The integration of data, telematics, and other technology-driven processes is driving efficiency and improvement in many facets of trucking.  -  Source: Canva/HDT Illustration

The integration of data, telematics, and other technology-driven processes is driving efficiency and improvement in many facets of trucking.

Source: Canva/HDT Illustration

Data-wrangling is no longer just the province of the “IT” department. Data and telematics today are a vital part of running a successful trucking fleet, whether you’re heading up safety, maintenance, or the whole operation.

For instance, Michael Lasko, vice president of safety for Boyle Transportation and sister company Skelton, says the role of a safety director has changed to involve heavy involvement in the IT aspect of the job.

It’s even reflected in titles. Jim VonAchen used to be the director of transportation for McLane Co., a large private fleet serving retailers, grocery, and food service. His title now is director of transportation and tech.

“There’s been a lot more emphasis on the technology side,” VonAchen says. “Not just gathering data, but also what systems we're using for safety and for ELD and metrics.”

But getting the most out of all that data to improve your operations can be a real challenge.

“When we talk about data, with all the technologies that that are available now, whether it's ADAS or any of the telematics systems, there’s just an immense amount of data that can be tapped into,” Lasko says. “The challenge is, knowing what data is really reliable and actionable, as opposed to kind of the noise.”

Before its recent data initiative, Sun Logistics' processes and systems were taking significant amounts of paperwork, labor, and time, and a lot of gut decisions weren’t necessarily based on real data.  -  Photo: Sun Logistics

Before its recent data initiative, Sun Logistics' processes and systems were taking significant amounts of paperwork, labor, and time, and a lot of gut decisions weren’t necessarily based on real data.

Photo: Sun Logistics

Using Fleet Data to Reduce Returns

“Using data is how we change things,” says Nathaniel Klein, COO of Sun Logistics, which handles first- and last-mile freight for major less-than-truckload customers New York and Miami.

Klein spearheaded a project to rebuild its processes and tech platforms and started using Carrier Logistics Inc.’s FACTS transportation management system for LTL.

For instance, they were able to cut the number of returns using data such as driver schedules and sales rep info to identify the problem and the cause.

They discovered that after 2 p.m., returns started increasing, because docks stop taking freight. That meant they needed to get drivers started on their routes earlier, so they focused on the average time of the first stop of the day. They used data to figure out how to improve it.

“We used to be there at 10:30; now we’re there at 9:15 a.m.,” Klein says, and the number of returns has plummeted.

On-Time Service Improved Through Up-to-Date Data

Tips for Improving How You Deal with Data

  • Start with goals. What are your biggest needs? What do you want to accomplish?
  • Assess shortcomings of your current system.
  • Look for ways to streamline processes and workflows.
  • Determine what data is actionable and reliable.
  • Look for integrations.
  • Think about unusual or unique operations that need to be considered.
  • Get current vendors involved.
  • Get drivers or other employees involved that will be affected.
  • Prepare for the future. Will your system grow with your company and adapt to new technology such as electric vehicles?

At McLane, data has helped it make a huge improvement in its on-time service. In 2021, he says, the fleet was struggling with getting deliveries made on time.

When McLane started using Trimble’s TMW.Suite transportation management system, VonAchen says, “Instead of a conversation about what happened three weeks ago,” a dashboard provides up-to-date data about ontime performance.

McLane has been able to share this on-time data with its divisions “in almost a competitive way,” VonAchen says, inspiring them to work to improve their numbers. “And it's allowed us to work with the divisions that are struggling a little bit more and give them more focused attention.”

Another win for McLane was tractor utilization. Instead of just relying on how many tractors customers said they needed in a particular week, they were able to look at the data for the customers’ actual tractor usage for each hour of the day and compare it to data from the plan of what they had to deliver for the week. They found that often, what customers thought they needed was more than they were actually using.

That data “allows us to walk in the door and have real conversations about what to do next, rather than arguing about the actual count itself,” VonAchen says.

