Software & Scales 2002: Back on Board

Nearly a decade ago, the waste industry began weighing trash and auditing accounts. Onboard scale meters connected to onboard computers flowed like liquid silicon into the cabs of collection vehicles. A new industry bloomed.

But good results failed to follow.

Systems capable of charging by weight proved difficult to certify and to maintain. Customers objected to proposed pricing schemes related to those systems. And the charge-by-weight momentum downshifted to auditing with a couple of trucks equipped with scales.

Yet even auditing proved difficult. Drivers couldn't figure out the onboard computers necessary to manage the systems. And transferring data from truck systems to the operating systems in the office involved clunky, time-consuming maneuvers.

While auditing scales remained on trucks, no one could say just how valuable a service they provided. Some companies swore by them. Others simply went through the motions. Many turned to other issues, such as building new revenues through consolidation.

Today, onboard scale systems may be about to weigh-in once again. As large companies have focused their attention on digesting acquisitions, mid-sized companies have been working on the scale problem.

“Mid-size companies are looking to onboard scale technology to gain an advantage over the larger companies,” says Rick Talbott, who manages the refuse scale business for Stress-Tek Inc., Kent, Wash., the manufacturer of Vulcan scales. “Sooner or later, the bigger companies will have to get back into onboard systems, too, because they are going to have to figure out how to make their existing business more profitable.”

If Talbott is right in his evaluation, the first days of the new era he predicts may have dawned in Toronto this fall.

A Promising Pilot

Southern Sanitation Ltd., Toronto, a mid-sized commercial waste hauling company with 20 front-end loaders, 16 rear loaders, 16 roll-offs, two transfer stations and a recycling plant, recently finished a successful pilot of a new onboard weighing system.

Stress-Tek has supplied its scales for the test, while Trux Route Management Software, Cambridge, Ontario, is supplying the operational software.

Don't assume you've heard about this before. This is new, thanks to a third company in the mix, Tetra Technologies Inc., of Montreal, Quebec.

Founded in 1996, Tetra provides computerized hardware and software that facilitates the exchange of information between vehicles and in-house computer systems.

“Tetra has done something that is very cool,” says Rodger Mehrer, president of Soft-Pak, a San Diego-based provider of waste-hauling software. “They have answered the big question about onboard weighing,” he says. “You can weigh containers all day long, but if you don't know where the container is, what good does having a weight do you? Tetra's system can tie specific lifts to specific containers and specific customers.”

This has been done before, Mehrer admits. But the process was unreliable when handled by hand. “There are too many inconsistencies when drivers are expected to record this information,” he explains. “They sit down at the end of the day and do their paperwork from memory, and they make mistakes. The only way this system works is if someone follows the driver and checks what stops he is really doing.”

Tetra's onboard computer, dubbed Victor, eliminates manual errors.

Southern Sanitation has used onboard scales for 12 years, on its front-end and rear loaders. While company officials express faith in their old auditing system, they acknowledge that it functioned with numerous errors. “The drivers write down the weights on their route sheets,” says Sergio Gomes, the company's operations manager. “Problems include poor handwriting and filling out the sheets during a break after a couple of stops. This leads to mistakes.”

A bigger problem, according to Gomes, arises with information transfer at the end of the day. “The driver turns the route sheet over to the dispatcher, who inputs the weights into the operational system. An average driver does about 70 calls per day. So that's 70 inputs to be logged per driver. Because transferring the data manually takes so much time, we can't close out a month's billing until about a week after the end of the month. With the system we're piloting, we hope to close out a month in a day.”

Using Victor in its pilot, Southern Sanitation is planning to automate the data collection and data transfer processes. Two trucks have been equipped with Vulcan V600 front fork weighing systems and Victor systems. And a separate desktop computer for the test was installed with a version of Trux. At the beginning of the day, the desktop, using a wireless local area network (LAN) supplied by Tetra, transfers routing data to the onboard system of each of the two trucks.

In the truck, the driver receives a message asking him to accept the routing data. He can press one of two buttons: yes or no. When the driver presses yes, he is logged on for the day. A “status” button shows the driver the day's calls on the system's small computer screen. A “calls” button brings up the day's calls in order.

Upon arriving at the first call, the driver presses “enter,” and the screen highlights the first call. As the driver pulls up to the container, he presses “confirm” to a prompt the system. Then, he presses the “weight” button and makes the lift. The screen displays the net weight of the container and prompts the driver to accept or reject the weight. The driver taps “accept.”

