Companies with large, mobile workforces—typically found in the transportation, telecom, construction, and services industries—are reaping the benefits of a combination of two technologies that provide a unique and potent method of keeping track of workers, improving efficiency, and even protecting entities from dishonest outsiders.

Take the case of Republic Services, a Houston waste-disposal company with 12,700 employees in 80 markets spread across 22 states. It has been using the Internet and Global Positioning System (GPS) for the past two years to optimize mapped delivery routes and provide drivers with as much data as possible. This data prevents trash services from being derailed or detained by traffic accidents or weather-related issues.

The first step, according to CIO Lee Twyford, was to geocode every customer address via the GPS, using latitude and longitude. Geocoding is key to route optimization, which results in driver instructions to take a particular route between points. Route optimization is a good initiative, but as anyone who uses MapQuest can attest, the shortest route in miles is by no means always the best. With the intelligence of the Web and the base optimization abilities via geocoding, Republic’s dispatchers are now effectively routing drivers around traffic jams and other obstacles.

How the technology works
The combination of GPS and the Web works fairly simply. A GPS unit from @Road is hardwired into a vehicle. It has input/output ports for a PDA or laptop device. The GPS unit collects information that is manually input by truck personnel (such as signature capture for customer proof of delivery, inventory used at a job, and time spent at a site).

Firmware on the device then automatically logs in information such as the location, date, time, and speed at which the vehicle is traveling. Both pools of information are available to company personnel over a Web interface.

Republic has @Road’s product working in 61 trucks. Forty vehicles are in the “roll-off” group, which are units that pick up large debris from construction sites and haul it to landfills.

Republic pays $48 monthly per vehicle for the service, and hardware costs about $360 per unit. Wireless airtime runs about $10 per unit per month. (The company has deals with AT&T Wireless, Verizon, Nextel, Cingular, Canadian carrier Telus Mobility, and some smaller carriers.) The $20 activation fee can be waived for large purchases, according to J.D. Fay, @Road’s vice president of corporate affairs and corporate council.

ROI hits several business goals
The technology impact was immediate, according to Republic area president Bill Linthicum. “The initial benefit was increased productivity of between 5 to 10 percent,” he said. “We found immediate results in being able to locate vehicles when we had containers that needed immediate service. We also benefited by the drivers’ knowing we were tracking their movement and excessive idle times.”

The technology also provided the company with a sales tool—it can now offer base pricing on service times if a customer’s site takes an excessive amount of time to service due to security reasons or equipment location.

There are many advantages to the technologies beyond making better time in traffic. Keeping tabs on road crews is vital, according to the company. “It’s a validator; it’s an enforcer that the drivers are actually doing what they were told to do,” said Twyford, Republic’s CIO.

With staff working more efficiently, the company has fewer overtime costs, and if an emergency occurs, the closest available workers with the correct skill sets and physical tools can be dispatched.

The system also helps dispatchers efficiently plan the mobile force’s day: Many companies arrange to do scheduled tasks in the mornings and keep the afternoons free for jobs that pop up, which can constitute 20 to 25 percent of the work the hauler does. Using @Road’s product enables workers to finish the scheduled work faster and get to the afternoon work, which reduces the chances that this later work will stretch past quitting time and result in overtime.

There are several more subtle benefits, as well:

  • Fay said that one client reported significant savings in back-office labor because manual input of data logs and related documentation was no longer necessary. Inputting errors also are eliminated, he said.
  • Linthicum said having an indisputable record of where trucks are at a certain point enables the company to fight false accident reports. “Many times, we have been able to dispute claims based on the GPS information by showing the vehicle the claim referenced was not in that area at the time the claim occurred,” he explained.
  • Since truck information and location can be accessed in real time, maintenance trucks can bring the correct tools and parts to intercept GPS-enable vehicles and perform minor repairs that in the past would have resulted in the truck returning to the garage, Linthicum said.
  • Automatic and real-time entry of information into the billing engine results in faster billing and, consequently, faster payment.

A future iteration of the system will enable loads to be weighed, which will translate into another company cost benefit: The total trash weight may mean using one landfill over another—potentially lowering costs and streamlining dispatch procedures. Linthicum added that the company is considering other ways to use the hybrid Web/GPS technology.

“The system paid for itself within a few months,” he said.