Those types of efforts, he says, would have taken weeks in the past, if they worked at all.

“Three or four years ago, we may have had to have one person spend four weeks trying to put that data together to give a presentation. By then [the data is] already old.” Today, that data is automatically gathered and disseminated to the people who need to use it to make decisions.

Data Helps Trucking Fleets Challenge Assumptions

Like McLane’s tractor utilization data, a common story you hear from fleets that start really using data to look at their operations is that it can show you that some of your long-held assumptions are wrong.

Omni Environmental Services provides diverse drilling, completion and production-related environmental solutions to oil and gas operators through seven subsidiaries. When they started digging into ERoad metrics such as speeding events, they found that in some cases, top drivers weren’t at the head of the pack.

“You might find that the guy that you thought was your best driver may, in fact, be a middle of the pack guy,” says Mathew Keith, HSE manager at Force Environmental Solutions, an Omni Environmental company. “Being able to use that data to connect with him and coach him up to make him a better driver is definitely a plus.”

Oklahoma-based A&A Tank Truck Co. is one of Omni Environmental's divisions providing wellsite services. Its operations had some specific challenges when choosing the best tech.  -  Photo: Omni Environmental Services

Oklahoma-based A&A Tank Truck Co. is one of Omni Environmental's divisions providing wellsite services. Its operations had some specific challenges when choosing the best tech.

Photo: Omni Environmental Services

After about six months of using the ERoad driver leaderboards, Omni went over the results for each business unit, for each location, to see if it has resulted in improvements. “It has helped us as a fleet to reduce our speeding events at every location,” explains Mary Dartez, senior DOT compliance manager for Omni Environmental Solutions.

Fuel usage data also has led to improvements, Dartez says, including idling hours.

“It has helped us reduce our fuel usage, and being able to provide that to the fleet supervisors, fleet managers … providing them a nice, clean report helps them manage their fuel consumption a little better.”

Data-Wrangling Help is Out There for Fleet Managers

“It’s kind of eye-opening how much stuff that used to be done internally in a company, within the safety department, [that] is now kind of outsourced to vendors,” says Boyle’s Lasko.

Instead of spreadsheets being created within the safety department, he says, “Now, I can name probably at least six different vendors that I rely on heavily to make sure I know what I need to do on a day-to-day basis.”

With all those vendors comes a wealth of data. The good news is, there’s an increasing number of companies that can help fleets house that data and interpret it.

For instance, Boyle uses Idelic, which brings a fleet’s driver data into a single view, including driver information, accidents, camera events, telematics, inspections and violations, etc. Its predictive analytics reveal patterns in driver behavior and prompt fleets to use its coaching tools to work to prevent accidents.

It's critical to make sure you're dealing with reliable, actionable data that is being interpreted correctly, says Boyle Transportation's Michael Lasko.  -  Photo: Boyle Transportation

It's critical to make sure you're dealing with reliable, actionable data that is being interpreted correctly, says Boyle Transportation's Michael Lasko.

Photo: Boyle Transportation

“They do an outstanding job of kind of capturing all the data from all these different sources and housing in a way that’s actionable,” Lasko says. “So you no longer are trying to try to make sense out of a collage of data; it’s presented to you in a very easy to understand and actionable way.”

At McLane, VonAchen says, they tried hiring people who not only knew the transportation job but also had a technology background so they could do things like write database queries. But it wasn’t enough.

“All these databases were all in different places, they had different references, and it made it really difficult to put that information together into something that was useful.”

Once McLane adopted the TMW TMS, he says, “that housed all that data into one location, so all the reference points work together.” Business intelligence tools have helped the company access that data more effectively and efficiently and help make decisions.

“Where that was really effective for us was in dashboarding,” VonAchen says, “pulling in not just what did we do last week, but what did we do 15 minutes ago.

