Gary McCollum of ServiceOne used his company's system to recover a stolen van in less than 25 minutes.

Gary McCollum of ServiceOne used his company's system to recover a stolen van in less than 25 minutes.

Some 20% of North American fleets currently employ a telematics system, according to ABI Research. As telematics systems become more robust, fleets large and small are installing them in greater numbers and using them for more fleet management tasks.

From managing route changes on the fly to automating time-consuming tasks to diminishing unscheduled downtime and communicating with drivers more efficiently, five fleets share how they take advantage of their systems to achieve a key benefit of telematics — increasing worker and vehicle productivity.

Easing the Communication Logjam

For Brandy Waugh, office manager of Mr. Rooter of Amarillo (Texas), a plumbing and drain cleaning company, the increasing amount of phone communication between customers, dispatchers and technicians all at once had gotten to be too much.

“It seemed like every technician would call at the same time and be waiting for us to get them the information,” Waugh says. “We would be trying to call the customer at the same time we were trying to get information back to the technician.”

Further, when technicians called in with their locations, dispatchers needed to manually plot them on the map, another time-eating task.

Dispatchers for Mr. Rooter of Amarillo use a telematics system to update job changes with a few mouse clicks and send the new routes to technicans' in-cab navigation devices.

Dispatchers for Mr. Rooter of Amarillo use a telematics system to update job changes with a few mouse clicks and send the new routes to technicans' in-cab navigation devices.

The company installed NexTraq GPS Fleet Tracking System with Fleet Dispatch, which includes a two-way communication program that interfaces with the technicians’ in-cab Garmin navigation units. Now, the great majority of the process is automated.

Dispatchers create and assign jobs using the system’s Job Schedule Board. As changes arise, they can drag and drop assignments within the program and then click “send” to deliver the job itinerary directly to the technicians’ Garmin units. The technician can then use the Garmin to respond “yes” or “no” or text a longer response.

“Using a telematics system has cut our phone calling in half,” Waugh says. “I can do things in one phone call versus three to four calls in the past. It’s great for multitasking.” She adds that this increased efficiency has allowed technicians to take an extra two to three jobs per week.

And simply having technicians’ vehicles visible on a computerized map is invaluable, especially to reroute the nearest one to handle an emergency. “Customers are amazed by our quick response,” she says.

Waugh says the telematics system has benefited the work environment in general. “The whole atmosphere is different when phones are ringing like crazy,” Waugh says. “It takes a lot of stress from the office having to make fewer phone calls.”

Reports Tell the Story

A key function of a telematics system is the ability to see vehicle locations at a given moment and act dynamically. Another is to collect that information after the fact and use it to make smart business decisions.

“When we looked at the reports, a lot of things were brought to life that we didn’t even think about, like idle time,” says Gary McCollum, operations/IT manager for ServiceOne, an HVAC and plumbing repair business with offices in Dubuque, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. “We actually had vehicles that idled longer than they were driven.”

Soon after ServiceOne installed a telematics system from Verizon Networkfleet (about eight months ago as a test in five vehicles), the reports showed that the vehicles weren’t idling to use the heat or air conditioning. “They got used to running the engines even when the weather wasn’t really cold or hot,” says McCollum, who now has the system installed in 42 vans.

McCollum also uses the reports for vehicle diagnostics. Based on the engine diagnostic trouble code (DTC), he can understand the severity of the potential repair, which decreases van downtime and facilitates a more cost-effective repair — such as at a cheaper local mechanic instead of a dealership.

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In addition to reporting and diagnostics, ServiceOne uses the system for efficiency in routing, both in the planning stages and on the fly.

Before installing the telematics system, dispatchers were routing by zip code. “Our dispatchers can’t know every street even if they know the zip code well,” McCollum says. “It was a 50/50 shot if they were giving the fastest route.”

When a customer calls in and a new job is generated, the system reveals the closest technician and a new route is sent directly to the driver’s laptop. This not only gets technicians to a job faster, but it also gives customers an estimated time of arrival, McCollum says.

