Basic, better, best: mobile technologies on the road

Being  on the road, your delivery drivers may well have been the first of your employees to carry a mobile phone. Your supply chain organisation may even have been an early adopter of mobile and wireless technology. Today though, you’d be hard-pressed to find a supply chain organisation that isn’t making some use of smart phones or handheld computers, GPS, mobile printers and other technology to support its transport operations.

As technology has evolved and become more accessible, it has helped supply chain organisations set new standards for productivity and customer responsiveness. It has also become more difficult for companies to gain a competitive advantage through technology, as mobile computing, real-time communication and the extension of work order, inventory and sales to the on the road workers has become a de facto requirement for many companies. Nonetheless, savvy supply chain professionals continue to drive down their costs, improve efficiency and achieve revenue growth by enhancing their processes and technology. 

In Australia there are those supply chain organisations who are doing just the basics when it comes to automating processes for their on-the-road workers, and there are those who are doing better at equipping their drivers with mobile technology that enables limited support while on the job. Finally there are those transportation operators who have embraced mobile support best practice for their drivers, which affords them the advantage of ensuring delivery accuracy, efficiency and the opportunity to achieve further business promotion.

Delivery management process

Basic: The good application of technology is to use software to automatically generate schedules and routes for delivery drivers. Software can make the most efficient use of resources, especially applications that can factor in each driver’s location and past delivery records. In basic operations drivers receive jobs and other instructions via paper at headquarters at the start of the shift and report their progress periodically throughout the day via cell phone.

Better: Equip drivers with mobile computers and automatically push assignments, routes and driving instructions to the devices. This not only eliminates the need for paper, but eliminates the need for drivers to check in at a central location to receive assignments. By reducing drive time, organisations can increase efficiency. Drivers use the mobile computer to record job completion and can submit this information to headquarters using a modem or wireless connection.

Best: Use a rugged mobile computer continually to update job status and driver availability to enable real time dynamic dispatch. This practice helps organisations hit delivery windows and meet order compliance. The process is enabled by taking advantage of mobile computers’ real-time wireless communication capability, which provides the best possible data to deliver device management applications. 

Workforce management process

Basic: Use standardised forms for time and expense reporting in order to promote consistency and to simplify data entry. Periodically analyse completed job records to monitor productivity and costs for each driver.

Better: Free transportation drivers of the task of recording their hours, mileage and expenses on paper, and office staff the time and trouble of entering it into the computer system, by using electronic forms on mobile computers.

Best: Deliveries and other activities are automatically time stamped by the mobile computing application, which eliminates the time-recording requirement for technicians and prevents arbitrary time estimates. GPS systems can apply location stamps to transactions, automatically record mileage, and flag miles driven outside of assigned routes or work hours.

Driver and vehicle tracking procedures 

Basic: Technology enables managers to monitor a delivery driver workforce that is spread over a large area. As a starting point it is helpful having mobile workers periodically call in status updates to a dispatcher or manager. A GPS unit in the vehicle also promotes productivity by helping drivers get to their end destination as promptly as possible.

Better: Handheld computers can also support voice, data communication and GPS, and this gives users all the functionality they need in a single device. Combining functions also simplifies the delivery driver’s role as it means less devices need to be purchased, kept charged and maintained. It is helpful to set the mobile application software to send status updates to the office automatically, either at periodic time intervals or when certain jobs are completed.

Best: Proactively using location data, rather than simply waiting for updates. Vehicles can be tracked in real time to aid dispatch decision making and to provide up-to-date information for customer service. The GPS unit within a handheld computer can automatically attach a location stamp to all activities, which improves documentation and can help resolve any disputes. GPS-enabled location data can also be used to power route analysis and dwell time analysis that can suggest more efficient routes or alert managers to potential abuses.

Product or goods delivery 

Basic: Manually record products delivered on paper forms.

Better: Use RFID or bar code to support the delivery process by scanning and recording products that are being shipped from the warehouse to the customer. Share delivery data with inventory and billing applications so the products delivered can be automatically listed and billed on invoices that are generated at the customer site. This integration will speed up the payment cycle for products and enable maintenance of more accurate inventory levels. 

Best: Update enterprise inventory systems with real-time data from the field. Expand basic product tracking to give delivery drivers access to customer delivery information such as – which door they prefer to have goods delivered to, and which times might not be appropriate for delivery to occur – to support customer satisfaction.

Product tracking & management

Basic: Use barcode technology to automatically identify assets from the time the goods arrive in the warehouse to the time the products are delivered to the customer. 

Better: Link product ID application to databases and customer records so that delivery drivers can validate the authenticity of the product upon delivery. Accurately identifying products assures customers of delivery competency.

Best: Fully integrate delivery operations with head office customer intelligence so that customers can track the delivery of their goods in real time and ensure that the right product arrives to them at the right time. 

Revenue assurance

Basic: Upon completion of a job, record all time spent, and goods delivered while still on site in order to prevent errors and omissions. Obtain customer signature for the delivery job.

Better: Automate the data recording process with mobile computers and bar code scanners. Upon delivery, immediately present customer with a work order and invoice that is generated on site with a mobile printer. Obtain customer signature at the same time. 

Best: Attach a digitised image of the customer’s signature to the transaction record on the computer. Enable delivery drivers to accept payment at the time of service via a credit card reader. Payments can be authorised immediately using a wireless connection, or processed in batch later.

Conclusion

The optimisation of delivery operations represents low-hanging fruit for supply chain organisations in Australia, whilst still providing more experienced organisations the ability to improve efficiency levels. Optimising delivery operations can encompass tasks such as delivery job management, data management and productivity management. 

Scheduling software provides the foundation for automating these operations, while electronic forms, mobile printing, GPS, mobile computers, scanners and imagers can further increase the benefits. Australian Supply Chain organisations should continually look for ways to improve their operations. Those that don’t look towards the future to see how new technologies can support their delivery processes could find that their business has quickly fallen from ‘best’ to ‘basic’ in the eyes of the customer.

About the author: Tony Repaci is Intermec managing director for Australia and New Zealand.