"Today, we’re getting instant feedback on where the whole company is, in terms of deliveries, in terms of utilization, and putting that in a form — not just a spreadsheet, or a table — but a true dashboard, a graph, or a map, or percentage number out there that you can drill down into, so that individuals can consume that data quickly and find the exceptions that they need to fix.”

Vendor Integrations Vital to Managing Fleet Data

One of the biggest complaints from fleets about data is having to log into dozens of different portals to access the data they need.

“You can have great [data] products, but if they don’t speak to each other, it creates a mess,” says Klein. “The most important thing is all the systems speak the same language and there’s no clutter.”

The key to this is integrations between software and technology providers.

For instance, at Sun Logistics, all the data from its TMS, its accounting programs, payroll, dispatch system, even weather, go into the companies data warehouse in the cloud through Microsoft Azure. Then the data is pulled through Tableau business intelligence visualization, which allows company personnel to easily analyze information to make better decisions.

At Boyle, Lasko says, “I looked for a service that could integrate with all of the systems that I interact with, and present that data to me under one roof in a way that’s easy for me to interpret.”

Idelic, for instance, integrates with Boyles’ telematics, camera system, training system, electronic driver qualification system, and the driver DQ file system that integrates with the FMCSA portal.

As a result, Lasko says, he can log into his Idelic dashboard and at a quick glance see violations, clean inspections, camera events, and so on.

“Then you can dive into a driver individually. I can click a click a page, and it takes me right there. It gives me a list of what’s going on and it assigns a risk value to all these things.” Then he can prioritize which drivers truly need more coaching and which don’t.

Omni Environmental Services has been able to integrate ERoad with its payroll system, ADP, via APIs.

“We can now compare the time that the driver clocks in and clock out for payroll and compare it to the time they log in and log out of their ELD, because that has to match,” says Dartez.

ERoad build a Power BI report that pulls in that ADP data, resulting in a simple comparative report managers at a location level can review weekly.

“That helps us ensure we’re in compliance or talk to a driver who may have forgot to log in to one or the other.”

Integrations Allow More Accurate Data

Sun Logistics has a network of integrations with its FACTS TMS. For instance, it uses DDC Sync mobile data capture to enhance the visibility and accuracy of bill of lading information. Drivers use tablets to take a photo of the BOL and it’s automatically in the system.

“With instant access to high-quality BOL images, we can make informed decisions and initiate billing prior to our drivers returning to the terminal,” Klein says. And it allows Sun to cross-dock freight promptly and optimize outbound loads.

On the other end of the load, Sun worked with mobile dispatch provider Acordex, allowing all of its receipt/proof of delivery documents to be digitized. Drivers can access them on their tablets and management can access them through their TMS.

“Once it’s signed, you can pull it up and see the driver’s name, the date and time, number of pieces, and signature,” Klein says. “There also are photos attached. All of it can be sent to the customer, shipper, partners, in real time.”

Moving Fleet Data Management to the Cloud

At DHL Supply Chain and DHL Express in the U.S., it was able to improve safety, streamline workflows, and unlock new insights with the Samsara Connected Operations Cloud. It was able to consolidate seven separate solutions — for dash cams, telematics, compliance, trip management, DVIRs, trailer tracking, and speed monitoring — into one platform, and integrated Samsara with its critical business systems.

“Instead of juggling dozens of different vendors, we now have an integrated, easy-to-use platform,” Miller says.

For instance, by integrating Samsara with its two biggest maintenance providers, DHL automatically delivers real-time alerts for DVIR defects and engine fault codes to technicians, increasing uptime.

DHL in the U.S. consolidated seven separate solutions into Samsara's platform, which also is helping with DHL's fleet electrification journey.  -  Photo: DHL

DHL in the U.S. consolidated seven separate solutions into Samsara's platform, which also is helping with DHL's fleet electrification journey.

