The black hole into which goods, vehicles and drivers used to sink after leaving the loading dock is starting to shrink. Many believe location intelligence tools will soon make it disappear completely.
Old-fashioned GPS (global positioning systems) are quickly morphing into telemetry that combines telecommunications and metrics to deliver cloud-based data storage and management. Besides simply locating vehicles, telemetry also adds the capability to collect data about engine, tire, brake wear and tear, fuel consumption, driver behaviour as well as status monitoring of doors, seals and freezers on trucks etc.
It is a direct link into the “Internet of things” or machine-to-machine computing that thanks to the 50 billion or so sensors out there gathers and then transmits real-time information to monitors and screens everywhere. Ultimately, speedier, real-time analysis of reliable in-transit data will enable managers to make better business decisions.
Says Tony Lourakis, the Markham ON-based CEO of Fleet Complete Inc., “GPS has been around for 20 years. But users have mainly been large long-haul truckers. Even now about seven out of ten commercial vehicles in North America and Canada still do not have it installed. Within four years, the numbers will be reversed.”
Lower costs are driving up adoption rates. According to Lourakis, five years ago, installing an individual GPS system could cost carriers $700 to $1500 to buy the unit plus $50 to $60 per month in service fees. Now carriers are paying $20 to $40 all-in, monthly subscription fees, which include the hardware and eliminate upfront capital costs. As a result, players of all sizes can now install systems that only major carriers could afford before.
More important, such installations enjoy high and fast ROI (return on investment) rates. The three-figure installation cost per vehicle pays for itself within 18 months, said Fleet Complete tool user Brian Tremblay, the Surrey, B.C.-based vice-president of TMG Logistics Inc., a mid-sized carrier of fresh produce, fish and meat.
“In fact, winning a single, bogus insurance claim for a spoiled shipment pays for the technology right away. The ‘breadcrumb’ trail of stored data helps us prove that the temperature in our reefer unit was within the proper range throughout the trip,” says Tremblay.
Mark Gillingham, St. John’s, NL-based executive vice-president, Blue Oceans Satellite Systems Inc., creators of the SkyHawk Mobile Monitoring System (MMS) suggests two other adoption drivers. “One is the move toward mandatory electronic driver logs to replace paper-based solutions. Another is the need to provide an automated electronic cab presence that alerts drivers that they are coming close to their daily hours-of-service limits.
“Also, the system can boost in-cab performance by delivering the latest weather and traffic reports as well as offering drivers re-routing options,” he says.
The new systems go far beyond simply providing the vehicle’s location. In the last five years, evolving technology links tie location to other data collected from sensors monitoring rpm and engine performance, tire wear, braking systems and driver performance including seat belt usage. As well, they can match vehicle and component performance against driver behavior to compare vehicle speed against speed limits on the relevant stretch of highway not to mention braking and gear-shifting responses against actual road conditions.
In addition, they also boost security through geo-fencing - setting up “no-go” zones and sending alerts, if necessary, to operators who have entered them. In addition, GPS can also monitor how long doors are open and match that against the time of day and location. As well, when coupled with updated RFID (radio frequency identification) tags they can also detect if seals have been compromised.
The new systems are simple to use, requiring little if any specialized training. Equally important, they are accessible on almost all mobile screens such as smart phones, tablet and laptop computers.
Truck drivers are typically independent-minded people who resist close supervision. When the new systems are installed, do they complain about “Big Brother” looking over their shoulder while they are they are on the open road?
“They may at first. But after the first incident when the system saves their butt, they get onside,” says Bruce Tremblay.
Although driver safety is a top priority for all carriers, Blue Ocean’s Gillingham points out that the impact of road accidents can ripple through the entire operation resulting in late deliveries, damaged vehicles and goods, repair costs, higher insurance premiums, potential lawsuits and loss of reputation etc.
