Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. If your company is in acquisition mode, that reminder may resound with a foreboding ring of truth. On one hand, you hope to become so profitable that you can eye your competitors with more than the usual hunger for growth. On the other hand, you realize that eating too fast can induce management nausea.
Recently, Carroll Independent Fuel Company, Inc. (Baltimore), a provider of heating oil and other fuels, discovered some of the pain of getting what it wished for. Until 1998, Carroll Fuel had serviced all residential and commercial customers from its Baltimore headquarters. To expand its coverage area, the fuel provider began acquiring smaller companies in the region. With two branch locations, Carroll Fuel discovered that the increased revenue didn't defray the cost of office salaries in all three locations.
Even before the expansion, Carroll Fuel had been experiencing gnawing sensations. Paper-based order processing had long been causing inefficiencies. So, in anticipation of additional growth, Carroll Fuel looked to automate its field service processes.
An Appetite For Automation
Under the previous system, drivers of metered fuel trucks departed each morning with preprinted delivery tickets. At the conclusion of a delivery, each driver manually cranked the fuel meter to stamp the ticket with the number of gallons delivered. One copy was left on-site as a customer receipt. Another was returned to the office for manual entry into the accounting system.
The problems were manifold. Drivers lost delivery tickets and missed deliveries. Office staff made manual data entry errors. Moreover, Carroll Fuel couldn't efficiently respond to calls for service. "Unless we continuously prompted our drivers on the radio, we had little idea where our trucks were or how much fuel was available," says Mike Connelly, operations manager.
Wireless Feeds Order Processing
To drive its automated field service solution, Carroll Fuel chose Automated Wireless Environment's (AWE) (www.automatedwireless.com) RF Metered Delivery System, a set of software tools designed for fuel delivery. Now, Carroll Fuel's back end accounting system transfers orders to the AWE system, which sends the orders wirelessly, via a Verizon CDPD (cellular digital packet data) network, out to the trucks. For the mobile data computers mounted in the trucks, AWE recommended SIDEARM units from Melard Technologies (Armonk, NY). The AWE system integrates the SIDEARM devices with the trucks' electronic meter registers.
In the morning, when drivers log on to their SIDEARMs, delivery tickets are downloaded to the mobile computers. At each delivery site, drivers now select "start" on a touch-screen-based SIDEARM, which triggers the fuel meter to begin pumping. When deliveries are completed, drivers push a "print" button. That action sends a command for a customer invoice to be printed and for completed delivery information to be transmitted back to the central office.
GPS Drives Service And Productivity
With the new system in place, Carroll Fuels has enhanced its customer service. Now that paper tickets have been eliminated, so has the chance of losing tickets and missing deliveries. Gone, too, are the posting errors in the accounting system. "In the winter, it's not uncommon for us to do 1,300 deliveries per day," Connelly says. "With that many deliveries, we've seen savings in the range of $70,000 per year just from eliminating errors."
The system's built-in GPS (global positioning system) functionality and inventory monitoring also contribute to enhanced customer service. "When we have a customer who is out of fuel, we'll go to the mapping screen, and view the trucks in the area. Then we'll determine which truck has enough available fuel to handle the stop," Connelly says.
By verifying truck locations throughout the day, the GPS functionality has also contributed to increased productivity. "Driver efficiency is up because unauthorized downtime has been eliminated," Connelly says. "We've actually increased our gallons delivered per hour by 5%."
Carroll Fuel's next step in the deployment will be to integrate truck-routing tools from GEOCOMtms (www.geocomtms.com). By automatically informing drivers which stop to make next, that software should enable Carroll Fuel to eliminate the cost of RF (radio frequency) communications.
Finally, Carroll Fuel can plan for future expansion that won't break the bank when it comes to office staffing. Says Connelly, "Because we can send orders and route instructions wirelessly from our central office, we have adopted a growth model that permanently eliminates the need for branch managers and dispatchers."