Automatic for the People

Editor's Note: The following is a first-person account of Goodrich, Texas-based Pro Star Waste's experiences with a fully automated collection system, told by one of the firm's executives.

HESITANTLY, CARL (not his real name) reached for the button control as he eased up to the next cart in the row laid out for his training. Was he exactly lined up for the arm to grasp the container? He pushed the button, and the arm picked up the cart.

With more assurance now, he pushed the button commanding the container to tip into the side hopper. Unfortunately, the cart fell into the hopper. Slightly panicked, Carl quickly stopped the packer mechanism and jumped out of the cab. Vaulting onto the ledge next to the hopper, Carl fished the cart out in the nick of time, undamaged.

Now six years ago, Carl's first day of training with a fully automated system had its ups and downs. Today, however, Carl is thriving under automated collection. So is his employer, Goodrich, Texas-based Pro Star Waste.

In fact, we recently received an unsolicited letter nominating Carl, who is known to patiently answers customers' questions about the system, position the carts of new customers for pick-up and even hand out dog biscuits to neighborhood canines, for “Ambassador of the Year” for his care and personal touch with customers. The impromptu designation stuck, and Carl now is known as “the Ambassador.”

So why did Pro Star Waste choose to go fully automated when it was formed seven years ago, given the rural Texas nature of its service area, the many poor roads its drivers encounter, the challenges of managing individual billing, the expense related to staging carts and getting service agreements signed, and all the internal tracking of carts, routes and driver maps? One word: Profitability.

The costs of automated trucks and carts, a trained in-house mechanic staff, parts stocking and inventory management, and specialists to coordinate and track individually billed residential cart service are outweighed by having to employ only one person per truck. In addition, we can hire brains instead of the brawn needed to lift unwieldy items into rear loader trucks. When seeking new drivers, we puts a strong emphasis on men and women with the smarts, alertness and the personality to talk with customers, and our drivers are told to think of themselves as the owners of their routes.

So how do we sell our largely rural customer base on the benefits of once-a-week, automated service as opposed to twice-a-week, manual service? The biggest selling point is the elimination of rural animal problems. The smartest raccoon cannot stand on the attached lid of an automated cart and open it at the same time. In addition, the benefits of not having to place trash in garbage bags by the curb and exposing the bags to the weather are another plus. Warehousing trash in the Texas summer heat is enough to cause marital discord, and the odor control provided by placing waste in the automated cart with the lid closed over the built-in raised lip just might save marriages.

A while back, one of our managers was driving around observing one of the automated routes and was flagged down by a customer who admitted, “I want you to know I never thought these $%#@ carts would work, but I like ‘em!” Comments like these often are made to our drivers or are written on billing statements.

What You Need

What do we at Pro Star Waste look for in an automated vehicle? These are garbage trucks, not rocket ships. Overall, we look for simplicity of design.

While it is wonderful having only one button for the driver to push to perform the automated functions, we prefer the driver to have one button for each stage — grabbing, lifting, emptying and releasing — of the arm's handling of the cart. In this way, the control shifts away from complicated computer systems that can be difficult to maintain.

Grippers must be designed to service the particular style of cart you are using, or you will damage a lot of them.

As for the truck itself, no matter your preference, make sure the frame is heavy enough for your operations and has plenty of cross members because the constant arm motion tends to twist the truck frame. A heavier suspension and good springs will help to stabilize the platform. We often compensate for the extra workload of the springs on the loading side of the truck by adding an extra spring or increasing the arc of the spring to offset the continuous motion. We call this “tricking the truck out.”

Right-hand drive (steering on the right) is an expense and extra maintenance problem we choose to bypass. Drivers quickly adapt to the mirrors and cameras that they use when steering from the left.

Spend your time and money on hiring good drivers and training them, as opposed to spending on gadgetry. And, make sure your truck is not under-spec'd for the body.

Gotta Maintain

What, exactly, is involved with the inventory and mechanical aspects of automation? Being a rural company, Pro Star Waste maintains an extensive inventory of parts onsite since dealers may be far away, temporarily out of stock, or not able to return phone calls quickly when a truck is down. We carefully examine which replacement parts our vehicles consistently need to determine the supply of extra components to keep on hand. If you are always replacing gripper belts and micro switches, then always keep more than a few in stock.

Preventive maintenance is the law, with all of our vehicles being regularly reviewed for performance. Daily greasing of the trucks is performed, as are checks for leaks, broken wells, cylinder tightness and the vehicle's overall mechanical condition. Basically, we shake the truck a little to see what, if anything, is loose! Our route breakdowns are greatly reduced by preventive maintenance.

Perhaps the most important advice to haulers considering automation would be to tell them to be ready to perform proper maintenance. You cannot do “fall off” maintenance, meaning that you fix components as they break down. Haulers must stay ahead of the maintenance on an automated truck.

What about mechanic training? Basically, any mechanic who can read an electrical schematic and hydraulic flow schematic can diagnose and repair automated trucks.

Customer Tracking

At Pro Star Waste, we track our customers and carts through editable mapping software that we began programming ourselves more than 30 years ago. We use the Linux operating system on our computers.

Each day, the drivers have updated maps that are color-coded to indicate new customers, customers whose service has been suspended for non-payment and customers who no longer use Pro Star Waste. Drivers are trained to review their maps before starting their day's routes. The maps allow any driver to drive any route. We may automate our route monitoring operations as technology becomes increasingly simple and affordable, with global positioning system (GPS) tracking and daily DVD recording of stops serviced. We always view with interest what other companies are doing and try to adapt new technologies to improve efficiencies.

In summary, purchasing, “tricking” out, and maintaining automated trucks is expensive, but this is more than offset by needing only one driver per truck. If you don't purchase quality vehicles, modify them as appropriate and maintain them properly, they will not last very long. Short- and long-term repair expenses will eat up the profits quickly.

Cindy Jones is an assistant manager for Goodrich, Texas-based Pro Waste Services.