It's all in the details, at least when it comes to many of the latest improvements vendors are making to global positioning systems (GPS) for fleet tracking. GPS is becoming an increasingly valuable and more affordable business tool for dealers of all sizes, and the latest technology is offering more bang for the investment buck with new features such as enhanced data capture capabilities, easy-to-use detailed reports, and pinpoint-accurate vehicle tracking. Overall, these upgrades are improving dealers' capabilities to manage inventory en route, improve on-time deliveries, and increase profitability.
“As the cost of putting a vehicle on the road continues to skyrocket, it only makes more and more sense for owners and managers to implement a [GPS] system to help reduce cost and improve productivity,” says John Stull, president of Murrieta, Calif.–based Global Tracking Communications, a provider of GPS systems. “Nothing can give a business owner or manager a clearer picture of how his mobile assets and people are being utilized throughout the day.”
Both “passive” and “live” GPS systems currently on the market are providing LBM dealers with enhanced functionality to do this, through uses such as stored historical routes, detailed activity reports, speeding or out-of-area job monitoring, on-site invoicing, and the ability to monitor real-time activity over the Internet. While live systems typically transmit through a combination of GPS, Internet, and wireless technology, passive vehicle units, which are ideal for contractors who do not require constant vehicle monitoring or tracking, transfer downloaded information to the GPS tracking system via a radio signal once vehicles return for the day. At Bozeman, Mont.–based Kenyon Noble Lumber, for example, a passive GPS system from FleetTrax was installed on one of its vehicles for a beta test, and it made a measurable improvement in productivity and efficiency within two weeks by tracking drivers and providing estimated delivery times, reports Jenifer Dedman, human resources and safety director. “We first wanted to demo the system to see if it would work with our type of industry,” she says. “We are extremely pleased [with the results] and are looking at starting off with 40 additional units.”
Improved Access Evolving from expensive, complicated, and sometimes unmanageable systems, GPS units are becoming more accessible, thanks in part to more competition in the hardware and wireless technology sectors and more user-friendly Web-based software programs. “Now, a manager is able to tell how many stops were made throughout the day and within three clicks you have a report at your fingertips,” says Scott McCurdy, president, of Dallas-based FleetTrax. Additionally, report generators have become easier to read and understand, adds Eron Iler, president of Tampa, Fla.–based technology provider GPS Fleet Solutions. “Reports display information comprehendible for managers across all levels. Now we have reports that regional, divisional, and branch managers can see on their own levels and different sublevels.”
On average, the cost to equip trucks with “live” GPS is becoming less of a financial burden and can range from $300 to $1,200 per vehicle, according to Stull, who adds that his company's systems run in the range of $500 to $650 per truck. FleetTrax says that its live systems, which account for 90 percent of the company's business, range from about $450 to $600 per truck, depending on the size of the fleet and options, while GPS Fleet Solutions relays similar costs at $300 to $880 per vehicle. This type of cost structure, coupled with easier to use systems, “is now at levels where even the smallest companies, with only one or two vehicles, can afford to run the same system that companies with hundreds of vehicles operate,” Stull says.
Adding to the technology mix now available, certain wireless mobile phones also can be equipped with low-cost GPS monitoring services. “Clearly, the cell phone is something everyone already has for communication, which will make this technology more pervasive and user friendly,” says Ananth Rani, vice president of products and services for Mountain View, Calif.–based Xora, which offers GPS TimeTrack, an application for Nextel Partners' digital wireless communications service. In addition to regular monthly phone charges, the Xora service plan costs $11.95 per month and the required Nextel data plan runs about $10 per month. Mobile phones are able to capture job orders and record productivity, time spent on a work order, and the location of operators.
One dealer currently using this technology is New York–based Metropolitan Lumber, which outfitted its 35-truck fleet with Nextel wireless phones and Xora's GPS TimeTrack system a little more than a year ago. Stephen DiPietro, warehouse sales manager, reports that the system has given him total control in tracking the whereabouts of a delivery and time spent on a jobsite. “Before, the driver could go off all day for a job order [unmonitored]…,” he says. “Now we have the ability to track [the drivers], assisting them with directions when they are lost and seeing how long they spend on a delivery.”
Looking to the future, solutions providers and dealers alike say that GPS technology will become a mainstream business application with great potential to help improve operations and efficiencies in the LBM industry. “Companies will not be competitive if they are not using GPS technology,” says Iler. “Time theft is America's biggest crime—we just never had a way to track it until now.”