The Automation Game: Playing It By The Rules

Reduced fleet and crew, fewer injuries, combined services and long-term savings sound like good ideas to you? Automation may be the answer. But before you make the switch to automated collection, determine if the system is right for your community.

In an automated collection system, residents use a specially designed container that is compatible with automated dumping mechanisms on collection vehicles. The semi- or fully-automated collection vehicles tip the containers using hydraulic lifters. On semi-automated trucks, the lifters are typically flippers that require a crew person to attach the carts to the dumping device. One or more flippers may be mounted to a semi-automated truck. Fully-automated trucks are equipped with hydraulic arms that can reach out to grasp the containers, lift and empty them, return containers to the curb and retract. With a fully-automated system, only one crew person the driver is needed to control the collection sequence.

Three basic issues must be addressed when considering the switch to automation: analyze the alternatives; identify the target audiences that will need to be sold on automation; and develop strategies to reach those audiences and build support for the revised collection system.

Selling Automation Before selling automated collection to a community, make sure that automation is a technically and economically sound alternative for the collection system. Municipal solid waste managers must have a thorough understanding of the existing collection system and its costs before pitching automation. Operators should evaluate the following details: * Route and crew productivity. This includes crew size, time on route, time off route, time per stop on route and pounds collected per crew per day.

* Vehicle productivity. This includes average weight per load, compaction rates, age of the existing fleet and maintenance history.

* Collection frequency. Evaluate the impact of combining services and altering current collection schedules.

* Workers compensation and injury claims. This includes the number of injuries, the types and severity of injuries and the working days lost per injury.

* Street configuration. Determine the number of one way streets, on street parking patterns, street width, types of alleys and overhanging trees, wires or any other obstacles to the street.

* Containerization. Try to determine the impact of providing containers to residents, the issues related to recycling and source reduction and the special needs of senior citizens and physically challenged residents.

* Fee structures. How do residents pay for waste collection now? Consider the flexibility of the collection system to respond to alternative fee structures such as variable rate pricing.

The potential for long-term lower costs is often the most compelling reason to move to a semi- or fully-automated collection system. While semi- and fully-automated collection vehicles are typically more expensive than manual rear- or side-loading packer trucks, they also can save money in the long run.

A fully-automated collection vehicle would cost approximately 47 percent less to collect refuse each month than the same service with a manual rear-loading packer truck, excluding the costs of purchasing containers (see chart on page 20).

Although communities do not have to supply residents with containers, standardized containers ensure that set-outs are compatible with the collection equipment to maximize productivity and efficiency. Wheeled carts with lids are the most commonly used. These carts are available in a variety of sizes, from 30-gallon capacity to more than 300 gallons. For weekly refuse collection, carts with approximately 90 gallons of capacity are the norm. In communities where a variable rate fee structure has been established, residents are encouraged to select a weekly service with containers that could range from 18 gallons to 90 gallons or more.

If the costs of providing residents with 90-gallon containers is factored into the equation, the monthly costs for the semi- and fully-automated collection options would increase by approximately $1.03 per month (assuming that carts would cost approximately $60 each, amortized over seven years at a 10 percent in- terest rate). When the cost of purchasing containers is included in the analysis, semi-automated collection can become more expensive than manual collection, unless the collection crew can be down-sized to two persons. Even with the container cost factored in, fully-automated collection would still result in nearly a 20 percent savings over manual systems.

To save the initial investment in equipment, communities can purchase used vehicles, retrofit existing packer trucks with semi-automated cart tippers and pursue other cost-cutting measures. Each of these alternatives must be carefully evaluated to ensure that the vehicle and equipment purchasing decisions will achieve the desired operational result.

Weighing Factors Although automation may provide legitimate benefits to a community, there may be tremendous resistance to changing the current collection system (see flow chart). Many people, from elected officials to collection crews and residents, may resist the idea of changing a system that provides reliable garbage pick-up. Overcoming inertia is sometimes one of the largest obstacles to implementing a revised collection ap-proach, so it is important to understand the target audiences and their concerns. Typically, the following groups will need to be involved or convinced before a major collection system change can be undertaken: * Decision-makers. Elected officials and administrators are often motivated by the bottom line. If automation is portrayed as a clear way to reduce long-term costs, the battle may be won.

Other considerations may also affect attitudes toward automation. If jobs are a hot issue in a community, opposition may arise since automation will eliminate low-skilled jobs by down-sizing crews. If recent tax increases have been implemented, decision-makers may be unwilling to support programs that appear to decrease resident services. This objection may be particularly strong when the move to automation is coupled with a shift from twice per week refuse pick-up to weekly collection service.