In many ways, the telematics system increases peace of mind, McCollum says. McCollum brings up two instances: One technician was caught using a company vehicle to pick up parts during the workday for a side job, while in another instance a van was stolen and recovered in less than 25 minutes.

McCollum admits he’s only scratching the surface of the system’s functionality and has just begun to analyze the reports and mine the data.

He says he plans to use the system to make decisions based on maintenance trends and vehicle age, as well as reward employees on performance improvements such as decreasing idle time and time spent at stops. Additionally, the company plans to integrate its customer database with the telematics system.

“The systems are so robust that it takes time to figure it out,” McCollum says. “We’re learning the basics at first.”

Metrics Measure Performance

Ideal Plumbing has a small fleet that covers all of San Diego County, an area larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Don Teemsma, president of Ideal Plumbing, uses his telematics system to measure drivers' speed, rate of acceleration, idle time and harsh braking and cornering. Drivers get hard copies of their scores to encourage them to imporve performance and efficiency.

Don Teemsma, president of Ideal Plumbing, uses his telematics system to measure drivers' speed, rate of acceleration, idle time and harsh braking and cornering. Drivers get hard copies of their scores to encourage them to imporve performance and efficiency.

Because technicians have round-the-clock control of their vehicles, monitoring vehicle usage is essential, says Don Teemsma, president. The company uses the GPS fleet management system from Geotab.

In addition to real-time tracking and routing of the company’s 30 trucks, Teemsma uses the system’s “dashboard” on his computer to view vehicle and driving performance such as speed, rate of acceleration, idle time and harsh braking and cornering.

“The driving habits of the technicians are displayed very easily,” he says. “You can see who your biggest offenders and best drivers are.”

Not only is the company’s home base alerted to dangerous driving, but technicians also experience an in-cab audible warning if they drive more than 73 miles per hour. This has resulted in a noticeable reduction in speeding, Teemsma says.

While management can see the scores of all drivers and track their overall improvement, drivers get a hard copy of their report with only their individual performance.

“We don’t call out the worst drivers in front of their peers,” Teemsma says. “We counsel them into better driving habits and give them measurements in order to work toward improvement.”

And the result has been improvements in each of these metrics. “All of these things translate into better gas mileage and less wear and tear on the vehicles,” he says, adding that the next step is to implement a system to reward drivers for their better performance.

The system also measures miles driven, which turns up trip irregularities, but in general pushes the technicians to be more efficient. “We don’t see the inappropriate use of company vehicles like we used to,” Teemsma says, such as after-hours driving and extra-long lunch breaks.

“From an owner’s perspective, I’m really driven to improve their efficiency and safety in the vehicles,” Teemsma says. “The fact that we can see their driving habits puts a sharper focus on being safe, efficient and courteous drivers. We can see a trend of improvement. It is fairly remarkable.”

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ALC Transportation uses its telematics system to lessen "deadhead" runs, or non-revenue generating trips in fuel-hungry trucks.

ALC Transportation uses its telematics system to lessen "deadhead" runs, or non-revenue generating trips in fuel-hungry trucks.

Keeping Deliveries Productive

When you’re hauling expensive loads of lumber, it pays to make sure every trip is as efficient as possible. Such is the case for ALC Transportation, which hauls for Alliance Lumber in Arizona. ALC uses a system from GPS Insight in its 33 tractors with flatbeds.

ALC coordinates loads from several yards around Phoenix and transports them to customers throughout the state and to and from reload centers — or warehouse units where inventory is temporarily stored.

One main function of the telematics system, says Fred Carr, president, is to alleviate non-revenue generating trips in fuel-hungry trucks.

The operations department constantly monitors the trucks on a computerized map in the office. “If something comes up, we can easily tell if a truck is free and route it to a pickup at a midpoint before coming back to base,” Carr says. “It saves a tremendous amount of time on backhauls. We try not to deadhead anywhere.”

Carr says another eye opener was the measurement of idle time. “When the trucks were running, they were idling 27% of the time,” Carr says. After installing a telematics system, “We’ve got that down to 4% now.”

