Small business tracks savings with cheap high tech

There’s a lot of interest around affordable new systems for tracking the location of vehicles, but technology can also make a big difference to a company’s bottom line simply by indicating where trucks are needed — and where they aren’t.

Thanks to basic wireless technology from a Canadian company and a helping hand from family and friends, Hermann Brothers Logging & Construction of Port Angeles, Wash., is saving about $500 a day on its busy trucking operations — an amount that has a big impact on a small company’s balance sheet.

Earlier this year the company installed a fleet-tracking and route-optimization application created by WebTech Wireless Inc. of Burnaby, B.C., in its 17 trucks.

At the same time, it attached remote measuring devices known as the Industrial Bin Information System (IBIS), created by GLC Controls Inc. of Prince George, B.C., at a local sawmill where Hermann Brothers has a contract to empty bins of wood chips and shavings when they become full.

Now Hermann Brothers not only knows where all of its trucks are all of the time, it also knows when the bins are full and which trucks are available to empty them and haul the chips to paper mills — some as far as 360 kilometres away.

WebTech is the application service provider, running and maintaining the fleet management system for Hermann Brothers. But designing and building the bin monitor was a family project.

Mike Hermann, son of one of the founders, came up with the idea and oversaw installation. The husband of the company’s in-house accountant installed the wireless transmitter that connects the IBIS system with Hermann Brothers’ office computer three kilometres away, while Hermann Brothers staff installed the $400 tracking hardware in each vehicle (it costs about $30 a month per truck in service fees to operate).

The sensing devices, one on each bin leg and one on the top, plus a Pentium computer and associated software for the dispatch office cost about $7,000 (U.S.). The bin system is integrated with the fleet management software, so both operate off the same computer screen in Hermann Brothers’ office.

Hermann Brothers’ baby steps into wireless fleet management technology might seem small potatoes compared with the sophisticated systems used by larger firms. But for a company run by three brothers and their families, wireless technology — even in its simplest form — is proving both an eye-opener and a major money saver.

“It is proving to be a dandy solution for a pretty serious problem,” said Bill Hermann, who, with brothers Fred and Steve, runs Hermann Brothers. “I can charge $75 an hour for our trucks, so I have to keep them busy all the time. Before this system there was a lot of wasted time just because we didn’t know exactly where trucks were and whether bins were full or not.”

Hermann Brothers used to have drivers go by to see if a bin was up to its 33,600-kilogram capacity. If it was full, the truck loaded up and ferried the chips to a pulp mill. If not, the driver went away and came back again later, wasting fuel and hours of valuable time.

Now IBIS, a real-time graphic display, shows just how full the bins are. Using historical data captured, stored and processed by the desktop computer, it can also predict when the bins will likely have to be emptied to help Hermann Brothers streamline its pickup schedule ahead of time. The system can even adjust for the effects that moisture content and weather conditions can have on a bin’s contents.

“We absolutely have to empty the bins just as soon as they are full or the mill has to shut down,” Mr. Hermann said. “This system not only tells us when to pick up the chips, but also what [size] truck to send.”

GLC Controls general manager Kam Ghuman said the Hermann Brothers’ system is a version of his company’s technology designed to meet a small operation’s needs and costs. GLC’s latest version of IBIS has moved from standard pressure gauges to more accurate echo sounding, and the newest measuring device sits on top of the bin and uses sound waves to measure levels of fullness. It’s a technology that can be applied to storage areas in various industries.

“This technology is just starting to take off,” he said. “To date we have sold about 30 systems, but four of those were in the past few months.”

The second and farther-reaching part of Hermann Brothers’ foray into high tech is related to the WebTech system in the trucks. Each vehicle now contains a wireless transmitter and sensing devices, plus a global positioning system. In Canada, the cellphone-based system operates through Rogers Wireless and in the United States through the Cingular network. Each vehicle is tracked in real time on a computer screen in the dispatcher’s office.

Mike Hermann, who persuaded his father Bill to invest in the technology, is the dispatcher. The computer tells the Hermanns where trucks are, whether they are stopped or moving and the speeds they are travelling at. While the platform can be expanded to measure and rate individual driver performance — and even include mechanical sensors to monitor engine, tire and other areas of wear and performance — Mr. Hermann said his company just uses the basic tracking package today.

“There are various bundles available, but the Hermanns just chose the basics,” said Neil Chan, senior vice-president of business development at WebTech. He added that WebTech now has 7,000 monthly subscribers for its fleet management package, and has shipped 20,000 systems to places as far away as Australia.

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