Photo: DHL

“It’s huge for us that we narrowed our communication gap when it comes to diagnostics and repairs,” says Fred Matthews, senior manager of safety. “Follow-through is significantly faster.”

In total, 19 integrations with Samsara’s integrated platform have been key to streamlining workflows and connecting previously siloed data.

Samsara’s integrations with DHL’s TMS, with Ortec for routing and dispatching, with multiple maintenance partners, with fuel card providers, and with Kronos for driver hours and payroll have streamlined workflows in nearly every aspect of their operations.

DHL also uses Samsara’s open API to feed data directly into Power BI dashboards, which combine data from Samsara and other sources to shed light on trends across both divisions.

“As a result, we have unlocked truly transformative analytics and insights for our business,” says Jennifer Miller, vice president of integrated transportation at DHL.

Where to Start Putting Your Fleet's Data to Work

With the fire-hose stream of data available to fleets, and more data becoming available all the time, many fleets aren’t sure where to start. But time after time, fleets and data experts emphasize that instead of looking at all the data available and getting overwhelmed, start out by looking at what your problem areas are where data may help.

“You have to know what you what your goal is,” says Omni Environmental’s Dartez. “What do you need to see what's important to you? Compliance? Speeding? Efficiency?”

VonAchen recommends starting small.

“Start with your biggest problem," he says. "And try to get the software that you need … and get that information into the decision-makers in the field.”

As McLane was working on implementing its dashboard-driven approach, they didn’t try to do everything at once.

“It’s based on the company need,” he says. “We took what was a hot topic, something we could focus on and refine and get done in maybe a month, in terms of getting the dashboard up and running. It's like eating the elephant, one bite at a time.”

Once the company gets that bite carved off, “then the next hot topic comes up when we carve out that piece, and we realize how those two are related. And then we move on to the next piece.

“That’s the best approach we've found so far, is to concentrate on making small bits of information that are really powerful run on their own, instead of having a big widespread that kind of can be overwhelming for anybody.”

Becoming Data-Driven

VonAchen says McLane has always been a company that wants to make decisions based on data. Today there’s more data than ever, but also better tools to use it.

“The biggest shift for us in the last five years has been our ability to use tools out there that help more layman IT people get data together, presented in a way that can be useful.

“We've always done data,” he says, “but in the past, it might take months to get that data together. Now we’re moving toward, [looking at] what else can we bring up that helps the folks on the ground make a decision that helps the company squeeze out that extra bit of profit.”

He says there’s likely going to be an investment involved in moving to systems that better allow your company to make use of all the data.

“Don't be too hesitant about spending some money on some software that helps you get there,” VonAchen says. “If you drop $5,000 for a license, but that helps you make a $500,000 decision. It's going to be worth it.”

Identify Your Fleet's Needs, Processes, Business Case, and Risks

At Sun Logistics, a team led by Klein that included IT and other leaders did a complete review of the company’s operations and used a twist on the LEAN management approach. It identified the team, the need, the process, the business case, and the risks.

The need? The processes and systems at the company took significant amounts of paperwork, labor, and time. They were prone to inaccurate information because of hand-entering of data, and a lot of gut decisions weren’t necessarily based on real data.

The business case, they said, was significant, because bottlenecks throughout the organization resulted in waste and reduced effective capacity.

“Our payback in doing this was quick,” Klein says. It invested not only in software but also hardware, buying more computers, buying scanners, buying tablets for drivers. “We got paid back in months.”

Beyond Buying New Fleet Management Software

But putting all the data to work improving your company’s operations takes more than just buying some new software.

“If you just say, ‘I’m deploying technology,’ that’s nice, but you need to change your team culture, your process, and your systems altogether,” Klein says. “Otherwise, what happens is your CIO or CTO is in a silo rolling out things, and you have a CEO discussing it … kind of like a PR stunt. [They’re touting that] they’re doing things, but it never goes anywhere.

“They have these capabilities, but are they really using those capabilities?”

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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