Position Yourself For Success

Global positioning systems are the roadmaps of the 21st century.

With increasing frequency, welding and gases distributors are turning to the Global Positioning System (GPS), a satellite-based navigation system that can determine the location, speed and direction of a vehicle anywhere in the world. GPS is made up of a network of 27 satellites (24 in operation and three extra in case one fails), which were placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 1970s, originally for military purposes. GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day and use small rocket boosters to maintain a precise orbit. The satellites are powered by solar energy but contain backup batteries in the event of a solar eclipse.

GPS Screenshot
The green dots on the above map show the last 143 GPS positions of a single truck, allowing NatWel Supply to keep track not only of a truck’s current position, but also the route it is following.

At any time, at least six satellites are in line with any point on Earth. To determine a location, a receiver locks into a satellite and reads its position in time and space. The detailed, accurate information available from GPS, along with its ability to maintain strong locks in otherwise poorly accessible areas, have made it jump in popularity for civilian use—including by welding and gases distributors—during the last ten years.


Early Adopter Reaps Benefits
NatWel Supply (San Antonio, TX) has employed GPS technology since 1999, when President Steve Mulder often stopped at a remote gas station and found several employees of a plumbing company gathering to have breakfast. “I started thinking about how much time that employee force was wasting and started watching my own operations more closely,” he recalls. He found that no matter how many deliveries his people were scheduled to make during the day, they would always return at the same time. “That drove me nuts. Either employees were not hurrying back because they knew they’d have more work to do or they were goofing off and I didn’t know about it. That’s what got me interested in GPS.”

Almost immediately after implementation, the company began to see benefits from its decision. On average, Mulder gained an hour of productivity per day per employee. “I didn’t gain anything from some employees, but for others we eliminated some of their personal stops,” he says. The GPS revealed that some drivers were going home during the day, which Mulder quickly put a stop to. Also, the company gained more detailed knowledge in its routing systems. “We saw where our trucks were going and the routes they were taking to get there,” Mulder says. “It helped our fuel economy because trucks weren’t crossing each other’s paths to make deliveries.”

Automated GPS dispatching allows Wright Brothers to more accurately respond to customers' questions about delivery times.
Automated GPS dispatching allows Wright Brothers to more accurately respond to customers’ questions about delivery times.

Since then, the company has refined its use of the technology to further improve dispatching, routing and customer service. NatWel tracks its vehicles so customers with remote locations can be sure that deliveries are made even if no one is there to receive them. Also, the company makes sure its drivers make all the scheduled deliveries. “In the past we had circumstances where a driver with ten deliveries would only make eight and save two for the next day. Customers complained, so now we can stay on top of that.”

Training is minimal, and the system is quite user-friendly. Three inside people combine to dispatch and monitor the company’s ten-vehicle fleet and verify deliveries. “The GPS is much more efficient. I can check on the vehicles without looking at the odometer, and I can do it so people don’t think I’m spying on them,” Mulder says.

The lone drawback Mulder has seen from installing the GPS has been the constant need to upgrade hardware. The system NatWel uses is based on cell phones, which is cheaper than the satellite-based systems. However, every time a cell phone company upgrades its hardware, NatWel must, in turn, invest in new equipment as well. “You buy the hardware and then pay a monthly fee. So when that hardware all of a sudden becomes no good, you think you bought something that you were going to keep paying a monthly fee on and five months later you have to buy new hardware because the cell phone connections they were on don’t exist,” he says. Still, though, the investment for his fleet of ten vehicles is more than worth it. The hardware for each unit runs roughly $500, plus a monthly fee of about $30 for each unit. “We’re to the point now that I don’t see how we could live without it,” Mulder says. “At the most, it costs $1.50 a day and the information we learn from it majorly outweighs the costs.”

Transportation Manager Omar Salazar and Dispatcher Adrian Tamayo are responsible for daily monitoring of TWSCO's GPS-enabled fleet.
Transportation Manager Omar Salazar and Dispatcher Adrian Tamayo are responsible for daily monitoring of TWSCO’s GPS-enabled fleet.

Integrated Routing Pays Off for Wright Brothers
As GPS and related technologies continue to evolve, Wright Brothers Inc. (Cincinnati, OH) is changing right along with them. Eight years ago, the company invested in GPS in order for customer service people to be able to check on a truck’s progress without disturbing the driver. Since then, Wright Brothers has computerized its entire dispatching system. “We recently switched to the United Parcel Service dispatching system, so now we get electronic updates telling us how traffic is affecting our anticipated routes,” says CEO Charlie Wright. “It gives us the opportunity to be proactive and alert customers when there’s a problem.” The software tracks the delivery time for each customer and develops a database over time, so the system knows how long each delivery should take. “Travel time is actually the easy piece of scheduling our deliveries, although certainly traffic and weather can affect it,” Wright says. “The variable that’s harder to estimate until you develop the database is how long the truck will be at each stop.” This feature also permits the company to accurately estimate the cost of deliveries at each particular account.

