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Asset Tracking in the Transportation Industry


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Crowley tracks assets such as the fuel and freight the tug Avik delivered to Seward, as well as the tug and barge making the delivery.

Photo courtesy of Crowley

Alaska has always been dependent on shipment of goods from the Lower 48 and other parts of the world. It would be difficult, indeed, for our businesses and residents to survive and thrive on what we produce locally. Historically, businesses tried to maintain a large inventory, but today most opt for the just-in-time approach to supplies. That, necessarily, involves knowing exactly when an order will arrive, and technology has been a boon to the asset- and shipment-tracking world.

Pacific Alaska Freightways (PAF) ships everything from construction and oil field materials to fish to hamburger chain supplies and office furnishings from its consolidation centers into and across Alaska. “We’re an LTL [less than truckload] shipper,” says Wes Renfrew, PAF’s Alaska operations manager. To track its shipments, Renfrew adds, PAF has developed its own internal tracking system called Freight Expert. “It’s an online, interactive program that does everything from assigning a tracking number to allowing clients to track their orders,” Renfrew says. This software displays shipping, receipt, and the estimated time of arrival at its destination. “If an individual shipped a bike to Alaska for his son, he could track that bike from purchase until delivery.”

The software also tells PAF they have a 94-percent on-time delivery average.

Renfrew says one of the three brothers who own the company was the one who developed the software as the company grew and as customers requested tracking abilities. “When you start shipping for larger corporations such as Sportsman’s Warehouse, Cabela’s, and Lowe’s, they demand tracking abilities, so we offer that along with electronic invoicing,” he adds. “We had to provide these abilities to grow alongside the Alaska market.”

PAF has also implemented a GPS tracking system for its trucks, providing visibility of all its vehicles as they pick up and deliver freight. “We can see exactly where our trucks are at all times,” Renfrew says. “In addition to shipment and delivery information, it’s also a safety issue. If one of our trucks goes off the road, we’ll know about it.”

Staying up to date with technology is no easy task, and Renfrew says PAF is currently in the process of updating its tracking and is investigating new software capabilities.

 

Tracking Trucks

Already taking advantage of new services to the state, Alaska Industrial LLC’s (AI) owner Jeff Day says his company primarily provides trucking services and oilfield construction for Prudhoe Bay and has recently expanded statewide. “We’re the mainline haulers for Halliburton,” Day says. “We’re a truck-intensive company consolidating, repackaging, and distributing supplies either to Prudhoe or to Kenai.”

AI needs tracking ability and Verizon provides that through its fleet-management system called Networkfleet. “Every truck has a GPS tracking unit,” Day says. “Networkfleet is the only tracking system we could find that actually works to Prudhoe Bay with no dead spots.”

The system tracks fuel economy for AI and allows the company to monitor engine or mechanical problems with its trucks. “If an engine code pops up,” Day says, “our equipment supervisor gets a text message that tells us so we can be ready to get the truck fixed next time it comes in. It also tells us if there are any speed violations—it sends a message to our safety officer so the driver can be scheduled for additional training. That also helps us track our fuel economy and tells us the reason a driver might be burning fuel. It’s been an extremely valuable asset in training drivers and improving safety.”

Day says the system has reduced his fuel costs by 12 percent just in the first quarter of 2014 and improved his delivery efficiency by 35 percent in the same timeframe. AI’s trucks also have onboard cameras that monitor road situations and the combination of the Verizon system and the cameras have resulted in a significant boost for driver training and safety, Day adds.

“We actually ‘ping’ our trucks every two minutes,” Day says. “There’s a sixty-inch television in our dispatch office, and you can see a truck’s current speed, location, its top speed for the current trip, the current mileage, and where it’s been.

“We can get absolutely specific about where a truck has broken down and can have a mechanic there almost immediately. We’ll know if a truck needs to be down for a repair, how long that repair takes, and we can reschedule it immediately for the next trip. We know how many hours the driver has in service. This all reduces down time and translates into more loads hauled. Our trainers can say to a driver: this is your driving technique. You need to shift at this RPM. If you reduce your speed by ‘X,’ you’re going to reduce fuel usage. We can reward the driver accordingly. If he saves me money, I share that,” Day says.

The Networkfleet system has been in use throughout the Lower 48 since 1999, says Verizon’s Networkfleet Northwest/Central Regional Manager Jon Housknecht, and provides 24/7 visibility into vehicles to access real-time data. “AI was our first customer in Alaska, and they are seeing the benefits in improved operations and cost reductions.”