Since telemetry is in continuous contact with drivers, they now enjoy the same level of comfort as airline pilots who have air traffic control constantly watching over them. Before, in order to get help, drivers had to be physically able to call dispatch on a cell phone to tell them their personal status and offer a vague idea of their location. Now, dispatch is aware of the problem as it is happening and can pinpoint the truck’s exact location right away.
Tony Lourakis refers to this new driver safety blanket as “Big Angel, not Big Brother”.
The key piece of hardware is the transceiver or modem attached to the asset such as a trailer or tractor that connects it through a cellular or satellite link to the cloud – a central server that stores the data and the software. Most transceivers are just very sophisticated antennae. However, some such as NightHawk that are linked to cellular towers have limited data storage capacity that kicks in when the vehicle passes through a cellular dead zone. Once the link is restored, the data is uploaded into the cloud.
Another player in this market space is JouBeh Technologies Inc., a Value-Added Reseller (VAR) for the Iridium system of 66 operational orbiting satellites – (and 10 spares). JouBeh delivers global data modem technology solutions and telematic data services to users. Says Nasser Sayah, JouBeh’s Dartmouth NS-based, Director of Sales and Marketing, “Our transceivers enable users to track assets wherever they are. We also build back-office solutions to collect and analyze data as well as to program devices to send commands to the assets and operators.”
Depending on their complexity, the transceivers can range in size from the SkyHawk MMS - deck of cards- to the JouBeh Technologies 9603 SBD Iridium Transceiver, the world’s smallest commercially available two-way satellite data modem, that is only slightly larger than a Scrabble piece.
On the metrics side, telemetry introduces informatics - systems and tools that use mathematical algorithms and other statistical tools - to transform incoming data into business intelligence. That enables corporate decision makers and planners to examine performance of individual drivers, divisions and regions against the whole firm, not to mention benchmarking the company against its competitors.
Thanks to falling chip costs and a change in business strategy, RFID technology is rebounding to play a major role in the widening world of telemetry. Tom O’Boyle, Addison IL-based director of RFID, Barcoding Inc., notes that the cost of individual passive tags has now dropped below 10 cents.
In addition, RFID chip suppliers are riding a 2% to 5% boost in annual sales because retailers now insist that product suppliers attach tags to products – cookware, jeans etc. -during production, not afterwards. As a result, retailers can now track inventory levels of items in real time. Knowing the quantity and location of items enables them to prevent stock outs and to keep customers happy.
Individual items are boxed, placed in containers and loaded onto trucks, rail cars and ships. While on the move, RFID does not track the items directly but by association. In other words, vehicles etc. have their own GPS and security tracking system. So as long as the containers’ seals, which RFID can monitor, have not been broken, the goods are considered secure and the quantities accurate.
In the emerging omnichannel retail universe, such real-time inventory accuracy will help large, bricks-and-mortar merchants keep pace with online competitors on price, service and convenience. Consumers now have various choices as to where and how they buy goods as well as more options of when and where to get their purchases. To fulfill online sales more effectively, traditional chains are increasingly using their existing stores as distribution centres. That includes shipping out items or having them available for on-site customer pick up.
Before, unreliable inventory was the major barrier to making this strategy viable since conventional systems could not provide timely or accurate counts. Since today’s RFID chips now have 99.9% successful read rates vs. those in the low 80s 10 years ago, conventional retailers are now better positioned to leverage their extensive real estate assets to satisfy online buyers.
As LTL carriers build their consolidated loads, enhanced RFID chips enable them to use tags to identify and sort each shipper’s pallets and boxes more quickly and accurately. They also streamline and automate cross docking.
The cost of RFID readers is also dropping at least 10% in the last 10 months based on O’Boyle’s figures. As well, such equipment is also becoming simpler and cheaper. “You still need separate appliances to conduct a full-scale inventory count. At a US Navy facility two people each with a hand-held device inventoried 8,000 cartons in three hours,” he says.
“For smaller jobs, mobile phones or tablet computers with suitable apps can do simpler jobs.”
In today’s world of telemetry, to borrow a phrase from boxing, trucks and other cargo carriers can run, but they can’t hide.