Competition is the name of the game in the waste business. Whether it's a municipal system vs. a private hauler or a large international conglomerate vs. a mom-and-pop company, each is looking for ways to sharpen its strategy, satisfy one more customer or improve pricing.
Technology can help a waste collection system "one-up" the competition. Its primary goal is to make services more time- and cost-efficient by helping collection trucks and equipment increase the number of customers serviced in a time period, or reduce the personnel required to do a job.
To explore how technology gave All American Waste Control the upper hand, Waste Age spoke to Hunter Carruthers, district manager; Dean Matts, general manager; and Ron Michael, Oklahoma district maintenance manager just before the recent devastating tornado.
The Oklahoma City-based company, which is part of Allied Waste Industries Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz., owns and operates transfer stations, landfills, hauling and recycling operations.
Waste Age: Who are you competing against in your territory?
Carruthers: In the Oklahoma City metro area, there are a number of major players. Some of the area cities still do their own service. In Oklahoma City, for example, half of the city's residential base is handled by Waste Management [Inc., (WMI), Houston] and the other half is handled by the city. Oklahoma City is an open market for commercial and industrial waste.
WA: Can you talk about the technologies that you're using to compete?
Carruthers: We have a state-of-the-art computer system we designed in-house. When a customer calls, it is entered into the system. We track the customer contact from there. Everything that needs to be done with that customer's account is in the database.
For example, the computer tells us when to set the container and what the service frequency will be. The computer routes it, and it's printed on the driver's route sheet. If something happens to the customer and the account is discontinued, that also goes into the computer to alert operations when to discontinue the container.
Michael: The computers [assist] with preventative maintenance. If I want to keep track of warranty items, it can help me do that, too. It makes my life a whole lot easier. It's pretty hard to track a lot of equipment on paper.
WA: How do you decide which equipment/services to automate?
Carruthers: We're semi-automated on all of our residential routes. When we look to service an area - rural or urban - we decide what type of truck will work best. We spec the truck based on what services we're going to provide and what we're going to need.
Our customers want all of their trash picked up, so we use a semi-automated truck rather than a fully automated one. This way our customers can put additional trash next to the cart and the driver will get out and service it. If we were fully automated, there's a chance some trash could be left.
WA: Explain your company's philosophy regarding technology and how you have implemented it.
Carruthers: Over the years, we have not been afraid to change. If somebody has a better mousetrap, we're anxious to try it. We test the technology to see if it's a good business decision. In some cases, we've tried technology and decided it wasn't a good fit. For example, we weren't afraid to try on-board scales, but it didn't pan out. We're experimenting with another technology now. Oklahoma City is the third largest land mass area in the country. A lot of rural areas don't have street addresses. There's just a rural mailbox or a post office box, so it's difficult to route those customers. We've experimented with a GPS, or global positioning system [by Lowrance, Tulsa, Okla.]. When we deliver a cart to a rural customer, we get the GPS location and we enter that into the computer. That location then comes out on the route sheet that we give the driver. You also can give the driver a map.
We started this project about two years ago, but the technology wasn't really where it needed to be for us to implement it. The technology is improving every year, and as soon as we're sure it's a good business decision, we'll implement that program.
WA: What technology do you use to identify customers and ensure they are satisfied?
Carruthers: We can track customers in the computer in terms of how they are doing, if they are having service problems, or whatever. It helps us correct problems.
WA: When you make a change resulting from improved technology, do you explain it to your customers? If so, how?
Carruthers: We are going through that in the southeastern part of the state where we just acquired business. We've sent the customer a letter explaining how the system works and how the new statement will look.
Matts: We also have our sales reps visit with our customers. That's very important.
WA: How do you introduce technology to your drivers and to your mechanics?
Carruthers: We hold a training session for all of the associates who are going to use the new equipment or software.
WA: Do you find that the technology on new trucks entering the market is reliable?
Michael: Sometimes. When electronic transmissions first came out, nobody knew how to work on them. They were a nightmare. That was four years ago. The last trucks we bought haven't had any problems. They're improving.
WA: What technologies do you see coming that will help you to be even more competitive in the future?
Carruthers: We've experimented with a computerized routing system. I think that when that gets perfected, it will be an asset for us. It would be really nice if someone perfected a truck to pick up garbage and recycling routes at the same time with the same truck. I've seen split bodies, and we've looked at those, but we really haven't seen anything that works for us yet.
WA: What is your overall philosophy on what technology can do to help you gain that competitive edge in the future?
Carruthers: We realize that technology is changing the industry. Our needs are changing. In Oklahoma, the landfill tipping rates still are low compared to other parts of the country. But as landfill space becomes more precious, there may be more of a need for technology in recycling. As we use technology, we still want to keep it simple. When it's time to change and when the technology is there, we may change.
All American Waste Control, Oklahoma City, owns and operates collection, processing and disposal facilities in Oklahoma.
* Hauling 3 hauling operations, including Oklahoma City, Cordell and Alderson.
* Recycling 1 materials recovery facility (MRF) in Oklahoma City, which processes 18,000 tons per year (tpy).
* Landfills 4 landfills, including
Southeast OKG Landfill, Oklahoma City - 351,318 tpy;
Newcastle Landfill, Newcastle - 132,536 tpy;
Pocasset Landfill, Pocasset - inactive; and
Alderson Regional Landfill, Alderson - 28,270 tpy.
* Transfer Stations 2 transfer stations, including
All American Waste Control Weatherford, Weatherford - 13,340 tpy; and
All American Waste Control Clinton, Clinton - 19,156 tpy.