But the slick image and real-time savvy of Fed Ex and UPS now is bleeding into the more traditional world of trucking. As a result, wireless, GPS and real-time updates now are being adopted by some companies as a means of competitive advantage.
''We needed a faster, more reliable way to gather data on our pickups and deliveries, and to improve our route optimization processes,'' says Gregory Confer, director of Process Analysis and Improvement at Ward Trucking. ''By implementing wireless technology, we have reduced clerical data entry by several hours a day at each of our facilities and increased overall efficiency.''
The company adopted route optimization and dispatch technology by Cheetah Software Systems Inc. of Westlake Village, Calif., as well as Nextel cellular voice and text messaging. As a result, the company now can track the movement of its fleet, and offer accurate ETA's to customers, as well as updates on the progress of shipments.
Ward Trucking is headquartered in Altoona, Penn. and serves the mid-Atlantic market. Formed in 1931, Ward's fleet services a client list that spans Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. The company serves a specific niche in the trucking world, known as Less than Truckload (LTL). An LTL carrier does pickup and delivery (P&D) business for loads smaller than one truckload. Customers place an order and share the trailer with materials from other customers.
Similar to airport shuttles, you share the ride with several other passengers rather than having your own dedicated taxi service. And the similarities continue. Anyone who has ever ordered a shuttle knows that the time of arrival can vary widely, and that occasionally you may even miss your flight. Your trip from the airport might take one hour or several, depending on how many other passengers are aboard and where they have to be dropped off.
The average LTL carrier operates in a similar fashion. You call in an order, clerks manually type these orders into the back-end system, and at the end of the day, they type in the deliveries made by returning drivers. Dispatchers take all this data and schedule the order of drop offs for the coming day, then contact drivers by phone or two-way radio to verify deliveries.
''Our old manual dispatching system required clerical data entry and voice instructions for drivers over two-way radio,'' says Confer. ''Radio transmissions and phone calls were heavily utilized by managers, dispatchers and drivers to cope with day-to-day traffic and delivery emergencies.''
He explains that manual tracking techniques rely heavily on dispatcher experience. The dispatcher had to understand the pickup area and know which driver to assign to which deliveries. Planning was only as good as the know-how of the dispatchers, he says. Not surprisingly, dispatchers struggled to provide customers with accurate ETAs.
''We had to call the drivers and ask them if they made a delivery or when it would arrive,'' says Confer. ''Otherwise, we had no visibility into our fleet.''
Ward realized that automation was the key to greater profitability. IT investigated the various products on the market but balked at the high cost. Confer says the prices were typically in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars when you added up the bill for hardware and software.
On top of that, the company lacked the IT resources required to deploy and run many of these systems. The IT shop consists of less than 20 people for a company of more than 1,000 employees. The workload generated by its AS/400 and Windows XP/2000 environment left little time for additional traffic.
At that point, Ward changed tactics and sought out the most cost-effective and easy-to-implement ASP approach to automate P&D and other workflow logistics.
''We researched about 20 vendors and Cheetah came out on top,'' says Confer. ''It provided us with the same basic functionality as other systems that would have cost us 10 times as much.''
Cheetah hosts Ward's P&D software, which is accessible over the Web. It works in conjunction with Motorola mobile phones, using the Nextel wireless network, which was just acquired by Sprint. These Java-enabled GPS phones offer digital cellular voice, along with walkie-talkie and text messaging. Drivers use them to view their itinerary for the day, receive schedule changes, enter updates and confirm deliveries.
''Drivers' deliveries for the day are downloaded to their telephones,'' says Confer. ''With a couple of key strokes, they make updates as they go about their business and within a minute, we have delivery confirmation available to customers.''
After each delivery, the driver enters the data, which is immediately available to the dispatcher. The system adjusts ETAs continually and customers are automatically informed of any shifts in the delivery time. Further, dispatchers can accurately track the location of every truck in the Ward Trucking fleet.
''We have eliminated an hour or two in data entry at the end of each day, and up to an hour in drivers waiting for pickup assignments,'' says Confer. ''We also have virtually eliminated phone and radio traffic between the dispatcher and drivers.''
Implementation wasn't without its problems, however.
Memory issues with the phone delayed progress for about a month. The original phone -- Motorola I58 SR -- didn't have enough RAM to fully support the Cheetah application. This caused memory errors and phone lockups. But Motorola came out with its I325 model in September, which has more than enough memory.
Despite that delay, the complete roll out for 18 trucking terminals and 425 trucks took less than six months. Confer reports that drivers, dispatchers and customers are happy with the system so far.
''We have lowered the number of miles driven per stop and are on target to achieve ROI within six months,'' Confer says.
He also notes that Ward has not yet begun to use the full functionality of the system. While immediate P&D efficiencies have been realized, Ward has yet to completely utilize features, such as reporting, customer service and, in particular, automated route optimization. According to Confer, these will gradually be added once drivers and dispatchers become fully familiar with the basic elements.