Eight years ago, Old Dominion Freight Line attempted to deploy handheld computer technology to its truck drivers. Due to logistical issues, the rollout quickly ground to a halt.

“The technology just wasn’t quite there. The communications, the batteries, and things like that just weren’t ready to roll out on a big scale like we were trying to do,” explained Ken Erdner, VP of information systems and technology for Old Dominion, a less-than-truckload, multiregional motor carrier providing one- to four-day service among five regions in the United States.

Despite that disappointing first attempt, the Thomasville, NC, company decided to try again in August 2001. “We have leadership that’s very technology savvy and always open to IT solutions that can improve productivity and the bottom line,” explained Erdner.

Erdner’s department had been keeping tabs on handheld technology, and in the years since the initial pilot attempt, the products had improved dramatically. Today’s models are not only more rugged than their predecessors, but they house longer-lasting batteries and integrated communications seamlessly—solving the issues that thwarted the initial attempt.

Going with known products
Determined to avoid mistakes of the past, Old Dominion insisted on only evaluating proven technology. “We looked for a product that had been tested in a production environment,” said Barry Craver, senior application development manager for the 69-year-old enterprise. Other criteria included the ability to do barcode scanning, support multiple communications hardware seamlessly, run in the Windows CE environment, and house a battery that would hold its charge for an entire day’s shift.

The product evaluation was narrowed to three vendors, Symbol Technologies, Intermec, and Handheld Products. Symbol’s PDP 7530 was declared the undisputed winner.

“The Symbol handheld was much more robust,” said Craver. “It could last up to nine hours doing about 1000 scans per hour. We liked the fact that it could withstand multiple drops onto concrete and had a battery life that lasts more than a full day’s shift.” To ensure compatibility, Symbol Technologies ported Windows CE onto the devices to enable Old Dominion’s logistics applications at the depots and service centers to synchronize data with the mobile units.

High tech meets no tech
Once it chose the product, the company initiated a 20-unit pilot program, and after eight months, decided to deploy a full-fledged rollout. By May of 2002, the company began a methodical introduction of the handhelds to service centers across its 38-state network. Both the company and the vendor declined to provide specific details on product or implementation costs.

There were a few bumps along the way. “When you’re dealing with drivers,” explained Craver, “this might be the first exposure they’ve had to any kind of computer, much less a handheld computer.”

“To a driver, it’s not the most intuitive thing,” added Erdner. “So we have to go out there and show them how to use it. We have to physically visit every service center, and work with the drivers and get them rolling. Some of the drivers caught on really quickly. Some of them were a little scared of the device.”

Typically, trainers would spend a week at a service center teaching an average of 20 drivers. After the group training session, instructors might ride for a day with a driver who was struggling with the process.

“Having that one-on-one with them, letting them ask questions throughout the day as they were using the devices on actual deliveries,” said Craver, “got them feeling comfortable with the device by the end of the shift.”

The rollout has continued without a serious hitch. Erdner said that the company has been training drivers in as many as four or five terminals or service centers a week. By the end of January 2003, Old Dominion had placed over 1000 handhelds in the field. Erdner expects that within a few more months, all 1700 of the company’s drivers will have become computer savvy.

Embedded technology helps
Because the handheld devices communicate over a network similar to the way cell phones do, there isn’t always 100 percent coverage along some of the more remote parts of drivers’ routes. When drivers are outside the range of a tower, they have to manually key the pick-up information into their handhelds.

“Having to type any information on a handheld can be a challenge, even more so for someone who’s never worked with a computer at all,” said Erdner.

That’s where the 2D barcode technology imbedded in the PDP 7530 proves invaluable. The 2D barcode contains a lot of information: shipper names, addresses, and the details of the shipment. Old Dominion staff produces a list of shippers with corresponding 2D barcodes for each driver’s route. The list is based on the driver’s pick-up and delivery history for the last 90 days and is only updated as needed.

“Basically, we’re providing a paper backup in case the driver goes out of range,” explained Craver. If the driver can’t communicate with the home system, and needs to input information about a pick-up from a particular shipper, they scan the 2D barcode, adding information to the handheld electronically instead of having to manually key it in.

The PDP 7530 runs on a pure packet data network using a built-in motion network card. The device’s store-and-forward capability holds information in the unit until the driver is within range to transmit it to the network operations center run by Aether Systems, a wireless and mobile data solutions provider. Aether Systems then forwards the data via frame relay to the logistics application system at the appropriate Old Dominion service depot.

Picking up a surprising ROI
Initially, Old Dominion had explored handheld technology in the hopes of speeding up the check-in and check-out processes at the freight terminals.

“We wanted to reduce the amount of time drivers were having to wait to do the check-in process at the terminal. We wanted to get them out doing deliveries and making pick-ups, which is ultimately what drives our business,” explained Craver.

Using the Symbol PDP 7530, service center staff can download driver route assignments into the handhelds at the start of each shift. Drivers can call up all the pertinent pick-up and delivery information, contact names, phone numbers, addresses, and special instructions as they progress from point to point throughout their shift.

Communication between the drivers and the dispatcher was another area that the company hoped would be enhanced by the technology.

“One of the things we had trouble with was drivers who would call and couldn’t get hold of the dispatchers,” recalled Erdner. “If they couldn’t get through, they’d just show up at the dock with 10,000 pounds of stuff we hadn’t necessarily planned on receiving. So we had to figure out on the fly what we were going to do with it.”

With the PDP 7530, drivers can key in the completed pick-up and delivery assignments in real time and communicate via a wireless network to the home depot system. This enables the logistics managers to revise any planning in real time before the drivers get back to the service center with any freight. This capability, according to Craver, has enabled Old Dominion to trace shipments and route freight more precisely.

The goal of improving logistics management—trying to set up schedules in a rational and predictable way—was not only reached, it brought unexpected additional benefits. Drivers are now able to fit in an extra stop per day, on average, due to the time savings. Erdner attributes this greater efficiency to the elimination of time-wasting phone calls between drivers and dispatchers about which pick-ups need to be made.

Because route planning is now more precise—and easily amended in real time through wireless communication when necessary—Old Dominion has also minimized how often drivers have to backtrack. That happened a lot in the past when dispatchers didn’t know where drivers were at any given point in time. “So we’ve not only seen an increase in stops per day per driver,” said Craver, “we’ve seen a decrease in miles per day per driver, which means we’re saving fuel costs, too.”

Better customer service
Since the drivers beam their pick-up and delivery progress throughout the day, Old Dominion customers can now trace their shipments in real time via the carrier’s secure customer Web site (ODLF4me.com)—enhancing customer service abilities as well.

“Before,” explained Erdner, “customers would have to wait until the end of the day—when the drivers reported back to the terminal—to see if a shipment was delivered.”

While Old Dominion hasn’t specifically measured the impact of this more timely service on customer satisfaction, it does believe this added capability provides the carrier an advantage over its competition. Craver feels this will inevitably sway other companies to become Old Dominion customers.