Mobile Communications Technology

Fuel oil dealers who have implemented mobile communications and business management software say the benefits ‘ such as wireless dispatching, vehicle tracking and route planning, plus enhanced management of invoicing and parts ‘ add up to greater operational efficiency and productivity for their companies.

Brenner Oil, Holland, Mich., uses the FleetMatics mobile communications and vehicle tracking system to manage its fleet of 67 trucks, including eight pedal trucks used to deliver fuel oil.

Brenner Oil implemented FleetMatics about 18 months ago, in part to track drivers and support dispatch operations, said Lisa Slade, logistics coordinator for the company.

‘Our customers phone dispatch and they want to know when their load will be there ‘ how far out it is ‘ and the dispatcher can look that up and let them know the timeframe,” Slade said.

A computer monitor mounted in the cab of each truck displays messages from the dispatchers to drivers.

‘Drivers like it because they already know the next load when they get to the terminal,” Slade said. Dispatch can also use the system to notify drivers of accidents, so they can avoid the delays and inefficiencies that would otherwise be incurred. Brenner Oil also transmits bills of lading over the system, which works over a cellular network.

‘There’s less paperwork and the billing process is easier that way,” Slade said.

A global positioning system (GPS) device is installed in the dashboard of each truck as part of the FleetMatics setup, and enables the fuel dealer to compile reports on idling, wait times and vehicle speed.

‘Eventually we’re going to be doing driver logs as well,” Slade said. ‘We can already run fleet hours of service.”

The system improves safety, saves time, and adds flexibility to Brenner Oil’s customer service, Slade said. ‘If a customer phones and we see that a driver is nearby,” often the delivery can be made, she said.

Preventive maintenance also can be more effectively managed because drivers can be notified when their vehicles are due for service. Brenner Oil has 10 locations in Michigan, and maintenance is performed at three of them: Holland, Niles and Detroit. 

Williams Oil & Propane, Towanda, Pa., has been using ADD Systems’ technology for about 15 years. About a year ago it implemented handheld devices for its 21 service technicians, said Robin Eastabrook, accounting manager.

Eastabrook, who also has information technology responsibilities within Williams Oil & Propane, said that the service technicians are using Verizon PDAs loaded with ADD Systems’ Pegasus software for wireless dispatching, and more.

That helps Williams Oil & Propane quickly and accurately bill service hours, Eastabrook said, because as technicians do each part of the work on a service call, they enter that into the PDAs and it is communicated to the back office wirelessly in real time.

In general, the enhanced communications with service technicians boosts productivity, Eastabrook said. ‘We can dispatch a call to them first thing in the morning so when they log onto their PDA from their house they see where their first call is,” she said. ‘Instead of coming into the office to get their orders they just go straight to their first call right from home.”

But they still need to go to Williams Oil’s main facility to replenish parts inventory on the service trucks, so the company uses the system to schedule them to come in on a rotating basis, Eastabrook said.

The dealer’s delivery drivers use Intermec handheld wireless devices loaded with ADD software called Raven. In each delivery truck cab, the Intermec handheld sits in a cradle that is wired to the truck’s meter, enabling the software to record how much fuel oil is pumped at each delivery and how much remains. This information ‘ along with the truck’s ID ‘ is transmitted to the dispatch office. This is useful for a dispatcher who, for example, receives a request for a delivery from a will-call customer, and needs to select a truck with enough remaining fuel to fulfill the order.

There are benefits for the delivery drivers, too. ‘With Raven our drivers see pretty much all the information on a customer’s account that we do in-house,” Eastabrook said, including the last few deliveries, the account balance, pricing on the account, any holds, and any messages.

‘All of our accounts have latitudes and longitudes programmed right into them so the drivers can actually get directions from their handheld devices right to a customer’s home,” Eastabrook added.

The technologies have provided enduring benefits for Williams Oil & Propane.

‘We’ve been able to keep a really lean staff,” Eastabrook observed. ‘I’ve been here 15 years and when I first started we had five or six more clerks manually entering data. The more ADD product that we’ve bought the more we’ve been able to really streamline our processes.”

Wilson Oil & Propane, Wallingford, Pa., has used Cargas Systems to manage its delivery and service operations since 2006. David O’Connell, president of Wilson Oil & Propane, said, ‘The solution is very open-ended and flexible. It’s easy to add capabilities.” For example, about six months ago, the dealer wanted to add a ‘gas check” form to be used by service technicians calling on propane customers.

‘Cargas added it without any problem at all,” O’Connell said, integrating it with the Cargas back-office system as well.

Applied throughout Wilson’s operations ‘ including fuel oil and propane delivery, as well as service ‘ wireless, mobile communications has been a boon to savings and efficiency, O’Connell said.

The company has about 10 service technicians, each using a Panasonic Toughbook ‘ a ruggedized notebook with a screen that swivels and lays flat to become a tablet PC.

‘We selected it for the service application because a service guy does signature capture in the [customer’s] house,” O’Connell said. ‘The customer signs on the computer and the technician prints the service invoice in the van.” Hewlett Packard printers in the service vans print out full-sized invoices for the customers. Some of the printers are set up for wireless operation, in which a service tech uses the Toughbook, in conjunction with the short-range radio frequency Bluetooth, to tell the printer to produce the invoice.

Meanwhile the work order and invoice are sent wirelessly to the office and attached to the customer’s account as a pdf, ‘so we have a record with their signature on it,” O’Connell explained.

Work orders, dispatched to the service technicians as xml files, contain all the notes that the customer service person has made. In the field, the tech can call up that account on the Toughbook, including a record of the last few service calls, the date of the most recent tune-up, and efficiency readings, O’Connell said. 

The company’s seven delivery drivers use ruggedized tablets made by General Dynamics Itronix. The delivery trucks are outfitted with in-cab printers designed for printing standard-size delivery tickets to be left with customers. For efficient routing, Wilson Oil uses UPS Logistics Technologies in conjunction with the Cargas system.

Both the Itronix tablet and the Toughbook are ruggedized to military specifications, and feature built in GPS antennas and full Window XP operating systems, ‘so have a lot of flexibility with them,” O’Connell said. Messages are transmitted over the Sprint cellular network. The benefits include a full screen that allows his employees to view all customer data in one place, O’Connell said.

‘It has clearly reduced expenses,” he said, noting that the company is down two office positions as a result of implementing the Cargas system.

‘We used to have someone on the oil delivery side who would manually post all the oil delivery tickets,” he said, a task that is now automated within the Cargas system. The same is true of a service dispatcher’s position; that job involved organizing the printed work orders, collecting the completed work orders, posting them to customers’ accounts and creating invoices if they were billable service calls. ‘All that has gone away,” O’Connell said.

Training for the delivery drivers and service technicians typically goes straightforwardly, even with those who are not ‘computer-literate,” O’Connell reported. He recalled a service technician who had no computer experience leading up to the implementation of the Cargas system three years ago. O’Connell recalled that the tech was ‘very nervous about a computer coming into van. He was almost ready to quit over it.” But once he had been introduced to the device and had learned how to use it, O’Connell said, he became, and remains, an enthusiastic user and supporter.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button