Years ago, fleets would spend the overnight hours manually figuring out which route a driver would take the next day. Today, routing and dispatch software can do it faster and more accurately. Some even predict we'll be able to dispense with the human element altogether.

For some people, routing and dispatching are same thing - but there are distinctions.

"A dispatch system allows you to dispatch a trip to a driver and then manage things like driver pay, driver hours-of-service, etc.," says James Stevenson, vice president of sales and operations at Appian Software, Oklahoma City. "Routing answers the question of 'Where will the trip plan come from?'"

Adam Kahn, director of product marketing for Qualcomm Enterprise Solutions, notes that both routing and dispatch deal with the "effective management of vehicles, drivers and freight; however, they both separately serve a unique functional difference for transportation fleets."

In Kahn's working definition of the two, he says that routing does the pre-planning function. It combines the right freight with the right truck based on destination, delivery windows, driver profiles and other factors. Dispatch is then a procedure for assigning employees or vehicles based on the routing system's pre-planning.

Either way, the key element is the same: the miles.

"Virtually everything in a trucking operation starts, ends and revolves around a mileage component," explains Bill Ashburn, general manager and vice president with Prophesy Transportation Solutions, Bloomfield, Conn. "Your drivers are paid based on miles, the rate you bill customers is based upon miles, scheduling is based upon miles and you audit driver logs based upon driving time compared to a commercial mileage system. If there is fuel tax reporting, you need to be able to audit miles by state."

Products from vendors such as ProMiles, ALK, Rand McNally, Prophesy and others are standardized commercial routing and mileage guides that provide the underlying data for dispatch systems from companies such as TMW, McLeod, Acellos and many others. Companies using McLeod's Loadmaster dispatching/enterprise system, for instance, can integrate with routing and mileage data from ALK's PC Miler or Rand McNally's IntelliRoute.

"A dispatch system needs to incorporate a mileage engine in order to provide the core calculations, that being time and distance: How long is this load in miles, and how long will it take?" says Craig Fiander, vice president of marketing for ALK Technologies' Enterprise Solutions Group, Princeton, N.J.

Products such as ALK's PC Miler or ProMiles' TruckMiles can be used as stand-alone routing solutions but are often combined with enterprise/dispatch and mobile communications systems.
"You can input origin, destination and stops into our system, and it can serve up that route," Fiander says. "It can provide alternative routes based on least-cost, toll cost, a whole variety of information about that route. It can do this as a stand-alone system.

"Where you see the true value enhancement is when it's coupled with the dispatch and the mobile communications systems," he says. "It becomes interactive in nature in that you are providing the dispatch route, you are providing the load, you are providing the directions, and you have a way to monitor out-of-route situations."

Route optimization

Routing for LTL or local delivery as opposed to truckload entails different challenges. A truckload carrier may need to send a truck from point A to point B for one load, then from point B to point C to pick up the next load and then onto point D to deliver that load. He needs to know the best truck-specific, truck-legal route and the miles and time required to do the job. An LTL or local delivery firm has more complex needs.

"In an LTL environment, you can have 100 loads but 10,000 different routing combinations," Stevenson notes. "It's a much more complex problem than in truckload. There are a number of parameters such as load weights, customer requirements, time restrictions, equipment restrictions, etc."

Why is optimizing routes important? "The first thing that comes to mind is the cost of fuel," says Ken Weinberg, Carrier Logistics, Tarrytown, N.Y. "It is important to route your trucks in the most efficient manner to reduce the number of miles the truck drives, therefore saving fuel." The other part of that, Weinberg notes, is that if you can get one more stop a day per driver, you can do more business without adding trucks, or you might be able to reduce the number of trucks you have on the road.

"On top of that, you get the customer service element," he adds. "The customer says you must deliver by 9 a.m. With a better approach to routing, you can be more consistent; you can set up your routes to make sure the driver gets there at 9 a.m." Without a routing system, a company may have trucks zigzagging all over the city to meet customer demands for delivery times.

As Weinberg sees it, "It's not only optimization, but it is also decision support. You are optimizing under the current conditions." In other words, optimization may give you the best route, but not take into consideration that a particular customer wants to see a particular driver. The optimization plan may not take into account where the driver will take lunch and other breaks. If the optimized route puts him miles away from a place to eat when his break comes around, you may end up with a morale problem. "You always have to consider the human element," Weinberg says.

In other words, route planning or optimization is good because it gives you a starting point, says Robert Darroll, president of Cheetah Software Systems, Woodlake Village, Calif.

"But the world changes, deliveries get rescheduled, a driver is out sick, a delivery is returned or couldn't be made. It's not just about routing; it's about adjusting the route as changes come in," Darroll says. Many current offerings, such as Cheetah's, entail some sort of "dynamic routing component," that can change routes based on current conditions or new orders coming in.

Qualcomm's Kahn says that when coupled with on-board computers, mobile communications and other systems, "the most impressive emerging benefit of route optimization is not only the pre-planning of truck travel, but the overall management of drivers' available hours to effectively create the highest output from the driver pool as compared to their available driving hours." With the advent of electronic logs and tighter hours of service regulations, that's important.

The advantage of integration

Of course routing has been around since trucks began hauling freight. In the old days, maybe 20 years ago, routing was done manually at night, or in the wee hours of the morning before trucks would hit the road. The goal, however, was the same: reduce miles and increase efficiency.

"The biggest change in recent years is the speed at which the computers can do the work," Weinberg says. He notes the tools are pretty much the same as when his company first started serving LTL fleets. "We started out as an industrial engineering company focusing on manual routing," he says. "We would analyze routes manually. There are now more tools to accomplish the same things."

The ability to integrate routing, dispatch and mobile communications also gives fleets another tool to manage miles. Even the best-designed route is of little value if the driver doesn't follow it. Limiting out-of-route miles is one of the key benefits current systems offer.

"When you have the routing, dispatch and mobile communications systems integrated, you can take on a whole new layer of management," Fiander says. "You can say, 'OK, he's out of route, now what do I do?'"

Route Sync is an upcoming product from ALK that helps fleets "bridge the gap between planned route and the executed route." As the