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There’s an app for that

Drowning in a sea of paperwork? Maybe an app is the solution! Smartphones are transforming the way fleet managers can carry out essential tasks – from ePOD to vehicle compliance checks

In any logistics business, one of the biggest administration challenges is following the paper trail. Whether you’re talking about delivery notes and manifests, invoices, timesheets, expenses or vehicle safety records, losing vital pieces of paper is all too easy.

And there are consequences. A missing delivery note can slow down invoicing and payment. If time sheets go missing, it can mean employees exceeding permitted working hours and companies finding they can’t distinguish between working and private driving. And if proof of legally-required daily safety checks is missing, the Driver and Vehicle Services Agency will issue penalties to companies and their drivers.

Commentators have been predicting the emergence of the paperless business for a decade or more, but there have been many hurdles to overcome: culture, the existence of legacy business processes, and lack of affordable technology.

Now, however, developments such as mobility platforms and low-cost mobile devices are combining to make electronic, paperless operations a reality for some daily operational tasks.

Browser-based fleet management systems using mobile broadband services already enable many fleet managers to stay in touch with their operations from their phone or tablet, as well as from the office PC. Now fleet management software developers are adding further software or “apps” to enhance the appeal and to offer more integrated services.

For example, Hertfordshire-based Truckcom’s fleet management suite has been designed from the start to operate entirely with mobile devices. “When we first designed Truckcom, the central idea was to use mobile devices as the heart of the system,” says director Hugh Wightwick, “so drivers out on the road could use these devices to do several useful things to assist with fleet management.

“Our view was that operators can do so much more with a touch-screen mobile device. Combining cloud-based fleet management with a mobile app offered a lot more flexibility than bolting a black box into each vehicle and then tracking that.”

Advances in technology have transformed the possibilities, says Wightwick. “Back in 2004, you couldn’t get any devices with built-in location receivers; now, almost every smartphone device out there has one. So you can track the phone on a map, and run navigation software much more cheaply than using a standalone device.”

Larger fleet operators have a big problem collecting all the relevant bits of paper that come with paper-based fleet management systems, points out Derek Beevor, managing director of Road Tech Computer Systems. “A web-based electronic system centralises all the reporting, making the management easier for multi-depot companies.”

“All-in-one combined fleet telematics solutions are the future of our industry,” says Andrew Overton, managing director of fleet management specialist Verilocation, which has just unveiled version 2.0 of its multi-functional Driver Dashboard app. “In such a saturated market, it’s very powerful to be able to offer fleets just one streamlined and cost-effective solution that can be tailored to their specific requirements.”

Low-cost smartphones are being heralded as the answer to the industry’s prayers and are putting the delivery sector at the forefront of the latest technology. “If delivery companies want to keep pace, they need to embrace emerging technological platforms and policies fully,” says Paul Ridden, managing director of Skillweb, the developer of the SmartTask ePOD app.

As Mike Kenny, managing director of SmartCheck app developer Mobile Solutions, points out, smartphones cost as little as £50, and there is less driver resistance to using business apps than might be expected. “More drivers are now used to apps,” he says. “People don’t like change in their working lives, but once they’ve adapted, they rarely want to go back to old ways of working.”

Welcome to the Android world

Perhaps the technology change that is proving most influential in bringing electronic data capture within reach of a wide customer base is the emergence of Android, both as an alternative to Windows for professional mobile applications and because its is very familiar to users.

While no-one is closing the door on Windows for mobile business applications, Microsoft’s delay in producing a roadmap for existing Windows Mobile users has opened the door for Android and Apple’s iOS. TranSend and Skillweb, both key players in the ePOD sector, have majored on Android for this part of their portfolio.

“A major change in the POD landscape has come with the approaching end of Windows Mobile and the arrival of Android,” says Paul Ridden. “Existing POD vendors now have no direct migration path with Windows. The situation is complicating the decision matrix. Customers want POD software that is mature, but has a modern capability to be cross-platform.”

User familiarity with Android is helping its appeal for business tasks, he points out. “No-one wants to train people – and workers themselves are used to intuitive apps on their own devices.”

Some SMEs have been under pressure to adopt ePOD because it is being demanded by their customers; yet capital costs of devices have been a deterrent even for larger companies. That’s the analysis of Anthony Munro-Martin, a director at TranSend.

Rugged devices are expensive, he points out, especially when subcontractors have to be factored in. “Previously the cost of a handheld device was prohibitive for many companies. Now you can simply give the delivery driver a smartphone. People are confident the technology works.

“Once a driver has acknowledged that the app is installed, routes can be downloaded via the TranSend platform. Apps are written in basic Android code, so there are no concerns over what device or version of a device the app is deployed on.”

