It’s about more than automating manual processes.

It’s about more than automating manual processes.

Southeastern Freight Lines began using handheld computers in 1991 (and have since gone through five generations of devices). But today’s devices, coupled with telematics, paperless documents and the like, allow the less-than-truckload carrier to “do so much more than what is obvious,” says Woody Lovelace, senior vice president corporate planning and development for the South Carolina-based fleet.

While drivers use their handheld devices for collecting real-time pickup and delivery information, “that data is then used for outbound load planning, mileage for fuel tax reporting, driver logs and vehicle inspections, just to name a few.”

Applying technology to workflow is “all about streamlining and automating processes,” explains Rick Ochsendorf, executive vice president of PeopleNet. “How can we take something that was a manual process with multiple people making manual entries and turn it into something automated?”

As Cyndi Brandt, senior director of product marketing and strategic alliances at Roadnet Technologies, explains it, workflow-related applications “guide an employee through a set grouping of tasks in order to provide a method to prompt tasks and the most efficient manner/sequence to accomplish tasks.”

Mobile workflow applications extend the capability to do pen and paper tasks via a smartphone, tablet or rugged device.

Some of the pen-and-paper tasks that workflow technology automates include paperless manifests and navigation, loaded cargo verification via scanning, off the truck scanning validation, electronic customer agreements and signature capture, customer surveys, electronic DVIR and automated logs.

Using the data

But workflow can take that automation way beyond simply replacing the pen and paper with a smartphone into which a driver keys information.

Many tools reduce data entry by the driver, which was seen as a problem with earlier in-cab automation. Earlier technology “burdened the driver with unnecessary data collection so that the back office could share with him what he was doing,” says Kelly Frey, vice president of product marketing for Telogis. “The thing with current technology is to not involve the driver,” he says. Instead, the technology takes the data collection into the background while the driver does his job.

And that data collection is key.

“We live in a time of very quick change,” SEFL’s Lovelace says. “Bringing technology into the workflow, you have visibility of the process that you did not have. So, when there are changes, that visibility makes you more agile.”

The data collected in the background can come from a variety of places: GPS data (location and geo-fencing alerts), engine and vehicle sensors including cargo sensors, flow meters (on tank trucks for instance) and other sensors. As Ochsendorf explains, that data can then be integrated with back office information such as dispatch, pickup information (including number of pieces, weight, etc.)

“What we do in workflow is take all that information and consolidate it into something we can show the driver,” he explains. “When a driver gets a message from dispatch, much of the data has been pre-populated, eliminating much of the data entry on the driver’s end. It’s all about making the driver’s life a lot easier and more automated.”

David Custred, vice president of core services, McLeod Software, says the company is “seeing a big rise in our customers moving to workflow products.” However, carriers should carefully consider the impact more technology will have on drivers, he cautions. Before deploying workflow tools, make sure drivers understand the tools will make their workday easier. “If you can make a driver’s life easier, his satisfaction level goes up,” he says.

Beyond the truck cab

Drivers and their dispatchers aren’t the only part of a fleet that can benefit from workflow technology.

For instance, in the shop, workflow applications define how a job will start: scheduled PM, service bulletin, recall, fault codes, breakdowns, etc.; what communications are required (scheduling, approval etc.) and rules for communicating updates on the job, says Michael Riemer, vice president products and channel marketing for Decisiv. Workflow, he says, does not have to be a rigid set of rules, but “a framework for improving visibility and decision-making” while measuring outcomes against clear targets.

No matter who’s using it, the key to workflow application success is the ability to integrate with a carrier’s transportation management system.

“Without the ability to integrate the TMS data into the workflow, there would be no real gain,” says Glynn Spangenberg, executive vice president and general manager, MacroPoint. Once vendors started creating an integration path between mobile communication devices and the back office, it allowed the data to be used in the decision-making process.

Perhaps the most important benefit for carriers is that with automated workflow systems communicating across a company’s various departments, “everything is far more connected, and the information that a truck generates penetrates far more deeply into an organization,” says William Salter, president/CEO Paragon Software Systems.

Down the road, all the data collected by workflow tools can find its way back to the driver, says Roadnet’s Brandt. That could be in the form of a video for training purposes or to provide real-time feedback to the driver on his or her performance for that day or week.

Another possible advance in workflow applications would be predicting what the dispatcher, the mechanic or the load planner will have to do next based on a combination of historical data and business forecasting, says Monica Truelsh, director of marketing, TMW Systems. That prediction would help ensure that the right tools and information presets are ready and waiting for them.

About the author
Jim Beach

Jim Beach

Technology Contributing Editor

Covering the information technology beat for Heavy Duty Trucking, Jim Beach stays on top of computer technology trends from the cab to the back office to the shop, whether it’s in the hand, on the desk or in the cloud. Covering trucking since 1988.

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