In addition, there may be pressure from decision-makers to privatize the municipal collection system. In such cases, there may be little support for spending money to modify the existing collection operation. * Public works management. Public works managers are likely to have bottom-line concerns as well as operational concerns. If capital budgets are tight, public works staff may be concerned about having sufficient funds to purchase containers and automated vehicles. If the main budgetary concerns are related to labor costs, however, automation may be a clear winner. Operationally, issues such as interruptions of service, phase-in scheduling, routing and route balance, training and maintenance considerations may be of out-most concern to a city's public works staff.

* Collection crews and unions. Jobs are the major concern of collection crews and union representatives. While automation may present easier working conditions for collection crews, fully-automated systems require fewer laborers, and a down-sized labor force will cut jobs. The impact of automation and re-routing on incentive pay systems and overtime earning potential are common concerns of collection crews and unions.

* General public. Some residents will be concerned that cost savings from automation be translated into tax cuts or other types of rebates. Others will be concerned about changes in collection frequency. And some, particularly senior citizens and physically challenged residents, will be concerned about the maneuverability of automated carts. The environmental impacts of automation and the impact of container sizing on recycling and waste reduction initiatives are other areas of concern. Still others will be concerned that automation is displacing workers and that it represents a departure from a collection system that they are used to and find acceptable - "If it's not broken, don't fix it."

Targeting Audiences The best way to convince each of the target audiences of the benefits of automation is simple:make sure that representatives from each group are involved in the decision making process.

From the start, a major collection system revision needs one or more champions-individuals who have researched the options, conducted the necessary analysis, demonstrated that automation offers a viable solution to local collection system challenges and can assist in building support for automation among the other target audiences. Typically, the project champion is a member of the public works management staff.

The project champion should understand the political environment in which decision-making takes place in the community, including key elected officials and staff and budgetary and planning cycles. Before a full-scale analysis of automation is undertaken, one or more decision-makers will probably need to ap-prove the evaluation. Timing is critical: The impacts of automation, including fiscal impacts, should be clearly identified prior to the budget approval process to allow decision makers adequate time to review and respond to the proposed system changes.

Strategies for building support should work from the grassroots level up to elected officials and should also include other decision-makers too.

Citizens can be involved in the collection system modification process through several methods, including citizen solid waste task forces or advisory groups, focus groups or surveys. In communities where standing committees or task forces exist to allow citizens to participate in solid waste decision-making, forums are a good opportunity to gather their ideas. If significant resident opposition is anticipated, establish a special task force to address collection issues.

Alternatively, focus groups could be conducted for randomly selected residents to air their concerns and reactions to automation. Mail surveys allow for a larger sample of resident response, but limit the type of information that can be collected.

At a minimum, the project champion could reach out to key citizen groups or homeowner associations during the planning and evaluation phase to identify local concerns. To help allay fears and overcome resistance, the project champion could arrange for system opponents to talk with citizen representatives and staff from other communities that have moved from manual to automated collection. This type of peer match has been an effective tool for building project support.

Finally, once the decision has been reached to implement an automated collection system, the new system must be clearly and consistently described to residents. The phase-in schedule, revised set-out requirements, modified collection schedules, container delivery dates, container maintenance considerations and other system components must be told effectively through an aggressive educational campaign. In some communities, failure to adequately inform residents about set-out requirements and enforce collection policies has crippled the effectiveness of the automated collection system.

Involve key representatives from the target audiences in the evaluation process as early as possible to address union and collection crew concerns about the impact of automation. Explain the rationale for moving to automation, which may make it possible to build consensus instead of confrontation.

From the collector viewpoint, the positive aspects of automation include better paying jobs (because one-person crews consist of drivers requiring a higher skill level); easier refuse collection; reduced worker injuries; decreased reliance on temporary laborers; and a more efficient collection system that may ensure that the community maintains municipal collection services.

To conquer fears of job loss, phase in automation on a schedule that approximately matches historical collection labor force attrition rates. Management may also provide increased training opportunities for existing laborers who want to become drivers to help address collection crew and union concerns.

Because decision-makers have political and fiscal concerns, it will be important for the project champion to have anticipated opposition and developed appropriate strategies to address or overcome opposition and concerns from each of the target audiences.

If fiscal concerns are motivating the proposed switch to automated collection, the budgetary impacts of automation must be projected and evidence provided from other communities that have reduced overall operating costs through automated collection. If job creation is an issue, plans for matching the phase-in schedule as closely as possible to attrition rates should be emphasized. If concerns about public reaction to the revised collection system are the stumbling block, citizen input and focus group or survey responses can be highlighted. Developing alliances and support from key decision-makers early on will help move the program through the political process.

