allows for much better planning. And that leads to better decision-making on which loads to accept and on such factors as getting more miles for drivers. These benefits are what drive the ROI.”

BETTER VIEWS

McLeod says the customer considering a new dispatch system has to ask vendors, “Will it really help frontline personnel serve [shipper] customers and drivers? Flexibility is what you should be after — including meeting commitments made to drivers. First-generation systems do not show much of this; they were truly ‘order-entry oriented,’ while key attributes of today's systems are visibility and flexibility.”

TMW's Mook says the “greater visibility of loads, lanes, etc., afforded on screen by today's dispatching software enables dispatchers to better manage their trucks and to manage more of them.

“The front line has moved; right now we are doing a billion characters a month of EDI [shipments],” he continues.

FRONTIER

Mook says that the frontier is still being pushed out for dispatching software, pointing out for one that “the use of business intelligence analytics is growing. This enables a carrier to know its costs on a network basis, market by market, to achieve yield optimization. This has been available to the largest carriers for 25 years and now we are pushing it ‘down market’ to smaller carriers.”

Trimble's Dennis contends that the latest dispatching systems can “balance a company's operational requirements with its customers' requirements, such as time windows.” He says “dynamic” is truly a watchword with these systems.

“You should be able to optimize the techs or trucks going out,” he remarks. “Scheduling can be done on the basis of which jobs can be done now vs. which can be done later. Dispatching can be done in real time — and this matters. Stuff happens to any dispatch operation, but customers expect everything right away and want to know when everything will happen.”

Dennis says setting appointment windows is a key feature of the most advanced systems, and he also cautions buyers to pay attention to graphics — the visual “look” of the system. “For starters, if the dispatch system does not have a map, you are far behind,” he wryly observes. Graphical elements should be a hallmark of the system — “bar charts, color-coding, etc., should be used to present the information as graphically as possible to the dispatcher” so he can act on it more readily.

Innovative's Grant says the latest-generation software enables “more informed decision-making and planning by providing detailed information, especially about drivers,” including home-time requirements, HOS status and load or route preferences.

There are also “alerts” that can be set to automatically advise dispatchers when a driver is out of route or will miss their ETA. “These systems do not automate dispatching,” Grant points out, “rather they automate the information dispatchers need to make decisions.”

Despite all the wizardry afforded by proprietary software, to hear the vendors, web connectivity and integration with mobile communications are the most exciting aspects of their latest-generation solutions.

WEB'S ROLE

“Driving the future,” asserts TMW's Mook, “is web-enabled supply chain integration, which helps fleets make better decisions around dispatching and also enhance their customer service.”

He relays this example of how all this might play out: “We have nine of the top ten bulk carriers using our system. Any one of them could be offered a load of hydrochloric acid, but each bulk fleet only has a few of the highly specialized tankers needed to haul it. Wouldn't it be great if these carriers could send these shippers their current availability and capacity? That would be supply chain integration at work and conceivably it could drive the cost of finding a load down from $20 to two cents.

“Already,” Mook continues, “we have built up our entire web framework to allow a whole set of web-based services that shippers and 3PLs can plug into.”

According to Trimble's Dennis, the beauty of a web-based solution is very little software must reside on the customer's computer. “We call this a ‘thin client’ approach and it cuts costs, including for maintenance in the field and by streamlining installation.”

Dennis says the ability to interface with mobile communications and real-time GPS is another key attribute of the latest systems. “These interfaces enable tracking and locating trucks in real time, keeping the dispatcher current on where trucks and/or service techs actually are, rather than relying on ‘assumed locations.’”

For Innovative, according to Grant, web connectivity extends to how it delivers its software to clients. “We use the ‘software as a service’ approach, which benefits small- to midsized carriers that can access the internet to use our software on their hardware. They avoid the upfront capital cost of having their own servers and the ongoing cost of IT personnel on staff to maintain everything. And customers get the benefit of our redundant server, which is even located in a different city, providing a backup. That's something not even a midsized carrier could afford on their own.”

“I would say that the current-generation system boast much more detailed, almost 3D-like, integration with mobile-communication systems,” points out McLeod. “The result is there may be no need for manual input from the dispatcher or driver once the load assignment has been made. And when driver input is required, we are automating that with prefilled forms. In addition, EDI data required by shippers is automated” by today's systems.

“So, the latest-generation software is taking away many of the manual steps required of driver and dispatcher,” McLeod continues. “The result is drivers can focus on driving and dispatchers on alerts and exceptions.”

Just in case anyone thinks enterprise software is already the industry's de facto solution, TMW's Mook notes it is astonishing that “even among large carriers, those with 1,000-plus trucks, a good percentage are still running 30- to 40-year-old technology.

“Many are still on ‘green screens,” he continues, “and those setups take three months to learn. Having them won't attract people to work as dispatchers or planners nor will these fleets find programmers to maintain them [much longer]. At some point,” Mook adds, “what was an advantage 30 years ago [is now a liability that] won't let you ride the new wave.”

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