Electronic PODs

Integration with fleet management systems allows POD details such as time of arrival to feed data back into other aspects of the operation. As Ridden puts it: “Low-cost smartphones, whether supplied by the organisation or by the mobile workers themselves, allow businesses to extend the reach of POD data capture into areas where it was not previously cost-effective, such as among temporary workers with only a few tracked items.”

Electronic POD is easy to provide with a smartphone, says Truckcom’s Wightwick, and it removes a major headache in a lot of logistics businesses – the paper trail of delivery notes.

Some operators are concerned that POD apps might not be as customisable as paper, or easily integrated into back-office systems. It depends on the developers, says Ridden. “The SmartTask POD app is capable of deployment across platforms, enabling businesses to pick and choose the most suitable handset for each employee, be it rugged, semi-rugged or a even a phone/tablet. It is also available as a standalone reporting module, and will integrate seamlessly with existing tracking solutions.”

Daily vehicle checks

Driver daily walk-round vehicle checks and defect reporting are cornerstones of safe truck operation. The DVSA now accepts electronic, paperless systems for defect reporting and records – a move that could potentially save operators time and money, and raise compliance levels.

Vehicle servicing and fleet management are often handled quite separately from operational management, though of course they are just as essential in any mobile business. However, an upcoming new generation of “connected trucks” with telematics-based vehicle conditioning monitoring and reporting is integrating the fleet maintenance function more tightly into the operational loop, and helping operators meet legally required compliance rules even more seamlessly.

“An electronic system cuts the cost of compliance,” says Paul Clarke, managing director of Truckfile. His online vehicle records management company now claims to have 122,000 vehicles on its database.

“With a paper system,” he argues, “you don’t know if the driver has for whatever reason failed to do a proper vehicle walk-round. Consequently, you don’t know what defects there are on the vehicle, and if they been reported properly – which in turn means there’s a risk that safety-critical defects may not be cleared immediately.”

Electronic walk-round checks can be handled by a stand-alone app, but are more typically integrated into drivers’ hours or fleet management software, helping close that all-important compliance loop. Online vehicle record specialists R2C Online and Truckfile both offer electronic driver checks as part of their services. R2C managing director Nick Wells reports that his company already handles 10,000 driver pre-checks each week, dealing with anything from large national operators to ten-vehicle companies.

The walk-round consists of an electronic check list with drop-down menus showing common defects and recording start and finish times. Some apps require drivers to tap the screen at each check and record the defect, while other allow drivers to record defects after the walk-round has been completed.

Truckfile’s app works in conjunction with QR codes attached to the vehicle at each check point; the driver just has to scan these with his phone. “It’s a simple way to record that the driver has actually got out of the cab and walked round the truck, and not just ticked a few on-screen boxes,” says Clarke.

Once complete, the check is sent via a mobile network to the office, allowing managers to identify non-compliant vehicles quickly and see which defects need urgent attention. SmartCheck and Truckcom both use a “traffic-light” style of dashboard screen to show which checks are due, completed and outstanding.

It’s a matter of trusting the driver, believes Guy Reynolds, technical director at Tachodisc. “If it’s 7 am in sleeting snow, drivers can do their walk round diligently, completing the defect report once they are back in the cab.” Some apps allow photographs to be taken of the defect, and some can also add a GPS location fix.

Most apps have been designed to run on the Google Android or Apple iOS operating systems, but check which version you have, as it may not be compatible. Some apps are also available as a web app and will run on a variety of devices and operating systems with a web browser, but Nick Wells says it’s well worth checking that the data can be stored on the device if there is no mobile coverage.

Reynolds says being able to identify which driver reported which defect is beneficial for fleets where there is double-shifting of vehicles. “Miscellaneous small repair bills for items such as minor scrapes and cracked deflectors can add up. Electronic walk-round helps managers pinpoint when the damage was done and whether the driver was at fault.”

Drivers’ hours

Another range of popular apps handles managing drivers’ hours and working time. The latest generation of digital tachographs, introduced in 2010, removed the requirement for a paper record of driving time, but drivers’ hours management remains notoriously complex. Many fleets use telematics to monitor drivers’ hours in real time and ensure they remain legally compliant. Several fleet management companies now provide a system that allows drivers to download an app to keep track of their daily and weekly driving, working and rest times.

What next?

There will be no let-up in the pressure on delivery companies to operate more efficiently, so the quick fixes that apps can deliver will continue to appeal. Whether your priority is ePOD-driven ETAs, making best use of your driver resource, or ensuring that your operation is legally compliant, it seems there’s an app for it. And if there isn’t one yet, someone somewhere is probably writing it.

 

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© Spice Court Publications Ltd 2017
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