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Follow the Money

In the past two years, there has been a noticeable shift in mobile tracking applications away from tractors and driver to trailers and cargo. That new approach can be summed up as "follow the money" a...

In the past two years, there has been a noticeable shift in mobile tracking applications away from tractors and driver to trailers and cargo. That new approach can be summed up as “follow the money” and “where’s my data” rather than the earlier concern of “where’s my truck”.

That shift may turn into a surge since the cost of the tracking technology and the necessary satellite links has plummeted while the functionality of the devices and the battery life needed to power untethered trailers has increased. Now, it’s not just major players who can afford these solutions but also the small- and medium-sized fleets as well. And the emergence of hosted service suppliers lowers the cost threshold even further since carriers of any size can enjoy the benefits of the latest tracking technology without the financial and other burdens of owning and maintaining the equipment with a monthly fee to a supplier who has one-call responsibility for ensuring the network is always up and working.

Not that long ago, satellite tracking was a top-drawer technology that only very large carriers could afford. Today, the costs have dropped significantly to the point where it is available from $8 to $25 per trailer per month depending on the software requirements.

More important, in the past, satellite-powered GPS (global position systems) have developed well beyond their original “one-trick pony” benefit of instantaneously providing the location of all the trucks in the fleet. That capability is now simply “table stakes” in the increasingly high-ante trucking world. That wireless link to mobile assets and the payloads they carry now becomes a gateway for delivering an ever-expanding array of value-added services to carriers, shippers, consignees, Customs and other government departments and agencies as well as other supply chain service partners.

And the common thread that binds all those disparate groups together is data. They all want it to stream constantly so they can access accurate reliable and timely information whenever they want, wherever they are, securely. To make that happen, tracking technology must be able to collect and transmit data related not just to the time and location of the trailer but also the latest equipment and cargo status and performance reports from the on-board sensors and other detectors.

By leveraging such timely data carriers can boost productivity and profitability. That occurs through improving asset utilization, customer service, response time to emergencies and unexpected cargo opportunities thanks to timely alerts and notices to drivers, consignees, shippers, Customs officials and others. Such technologically-enhanced visibility empowers carriers and their supply chain partners to make better business decisions. The improved flow of timely accurate data related to enroute shipments will go a long way to making guesswork and time lags disappear.

Modern, independent power sources such as longer life batteries have made untethered trailer tracking devices possible. As a result, collecting and transmitting this treasure trove of business data goes on with almost no direct involvement from drivers. They can focus more of their attention on driving since they only have to deal with exceptions-when they receive alerts that something is wrong back there. Some vendors such as Cancom Tracking consider such systems a driver retention tool, since they help them avoid the drudgery of documentation and other housekeeping duties they dislike.

Breakthroughs in lithium and other technologies as well as solar panels can keep the tracking unit functioning for weeks if not months.(If carriers have untended trailers sitting unused in unknown locations longer than that, additional battery life will not solve the larger business issues lurking below the surface.) In addition, vendors are making the actual units smaller, more rugged and durable while using more stealth to hide them on the trailer.

“Recently, there was a hijacking of one of our client’s trailers near Atlanta,” says TransCore Link Logistics’ Brad Aitken, director, North American Transportation. “Our Global Wave MT 3300 device remained undetected and provided a constant, live data feed which we passed onto police. Within 24 hours, they arrested the hijackers as they were unloading the cargo.

“The device provided peace of mind to the shipper, carrier, consignee and insurance company. It can also serve as a deterrent to future hijackers who will not bother carriers they suspect have installed such tracking devices.”

Although many carriers often first cite security and theft prevention as the prime motivation for buying tracking devices, after installation they soon realize that improved asset utilization offers faster and better payback.

In this way, carriers are beginning to adopt the real estate agent’s mantra of “location, location, location”, especially when it is related to their valuable, mobile assets. Even though keeping track of trailers is not an easy task, many carriers continue to underestimate its importance. “When US-based carrier, Schneider National introduced Qualcomm units to keep tabs on the location and use of its 45,000 trailer fleet,” says Mike Ham, Mississauga-based vice-president Cancom Tracking “after one year, it gained a clearer picture of the problem and conceded that the problem was much bigger than originally thought.

“Such information is crucial for controlling the costs of replacing equipment or renting trailers during peak periods etc. Knowing exactly what equipment you have, its location, condition, and attributes and then scheduling it properly can reap enormous savings.”

For example, Cancom Tracking’s OmniTRACS system makes that easy by enabling customers a remote, self-service track and trace portal where they can access constant, real time visibility of their mobile assets and through various sensors the performance of those assets and their critical parts.

Although location was the original function of tracking systems, carriers today continue to develop innovative and value-added uses.