Verizon Networkfleet in Alaska uses a combination of GPS, satellite, and wireless technologies to provide the tracking and reporting abilities to its customers. There are add-on modules to let customers track assets other than trucks, too, adds Housknecht. “The ability to integrate our products and integrate fleet and asset tracking is the key difference for us. I typically tell customers that they spend substantial sums of money on virus protection for their computers, but they have little protection for their higher value fixed assets such as generators, cranes, signs, and so on. Verizon’s Asset Guard [an asset-tracking device] gives them the specific ability to know where their assets are at all times.”

 

Crowley tracks its tugs and barges picking up and delivering fuel to more than 280 Alaska communities, including Barrow pictured above.

Photo courtesy of Crowley

 

Combination of GPS Systems

Lynden’s transportation companies use a combination of GPS tracking systems to track their air, highway, and marine equipment which, in turn, tracks their customers’ shipments en route.

“We ship everything from groceries to drill rigs,” says Jered Post, Lynden Transport’s vice president for Operations. With service centers from Texas and California on up the west coast to Alaska, Lynden offers customers the ability to place orders, track shipments, and confirm delivery all online.

“A customer can complete a bill of lading onscreen and that goes into our pickup screen at the dispatch office,” Post says. “We have trucks all over, so we can send the nearest to pick up the order. The onscreen information tells our drivers what to pick up, where, where to deliver, and how much the order weighs. Once we have the order, we attach a bill of lading with a tracing number and that begins the tracking and billing process. At that point, the customer can go through Lynden.com, put in the tracking number, and start watching the progress of their shipment. On delivery,” Post adds, “we’ll put in real-time delivery and who signed for the order. The customer sees all of this.”

Lynden’s delivery operations use a route-optimization system that consolidates Lynden’s freight then creates its best plan for moving that freight. The system provides estimated delivery times to customers via Lynden’s website and monitors progress of the delivery route and updates customers if there are changes.

Post adds that Lynden is beginning to track freight in more discrete increments and anticipates rolling this program out for customers by the end of 2015. “If you had a five-pallet order, each pallet gets a unique identification number,” Post says. “If a customer calls and says ‘I need to know where the blue widgets are,’ we’ll be able to tell him.”

To offer customers the best service and most efficient shipping options, Lynden focuses on constant improvements of its operations. Critical to running efficient operations, Post says, is having the assets in the right places at the right times. “Having real-time asset tracking and good information systems to communicate customer requirements allows us to plan our operations and be highly efficient.”

The same runs true for Alaska Marine Lines and its barges, says Don Reid, vice president of Cargo Operations. Picking up freight to be barged to and throughout Alaska, including oilfield equipment, seafood industry supplies, and household goods, every order is again tracked. “We focus on shipment control,” Reid says. “We track our barges from departure to delivery through AIS, that’s a real-time vessel-tracking system in use by most commercial vessels and the US Coast Guard.” Alaska Marine Lines also uses satellite transponders on its barges that report a barge’s location four times each day through the Marine Exchange of Alaska and is in regular contact through e-mail with its tugs.

 

‘Highly Orchestrated’

Sean Thomas, vice president Western Alaska for Crowley Petroleum Distribution, says his company also tracks its fleet of tugs and barges picking up and delivering fuel to more than 280 communities throughout rural Alaska. “It’s all a very highly orchestrated process: tracking, moving fuel, discharging fuel, how much and when. We have to make sure the assets are in the right place at the right time, and in many places we’re very tide dependent. We have little or no port structures in some of our communities, so planning these operations is paramount to our success year in and year out.”

Crowley has a sizeable fleet of vessels—at least ten operating in Alaska—in every season. “Our marine operations group tracks their locations, manages daily contacts through e-mails, cell phones, and satellite. We know where our vessels are twenty-four hours a day, and what’s on board. It’s all choreographed well in advance,” he says. “Efficiency is the name of the game. Our mission is to operate a vessel safely and to deliver to the customer in the most efficient manner possible at the lowest possible cost. That means we have to make sure our vessels are moving the shortest distance and are scheduled so they aren’t doubling back or waiting. If we miss tide cycles, we might have to wait as much as thirty days to get back into a site, and our customer may run out of fuel.”

Although Crowley uses computer programs to help in its tracking, Thomas says their most critical tool is experience operating in Alaska waters for more than sixty years. “Many of our captains have been doing this for decades,” he adds. “One captain celebrated his fortieth anniversary in May. In many places, it’s a pristine environment and we’re plying very shallow waters. We have to do it safely and with no damage to people, property, or the environment.”

In addition to providing customers with the ability to know exactly where their shipments are at any time, asset tracking devices can provide a company—and its drivers—with invaluable protection. AI’s Day recalls an incident in which one of his truck drivers was involved in a traffic fatality. The onboard camera and GPS system were able to demonstrate the driver had done everything possible to avoid the accident. Not only did it absolve the company but it also provided some very much needed peace of mind for the driver.

Gail West writes from Anchorage.

This first appeared in the September 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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