The project champion should not overlook the value of experiences in other communities that have automated refuse collection. If automated collection makes economic and technical sense in a community, then everyone wins in the automation game.

Automation is the first step in a long line of considerations, including: * Topography and housing patterns. Winding mountain roads, narrow alleys or other non-typical topography can hamper the maneuverability of equipment. It may also be impossible to manipulate articulating arms, or even place containers where they are accessible to automated equipment. Likewise, high density housing, mixed commercial and residential areas (apartments that are above or behind shops) and scattered housing such as ranches, mountain cabins or large estate properties, can affect the efficiency of your operation.

At the very least, topography and housing patterns may require changes in body size, configuration or crew size, as well as container size and placement. Know the effect of these factors on limiting the type of equipment, container, crew size, collection time, setout requirements and cost efficiencies of your operation.

* Personnel. Re-examining and retraining personnel is key to automated collection. For example, a worker who drove a two-man rear-loader for 20 years without a mishap may lack the manual dexterity to manipulate the joystick of an automated arm. A driver may lack the reading skills needed to decipher a map; he relied on his loader to do that for him. Remedial skill training is often required. Training, in fact, probably pays higher dividends than almost any investment you can make. Customer service, driving, container delivery and repair, warehousing, complaint services, public relations and presentation skills have to be learned or hired. Without the proper skills, equipment and containers are artifacts.

* Containers. An automated system is somewhat misnamed. While automation refers to the type of vehicle used for collection, the system depends on containerization. As long as the waste is placed in a proper container where it is accessible, it can be collected by an automated vehicle. If it is placed in the same container but has to be moved manually to be accessible, it is a semi-automated collection system. If the container is dumped manually, it is a manual operation. If the waste is accessible to the automated arm, but not in the proper container, it cannot be collected with automation.

Containers usually cost more than the vehicles. In a town of 10,000 residences, one container per residence is 10,000 containers. Add in 5 percent for replacement and it comes to 10,500. At $60 per container, that's $630,000. Warehousing and associated costs are considerably more. Ten thousand houses divided by five days is 2,000 per day to be collected. Assuming the average collection capability is 400 homes per day, five collection vehicles will be needed. Six allows for a 20 percent downtime factor. At an average cost of around $120,000, that comes to $600,000. The container's components, processes and configuration should only concern the buyer as they influence what the container will be expected to do. The buyer should determine what tasks the container will be expected to perform, the logos, colors, peripheral requirements and the length of time the performance should be expected to last. The manufacturer will decide if such a container can be made.

* Vehicles. Determine how many of each kind of vehicle you need. Try to limit the variations of vehicle types and manufacturer so that mechanics won't have to deal with a variety of parts and service requirements. Of course, if a component weakness like transmission design occurs, the whole fleet is in trouble, along with the person who purchased it.

Size, weight, capacity, power, maneuverability and ergonomics influence vehicle requirements. A long haul to a landfill may make a large-capacity vehicle feasible, while a closer transfer station allows for smaller, more maneuverable trucks. Large, over-the-road vehicles should be designed with costly weight laws in mind. Axle spacing becomes important and capacity may be underutilized. A vehicle's harsh ride may cause driver fatigue, more accidents and slower operation. Determine the requirements and tailor the vehicle to them. Remember: there are two parts to a vehicle purchase. Since the chassis/body costs are about 70/30 or 60/40 ratios, the chassis manufacturer is usually the prime bidder, but you can shop for a chassis separately. Allow the body manufacturer to become a prime bidder and get the best vehicle for your needs. It's your money!

Los Angeles home of the Dodgers, ritzy nightlife and 720,000 Bureau of Sanitation customers.

In order to efficiently collect household trash and recyclables (Los Angeles has a 50 percent recycling goal), the city implemented an automated collection program in 1991.

According to Sanitary Engineer Enrique Zaldivar, 470,000 homes are served by automation while recyclables are collected at 522,000 homes.

By 1995, automation and curbside recycling will be a reality for all households, Zaldivar said.

The city is purchasing an additional 600,000 60-gallon carts and will announce in mid-February which of the three bidders will be awarded the contract. The city rejected an earlier series of bids for these units.

The city requires a 10 year warranty and a container made with 20 percent recycled material (up from 10 percent in the first phase bids).

They offer a 10 percent pricing preference for a company locating a manufacturing plant in an area designated by the city. Two of the bidders have agreed to this stipulation.

Zaldivar also said that the city plans to start a pilot weight-based collection program in September.