“Increasingly, many are learning that Rogers has been enabling companies to cost-effectively track their trailers and valuable cargo using the Rogers Wireless data network,” says Mansell Nelson, vice president, Rogers Business Solutions. “Today, hundreds of tethered and untethered trailers are being mapped across Canada by attaching a small battery charged box that sends location (GPS) and usage reports in real-time via the Rogers GSM/GPRS wireless data network. In fact, one of our strategic partners, Burnaby British Columbia-based WebTech Wireless, is one of the leading organizations in North America for trailer tracking systems. They know how often to connect to trailers, how much information to transmit so that it is meaningful to the end user, and how to hide a unit on an asset so that it is discreet and safe for the operators.”

Norman Eldridge, Burnaby BC-based product manager, Webtech Wireless cites the example of a Brampton, Ont.-based user that takes data generated from its GPS-based Quadrant Fleet Management Services to map out its freight yard. “In the past when trailers got moved around,” he says, “drivers did not always update the database with the new location. And when others could not find it, the usual response was, ‘it’s out there somewhere.'”

“Always knowing the current location of every piece of equipment enables carriers to align those valuable assets more closely with customer needs. Sending out a trailer that is either too large – or even worse too small – increases costs and reduces revenues while hurting customer service.”

To drive that message home, Eldridge cites a rule of thumb that GPS tracking devices can typically boost a carrier’s asset utilization rate by at least 10% to 15%. “It’s easy for companies to bump up the number of loads per truck for local P & D from 8 to 10 per day,” he says. Often this results from “flooding the zone” when carriers schedule and route an appropriately sized truck t
o pick up the optimal number of loads from shippers located in a tightly packed area.

Beyond mere location, the next level of value-added services from tracking systems is improved sensor and detection capabilities. Refrigerated equipment or “reefers” are one area where such equipment can make a huge difference monitoring expensive and complicated equipment and their valuable and perishable payloads.

The advantage that untethered trailer tracking brings to the table here has been labeled “event tracking”. “Our Quadrant system has sensors that indicate whether or not the reefer doors are open or closed,” says Eldridge. “In addition, inside the reefer there are ultrasound sensors capable of detecting motion.”

Most important, the system will indicate the location of the incident, how long the doors were open and whether or not it was an unscheduled stop. So if it is an unscheduled stop and the doors are open for a long time, the system will send an immediate alert.”

The system also keeps tabs on everyday housekeeping concerns such as the reefer units’ fuel supply that ensure that the trailer and its contents stay at the proper temperature and humidity levels. Such real-time tracking enables carriers to anticipate problems by providing basic diagnostics to help mechanics focus on and cope quickly with immediate problems. At the same time, such electronic record keeping ensures that trailers, which are not always fitted with odometers, adhere to a regular maintenance and repair schedule.

However, such electronic records become crucial when proving to shippers, consignees, regulators and others that the carrier’s performance conformed to the service level agreement as well as government rules and regulations. For example, for a shipment of beef from Alberta, the cargo has to be kept at a specific temperature range throughout the trip. However, if the consignee complains that it received a spoiled shipment because of alleged temperature variations on the truck, the carrier can produce logs indicating that the temperature in the reefer was indeed within the required range during the ride.

Similarly, regulators such as the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) could also receive a similar complaint for a spoiled shipment. With such proper tracking systems in place, carriers have electronic records indicating job performance and timing acceptable for third-party audit standards.

Another variation on the location theme is called geo-fencing – alerting dispatchers when the trailer unit has strayed from its pre-determined route, which could indicate danger. At the same time, according to Aitken of TransCore Link Logistics it can also confirm that trailer is in fact where it is supposed to be, for example at the shipper’s dock on schedule ready to be loaded.

And the constant calculation of time and location makes it easier to identify and prove accessorial charges such as detention. When shippers or receivers make an issue of such charges, shippers can simply pull out the electronic time sheet to indicate when and where it occurred. In the same way, by keeping track of their trailers carriers can also eliminate or charge for unauthorized use of their equipment for storage.

Further bolstering the attractiveness of untethered trailer tracking services is the entry of non-traditional service suppliers such as Bell Mobility. However, in the untethered tracking market, it has partnered with a wide range of specialized software developers that can leverage the Bell’s comprehensive land- and satellite-based telecommunications networks to link all the devices, partners and players together. Some of the Bell partners include Applications Systems Inc. and its Java-based PathFinder Platform and other services, the BlueTree Wireless Data, the Sendum VT100 Tracker as well as Baka Trakit wireless fleet tracking, communications and management tool.

Although it serves the needs of customers of any size, Bell Mobility is targeting small-and medium-sized enterprises with one-stop, comprehensive tracking solutions. These include GoTrax, a Web-based application that enables carriers to locate their mobile resources using a combination of GPS location technology and cellular tower triangulation to find their assets and view on an interactive map. Such maps can be customized with an unlimited number of landmarks and fencing parameters that issue alerts as assets and employees move in and out of a pre-designated areas.

With affordable monthly payments and enhanced applications, carriers have few excuses for not introducing untethered trailer tracking to their fleets.

Veteran technology expert Ken Mark has covered supply chain management and related technology issues for the last 20 years. He holds an MBA from York U.

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