With just four buttons to press per stop — all prompted by the onboard device — Victor records the weight, stop, and time in and time out of the container weight.

The system also is good for recording other problems. For example, if a car is blocking a container, the driver can use a keyboard to note the license plate number of the car.

“Typically, drivers spend a half hour a day filling out their route sheets,” Gomes says. “Here, the system records all the information.”

The driver also can use the keyboard to enter transfer station and landfill data into the system.

And should another call come up during the day, the dispatcher can message that call to a driver using Victor.

Once of all the day's calls have been handled, when the driver returns to the yard, he presses an “end of route” button. The system asks to confirm this, which can be done by pressing the “yes” button. Then Victor goes to work, automatically transferring information about the day's pickups, transfer station stops and landfill stops from the truck to the Trux system computer in the dispatch office.

“The dispatcher reviews the data, checking to make sure every call was completed,” Gomes says. “For blocked containers, the dispatcher schedules another call for the following morning. Next, we set the schedule for the following day and close out [the current day].

Baby Steps

To date, Southern Sanitation's pilot has focused only on automating the route sheet, log and billing information. “It's faster for the driver and the office,” Gomes says. “The data flows automatically to and from the office, and if we want to bill the following day, we can.

The pilot test also uses Trux to generate auditing reports that track production. “We're getting the true time of the work,” Gomes says. “We can also identify the heavy bins right away, and we have.”

Because this is only a pilot test, Southern Sanitation hasn't taken any action on overweight bins — so far. But Gomes says that the audits clearly indicate what needs to be done. He suspects that adjustments identified by the system will pay for the system in relatively short order.

Oh Big Brother

Of course, there are pitfalls. Primarily, if drivers don't follow the plan, the system won't work. “It's very important to sell the system to the drivers,” Gomes says. “In the beginning, the drivers see this as a ‘big brother’ tool to watch them. It is, in a sense. But our most important goal is to work faster and more accurately by eliminating paperwork. We've spent a lot of time talking about this with the drivers, to make sure they understand the benefits to the company and to them that will come from reducing paperwork.”

After two months of testing, Southern Sanitation has judged the system successful and intends to begin equipping its entire fleet of front and rear loaders, according to Gomes.

For the time being, the company will continue to use the system off-line, which means that the drivers are on their own on their routes, with no technological supervision.

Global positioning system (GPS) capabilities are available, but Southern Sanitation has decided not to install this option. “GPS enables haulers to see exactly where the truck has been,” says Kathy Siciliano, Tetra's marketing manager. “You can configure the system to prompt for coordinates as often as you want, say every seven seconds. So you can track the route that the vehicle has taken” in conjunction with the times spent at each scheduled (or unscheduled) stop.

Indeed, GPS systems are springing up across the marketplace. TransComp Systems Inc., Orange, Calif., for example, recently introduced its GPS system that uses a satellite receiver and cellular transmitter supplied by WebTech Wireless Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia, to establish a truck's coordinates. The cellular system then transmits the collected information back to a server housed at WebTech's offices. Customers can log onto a website to view and capture the information on the WebTech server. The system also will capture and transmit data from onboard scales, and will give an appropriate connection between the scales and the GPS/cellular box in the cab.

GPS tracking makes it possible to “optimize each route so you can run it in the shortest amount of time and/or distance,” says Allen Ische, Trux president.

In fact, Ische suspects that a hauler who doesn't want to put scales on trucks still will find GPS and route optimization capabilities advantageous. “Haulers might find great benefits in being able to draw a picture of the order in which a driver actually runs his route, as compared to what is laid out by the route sheet,” he says. “Why did the driver alter the order of certain stops? Why was there a 40-minute interval between these two pickups?”

Of course, software providers such as Trux and Soft-Pak that have reviewed the Victor system are not alone. Other companies have begun to develop similar systems. FleetBoss Global Positioning Solutions Inc., Orlando, Fla., for example, currently has a product in development.

Some express doubts based on the experience of the past 10 years. “Theory is one thing; if it works is another,” says one software provider.

Nevertheless, these emerging systems may prove that a simplified onboard computer, integrated with operational software, may, at last, make onboard weighing systems practical and effective.

Which could mean that — they're back.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor. For additional information about using software and scales, visit

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