With a fleet of eight trucks, the investment in the fully integrated system is substantially more than Wright’s initial GPS investment of a few hundred dollars per month. The new system also is much more complex and therefore requires some additional training. “It’s a significant investment; however, our folks are totally convinced now that this is the best way to dispatch and monitor trucks,” Wright says. “The big question was whether to let the drivers know that we had the equipment on the truck, and we decided to let our drivers know it was there from day one.”

When Wright initially decided to pursue GPS technology, the reason was to decrease dispatching time. “Dispatching can become more of an art than a science, and we found that when our regular dispatcher was unavailable, the art would change,” Wright recalls. With the system in place, dispatching has become more of a consistent science, though he admits it took a while to perfect.

GPS Is Not for Everybody

Pooch Welding Supply (Benton Harbor, MI) performed a 60-day GPS trial, using the program offered through their Nextel phone service. It only cost about $22 per month, according to President John Small, so the price seemed right. “I put it on a couple of phones for our route guys to try to keep a little better eye on them,” Small says. “But it didn’t turn out quite the way we hoped it would.”

John Small, Pooch Welding Supply
John Small
Pooch Welding Supply



Small says the phones were too often turned off so the GPS service was unavailable. Plus, he found the system more cumbersome than he had planned. “The routing issues were the original thrust behind it, but the trial period showed us that that particular service was not the way we wanted to go,” Small says. Down the road, he plans to revisit the technology and different services. For the time being, however, it’s back to the drawing board.

“It’s easy to decide to put GPS in your truck,” he says, “but the more important part is implementing a process to use that information. For quite a while, we had the information but didn’t use it very effectively.” Wright cites the example of a driver who was selling nitrous oxide off the back of his truck. The GPS indicated that the driver’s account of his activity during a 24-hour period was not accurate. “It gave us an open-and-shut case to dismiss that driver. That taught us that we needed to be more proactive with the information at our disposal.”

Idle Trucks Are a Thing of the Past at TWSCO
TWSCO (Houston, TX) started using GPS about two years ago as a response to the rising cost of fuel. CEO Jay Chenoweth says, “We wanted to be more efficient with our trucks and be able to know what those trucks are really up to.” One of the biggest takeaways so far has been fuel savings from reduced idling times. Chenoweth discovered that trucks were running virtually all day long. Now, drivers are instructed to leave the truck idling only if a crane or other equipment is in use that requires a running engine. Adopting this policy saved the company $10,000 in fuel costs over a one-year period.

TWSCO also uses GPS for safety reasons. The system is set up to give an alert whenever a vehicle goes over the speed limit. “Security is a big aspect for hazmat carriers today, and the GPS information is helpful to keep track of where your vehicles are and that there are no problems,” says Vice President of Operations David Cunningham.

BENEFITS OF GPS
Satellite

1. Instant notification of vehicle location
2. Efficient dispatching and routing
3. Monitoring vehicle speed
4. Identifying rogue behavior
5. Improved customer service

Earth

Another use TWSCO has found for the technology involves identifying problematic deliveries. “We get an e-mail alert if the truck is at a location for more than a certain length of time. Doing so allows us to identify difficult stops that take longer than they should,” Chenoweth says.

The company uses that information to refine its delivery schedule and help its three dispatchers more efficiently operate the company’s 30-truck fleet. “It’s not necessarily something that you’re sitting at the joystick looking at every minute, but we set it up to give an alert when something abnormal happens, and that’s really the way it should be,” Cunningham says.

To get everyone up to speed using the software, a small amount of training was required, though Chenoweth says it was a pretty simple implementation. “The biggest thing was being open with the drivers in terms of why we’re doing it. The assumption would be that it is 100 percent driven by Big Brother, and that’s not accurate,” he says. He also had some initial concern that his employees would resist the technology on privacy grounds. “In the first three months, some people left on their own accord who probably had been the ones doing what they weren’t supposed to do, so it may have encouraged some turnover.”

All in all, TWSCO has had a positive GPS experience. Chenoweth would recommend other distributors look into it for their operations, but cautions, “Don’t be surprised by what you find out. You will likely find that some people are doing things in places and at speeds that you didn’t expect.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association