The GPS Insight system ties into a specific sales, inventory and accounting program used by dealers and distributors of lumber. The work flow is seamless, Carr says, from the sales team generating the order to the yard packaging the lumber to the dispatchers routing and tracking the trucks.

Every truck does at least three to four deliveries per day, though some could do as many as nine, according to Carr. “With the system, we probably picked up four to five extra deliveries per day for the fleet.”

Immediacy of location has other benefits, including making breakdowns more efficient. The company’s third-party mechanics can tie into the system to see where the stuck truck is, alleviating back-and-forth phone calls.
Pinpointing immediate location also aids customer service by allowing dispatchers to tell customers when their load is due to arrive. “Our customers appreciate the GPS systems,” Carr says.

Accountability has also been heightened.

“The first time that we put GPS in the trucks, we didn’t tell drivers for a few days,” Carr says. “Once we told them, they started taking shorter, more direct routes. One guy was putting an extra hour and a half on his trip coming back empty because it was a more scenic route.”

Similar to Ideal Plumbing’s policy, ALC prints out each driver’s reports and puts them on their desks to coach them to better driving.

Similar to other companies’ experiences, Carr admits the company is only using a fraction of the analytics the system offers, though he’s still realizing a return on investment.

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Automating the Inspection Process

Telematics systems aren’t only used to monitor on-road assets — some are used for heavy equipment fleets, such as the one run by Goodfellow Bros., a construction company that handles large infrastructure projects through a home office in Wenatchee, Wash., and regional offices in Hawaii and Oregon.

While Goodfellow Bros. has a portion of its on-road fleet connected via telematics, its entire fleet of heavy civil construction equipment — scrapers, bulldozers, excavators, Bobcats, rock trucks and rock-crushing equipment — is connected to Zonar’s electronic fleet management system.

A primary duty of the Zonar system is to facilitate the walk-around inspection of Goodfellow’s machinery, an essential function of heavy equipment operation and safety, says Richard Kornmann, visual inspector for Goodfellow Bros.

With a telematics system, Goodfellow Bros. has replaced the paper-based, labor intensive equipment inspection process with an electronic pre- and post-trip inspection system.

With a telematics system, Goodfellow Bros. has replaced the paper-based, labor intensive equipment inspection process with an electronic pre- and post-trip inspection system. 

Zonar’s electronic pre- and post-trip inspection system, called EVIR, replaced the paper-based, labor intensive inspection process. Operators use a scanning tool that reads RFID tags on different parts of the machinery, which prompts operators to answer inspection questions.

The data is recorded automatically and transmitted instantly back to the home office. “The telematics system gives the operator a voice again,” Kornmann says.

The company’s maintenance manager analyzes the data reports. Any action that needs to be taken can be assigned an order of importance. “Now mechanics don’t have to put out fires; we can schedule maintenance ahead of time,” Kornmann says.

Due to the Zonar system, 75% of equipment repairs are now scheduled, while the industry standard of scheduled to unscheduled repairs is less than 50%, according to Kornmann.

Another Zonar system duty is to record equipment run-time hours, essential to billing clients for jobs. Instead of manual site visits, extra labor and a paper trail, the task is now done remotely and accurately.

Goodfellow Bros. does use the Zonar system to diagnose equipment engine health — for equipment makers that allow it. Unlike auto and truck manufacturers, many equipment manufacturers will disregard the warranty if they find out a telematics system has been plugged into their equipment’s OBD-II port, Kornmann says.

For the OEMs that allow full connectivity, measuring engine diagnostics is a plus, especially for units in remote areas. In one instance, the Zonar system signaled that a boom arm pin on an excavator was coming loose. “They were able to cancel that operation in time when they realized the machine wasn’t working,” Kornmann says. “It was a huge savings.”

While not all OEMs allow diagnostics connectivity, they all do allow telematics systems to be hooked up to the machine’s power meter, which provides locations and allows for EVIR inspections and hour meter readings.

With high-priced, heavy equipment scattered across many jobsites in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, the Zonar system in general provides greater peace of mind. “I can see that workers are taking care of their machines,” Kornmann says.

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