Bringing Your World a Little Closer Together

by Libs mulling over latest loss in 407 dispute

Frame relay. ISDN. GPS. Satellite.

Companies that need to connect offices and terminals across a province or across the country come up against these terms all the time. To the uninitiated, they’re confusing at the very least, and probably suggest black magic rather than high technology.

The good news is that understanding the whys and wherefores of networking far-flung locations is really as much a matter of following sound business principles as it is being up on the latest geek-speak.

Consider the situation at SLH Transport, the Kingston, Ont.-based less-than-truckload carrier. With 400 power units, 1900 trailers, 1350 employees, and terminals across the country, connectivity and communication are critical.

SLH’s connectivity solution has been in use since 1991. It’s a network based on frame-relay technology, linked to IBM AS/400 minicomputers.

“On the system, we run accounts receivable, accounts payable, all our dispatch functions, order analysis and history-we use it for pretty much everything,” says Clint Warren, SLH’s manager of information systems.

Frame relay, a common technology used to transport data from location to location, is often the choice for those who want to combine speed and versatility. It allows high-speed connectivity with few transmission errors, and it links with a variety of user devices (such as PCs, terminals, and servers).

“We use this setup because we haven’t seen anything better,” says Warren. “It runs clean, and our data entry people are happy with working on terminals-they see no need to have PCs on their desks.”

SLH is large enough that it has an in-house programming department to provide customized reports for larger customers, an option which isn’t always available to smaller operators.

For some of those companies, the combination of frame relay and the AS/400 does the job-but they’re also looking down the road to new technologies to boost productivity.

Mississauga, Ont.-based less-than-truckload carrier Daily Motor Freight moved to a frame relay setup six months ago, after years of using dedicated data lines to connect its locations along the Quebec-Windsor corridor.

“Using dedicated lines with the required multiplexers was very expensive and limited us to a speed of 9600 baud,” says Duane Hoffe, information systems manager for Daily Motor Freight. “With frame relay, we pay for one ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line, with each terminal connected via ISDN to a hub in the same area. It eliminates point-to-point connections, so that, if one link in the system goes down, the data flow is rerouted automatically.”

The company has 56k connections at each of its seven locations across Quebec and Ontario, running 24 hours a day. Hoffe says he would like to see the system expand to take advantage of the possibilities offered by Internet connectivity, and is pushing the present system to handle imaging. “I’d like to see more speed, but bandwidth cost is always an issue,” he says. “Being able to use voice over frame would be nice, so that we could fax over the network using local lines.”

Another company coming in on the side of the frame relay and AS/400 combination is Quik-X Transportation of Mississauga, Ont. Quik-X has been using this system to link its 13 locations across Canada and the U.S. for over four years, according to Jeff King, the company’s vice president of finance.

Moving beyond frame relay interests King. “Of course, we’ve looked at Internet access, e-mail, and some PC applications,” he says. “In the future, we’ll likely look at expanding our use of Web-based and satellite technologies. It would certainly be a value-added benefit to our customers, but we’d want to be sure there was a direct payback for us by going in that direction.”

Frame relay doesn’t suit everyone, of course. When you’re linking mobile units, other solutions need to come into play. Scarborough, Ont.-based Muir’s Cartage, for example, covering Ontario and Quebec out of one location, uses GPS (Global Positioning System) technology and a wireless network to keep things moving.

The company used to link drivers and their dispatchers via two-way radio. That proved to be clumsy and inefficient for both, however, so new technology is moving in.

The new system uses the FreightQuest management system from Cummins Engine Co., which combines GPS satellite navigation, maps, and task lists with vehicle availability screens to provide vehicle status and activity instantaneously. Dispatchers and drivers link via the Mobitex wireless network, while the network’s base station uses a Windows NT infrastructure and an Oracle-based database. The system’s server “feeds” ordinary PC computers on dispatchers’ desks and the portable units drivers carry with them.

Drivers plug their own hand-held terminals into a home-base cradle to download pickup, delivery, and customer information at the start of a shift or linehaul run. There’s another, similar cradle in the truck so the unit can process and display key operational data for the driver, including customer signature, exception reports, number of pallets delivered and/or received, load weight, load composition, and available trailer space. A voice synthesizer notifies the driver of new information while he’s rolling. The system is set up so that, in effect, drivers are part of a network.

Dispatchers can split their computer screen into several windows, one of which can hold available driver information, while another lists available equipment, yet another shows scheduled pickups and/or drops, and the bottom half might show a detailed map that locates the truck to within 30 feet anywhere in North America.

So at any given moment, dispatchers have real-time access to freight, equipment, and driver status, and they can input vehicle assignments with the system’s drag-and-drop functions, eliminating the need to key data by hand.

Muir’s is testing the system on a portion of its fleet. “We’ve done six months of data accumulation, and are now running the numbers to see if the new system has increased productivity enough to pay for itself,” says Mark Alden, president of Muir’s Cartage. The system is expensive, says Alden, coming in at $10,000 per truck for hardware, and at about $30 per truck per month for access fees.

“One thing’s for sure,” says Alden with a laugh, “the dispatchers love it, and the drivers who have the new system love it even more. But we need to see if this new technology means we can pick up more packages per hour before we decide if we’re going to go for it.”

High technology meets the bottom line. The result, when things go well, is connectivity that meets everyone’s needs.

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