“We got a Smokey on rubber ahead.” “10-4, good buddy.”
Okay, everyone knows that the CB radio craze fell out of fashion at roughly the same time as bellbottoms, disco balls and streaking. Transportation industry technology has come a long way since then, and it is a lot easier to master than CB radio speak.
That said, it doesn’t hurt to take the time to learn a few basics about the trucking industry. The terms “truckload” (TL) and “less than truckload” (LTL) are probably the most important terms to know. As the name implies, TL refers to trailers with a quantity of freight that fills the trailer; TL carriers dedicate trailers to a single shipper’s cargo. Conversely, LTL carriers transport the cargo of multiple shippers and thus make multiple deliveries. Often, but not always, LTL are smaller, regional operations.
As we shall see, the difference between TL and LTL carriers can make a big difference in the size and scope of their mobile technology deployments. But first things first—let’s take a look at how North America’s largest TL carrier keeps track of its tractors and trailers.
Green Bay Carriers, Not Green Bay Packers
Schneider Limited, based in Green Bay, Wisc., is a giant. It has 20,000 employees, including 15,000 drivers and independent contractors, and maintains a fleet of more than 45,000 trailers. Keeping up with all those trailers is no easy task. Fortunately, Schneider was an early adopter of mobile technology and continues to use a modified version of Qualcomm’s two-way satellite communications technology that it deployed back in 1988. In fact, says Paul Mueller, Schneider’s VP of technology services, Schneider was Qualcomm’s first commercial customer.
With Qualcomm’s OmniTRACS, Schneider’s drivers can send and receive alphanumeric text messages using a combination keyboard/display unit that is tethered in the tractor’s cab. Everything from dispatching, load instructions, fueling instructions and shipping information can be sent to the driver (more often than not, such messages are automated), and the driver can report an estimated time of arrival, confirm a delivery and transmit a host of other data.
In addition, the system lets the drivers’ tractors speak for themselves, so to speak. OmniTRACS integrates with the tractor’s electrical system, so it automatically transmits reports on idling time, RPMs, braking situations and other information, without any driver intervention. Schneider also uses proprietary satellite triangulation technology (another Qualcomm offering) that is as accurate as any GPS system available today, Mueller says.
Yet Schneider is not content with technology that is just in the tractor cabs. It is currently implementing “untethered trailer tracking.” Each trailer is tagged with a number of sensors that, using a variety of cellular technologies, tells headquarters where it is located, what it is doing and what is inside. Essentially, Schneider is building a talking trailer.
A cargo status monitor, which operates much like sonar, can sense if a trailer is empty, partially full or full. A hitch monitor can report whether the trailer is hitched to a tractor or not. If a trailer is on a flatbed truck for shipment, the trailer can report that as well. Mueller says untethered trailer tracking provides Schneider
visibility into its tractors even when a driver is not present. It also comes in handy when Schneider uses drivers from a third-party carrier to pull its trailers, because those drivers may not be equipped with OmniTRACS.
Untethered tracking is yet another Qualcomm offering, and Schneider has installed the system on 27,000 of its trailers and is working to outfit much of its fleet with the technology.
Let’s Play Tag (RFID Tag, That Is)
According to Noha Tohamy, principal analyst for Forrester Research, large TL carriers such as Schneider and J.B. Hunt are beginning to use route optimization to take driver’s preferences into account. For instance, a carrier can schedule a route for a driver who wants to go home for his daughter’s birthday. These types of driver-friendly initiatives are crucial for TL carriers, because many drivers are migrating to the regional LTL market, which offers a huge incentive: Drivers can sleep in their own beds every night.
Not every enterprise that owns a fleet of vehicles is, by definition, a carrier, though. Global shippers such as FedEx, UPS and DHL maintain gigantic fleets of trucks and trailers. In FedEx Ground’s case, it contracts with drivers who own their own tractors. For that very reason, it does not have mandatory technology inside the tractors, says Ron Joseph, VP of transportation safety and maintenance for FedEx Ground.
How then does FedEx Ground keep track of its 18,000 trailers? About three years ago, the company began installing radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on tractors, trailers and dolleys. FedEx Ground has 75 distribution centers equipped with tag readers so the arrivals, departures and yard movements of vehicles are automatically registered.
RFID is generating quite a buzz these days, but what exactly is it? Its essential components are a microchip and an antenna attached to an asset such as a trailer, and a receiver that can read the information broadcast by the chip. RFID tags used by FedEx Ground and its like can transmit data up to 300 feet away.
FedEx Ground uses the RFID inventory data to monitor dispatch patterns and reduce inefficiencies. “We can look at inefficiencies in our dispatch process and look for opportunities to move schedules up and improve our dispatch process,” Joseph says. He admits that implementing the RFID tags was an expensive venture but well worth it for a company where on-time delivery is goal number one.
Shippers and Carriers,
All Together Now
RedPrairie, a Waukesha, Wisc.–based provider of transportation, warehouse, labor and RFID solutions wants both transportation carriers and shippers to do away with manual data entry and do exactly what FedEx Ground is doing—analyzing the data.
RedPrairie offers In-Transit Control, which offers great visibility into assets and inventory, yard management, dock door scheduling and RFID technology for tracking trailers. RedPrairie works with both TL and LTL carriers, and works to
provide carriers and shippers with visibility into inventory, delivery and scheduling via Web-based applications.
Erv Bluemner, VP of product development/business strategy for Red Prairie, says RFID tags can identify a trailer’s arrival, movements through the yard, arrival to the correct cargo door and unloading of its cargo and departure—all automatically. RFID capability offers not only visibility into assets but also shipments, so both carriers and shippers can use the information to schedule smarter and make their drivers and deliveries more efficient.
“If you can maximize usage of your assets intelligently,” says Bluemner, you can reduce the number of assets you really require.”
Bluemner explains that most shippers do not contract with just one carrier, which presents a challenge: How do you keep shippers up to date on their cargo when their carriers lack common technology? It is a dilemma that has yet to be solved, but companies such as RedPrairie are working to keep carriers and shippers on the same page.
The Final Analysis
Forrester’s Tohamy says the trucking industry is notorious for not knowing where its trailers are. Of course, that’s something everyone wants to change, but how? Is RFID the answer?
Tohamy says that RFID will be more common in two or three years, though it’s not realistic to expect to see RFID at every point in the supply chain. “RFID is a great area, but it’s not an immediate investment,” she says. RFID market penetration will be very selective, for very select product categories as well as customers. “If and when trucking companies adopt RFID, it will have to be a hybrid approach,” she says. Companies will continue to rely on cellular technologies such as Verizon, in addition to RFID.
For many smaller LTL carriers, cellular technology suits them just fine at the moment. Their drivers rarely stray far from headquarters, rarely leave a cellular network and usually return to headquarters at the end of the day. Smaller, regional LTL carriers differentiate themselves from the big boys by providing outstanding service, offering expedited delivery and knowing their region like the back of their hand. And of course, few LTL carriers have the deep pockets that a national TL leader like Schneider has. For LTLs, RFID just may not be a requirement.
In the competitive transportation industry, even the smallest competitive advantage and cost savings can be crucial. Increased visibility into a transportation company’s assets can help that company get the most out of its fleet. And while RFID technology can offer that visibility, the reality is that most carriers just don’t have the cash or need for it. Instead, they are making the most of route optimization to save pennies and increase driver productivity.
Tohamy explains that route optimization allows carriers to identify which routes are most profitable, in order to drop a customer if its route isn’t efficient.
“The understanding is,” says Tohamy, “[the carriers] can get the business, but they want to pick and choose what business makes the most sense for them.”