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What do waste haulers want from on-board scales and software?

To be sure, many waste haulers use on-board scales, and even will tout the benefits of auditing the profitability of accounts and maintaining legal loads. But when it comes right down to it, the waste industry hasn't completely bought into on-board scales.

"While on-board scales have become an accepted industry offering, I'm not sure that there is widespread reliance on scales," says Rick Erickson, a spokesman with Norwesco Computing, a Seattle-based company that provides routing and billing software with an on-board scale component. "We have clients in 20 states and Canada, and our base is in the Northwest. Our clients don't use on-board scales, although I know of a couple who are considering scales."

Erickson believes the lack of interest he sees probably relates to the nature of the business in the Northwest. Because haulers there operate according to state regulations with no face-to-face competition, there is little interest in auditing accounts. "In other parts of the country with head-to-head competition, it becomes more important to audit loads and insure profitability," he says. "I'm sure it's inequitable when a hauler picks up a heavy restaurant load at one stop and a lighter office load at the next. But it's a moot point in this area until the regulators put per pound fees in the tariffs."

In unregulated areas, on-board scales are more important.

"If haulers begin to ask for scales, we will upload a weighing system into our routing software, which will be able to compute charges or profitability," Erickson adds. "For the time being, we're meeting with manufacturers of on-board scales and talking about ideas that may motivate haulers to begin weighing their loads."

Meantime, the large national waste management companies soon may begin selling on-board scales to themselves. With a handful of large national haulers picking up a huge percentage of the nonhazardous waste in the country, competition is fierce. As a result, a number of these companies appear to be investigating issues that may well-provide compelling reasons to add more on-board scales to their fleets.

Tipping the Scales This is not something that will happen right away, but weight is an issue that top fleet and operational executives are evaluating, according to the haulers. Republic Services, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for instance, has equipped approximately 20 percent of its 900 front and rear loaders with scales, at the request of local operating divisions.

"We install scales on 10 percent of the new trucks we purchase," says Tom Miller, vice president of operations for Republic. "In fact, we've been doing that for a number of years."

Whether or not scales are a good investment for Republic depends on the division, Miller says. "Scales make the most sense in high-priced disposal markets," he says. "And you have to evaluate those markets specifically. In Broward County, Fla., for example, it costs $85 a ton to dump in the county incinerators, where all the waste is required to go. Scales make a lot of sense there. Scales probably make sense in Boston, too. We have no operating divisions there, but I know that it costs $65 to $85 per ton to dispose of waste in that market."

For example, in New York City disposal fees typically are high enough that a decision about scales might go either way. But in Indiana where tipping fees probably average $20 a ton, "I don't think scales would make a good truck investment," Miller says.

Once Republic decides scales make sense for one of its divisions, the scales must meet certain basic criteria. A cab readout must be connected to scales and mounted on the truck body or fork arms.

Republic also requires drivers to look for trends. For example, if a driver is checking a grocery store account with heavy garbage, his job is to make sure the weight is consistent with the price. When price and weight get out of whack, the driver reports it, Miller notes.

To go along with scales, Republic used to purchase tracking and reporting software for its on-board systems, but has stopped. "We found those systems were too hard to maintain and keep operating," Miller says. "It's a big investment for something that you end up not using. We found that it's easier to ask the drivers to look for the heavy weights and to write the weights onto their route sheets. Then, the divisions enter the data into the corporate system, which produces the reports."

Once the data is in the system, it allows Republic to evaluate weight trends and fix problems without upsetting customers.

"We analyze each account in two ways," Miller says. "How long does it take to service the account, compared to an average service stop? And how much does the trash weigh? The higher the disposal cost, the more value there is in knowing how much the material weighs.

"If weight turns out to be an issue with a particular customer, our salespeople can use the recorded weights to validate a change," he explains. "First, we'll bring the problem to the customer's attention and suggest options. Can a grocery store push some of the waste down a garbage disposal? Can they de-water the vegetables before putting them in the trash container? Do they need to do a better job of keeping lids on the containers between pick-ups? If none of these suggestions work, we need to raise prices. But when you work this way with a customer, they are more accepting of price hikes."

Keen on Customer Service According to Miller, scales provide their greatest benefits in the form of customer-service opportunities.

Casella Waste Systems Inc., Rutland, Vt., which operates in the Northeast, also has found that on-board scales can enhance customer service and efficiency. According to Gary R. Simmons, Casella's vice president of fleet management, about 75 percent of the company's fleet of 115 front loaders and 50 percent of the company's 450 rear loaders carry on-board scales, complete with reporting systems. Most of the scales are made by SI/Allegany (formerly SI Technology) of Cumberland, Md.

The company also is testing body scales from Weigh-Right and Vulcan, which work off a truck's suspension. And Casella is testing Vulcan and SI load cell scales on several front-loaders.

Scales help estimate operational costs, Simmons says. Knowing the weight of the containers helps control the weight going onto the trucks. Scales also aid in determining whether customers have the right size container. Finally, scales can contribute to routing decisions - whether a container is being picked up often enough.

Casella uses software supplied by Soft-Pak, Roswell, Ga., with its on-board scales. Like the scales themselves, software adds to routing efficiency, Simmons says, by tracking the time between stops. If there is too much time, a manager can add stops.

But the addition of software to an on-board scale system raises the need for training. As a result, Casella has two internal trainers. "One is for the IT side, and the other is for operations," Simmons says. "We also expect our vendors to help train. SI worked with us to develop our training program for both operations and maintenance people.

"Overall, the reason we use scales is to provide better customer service, in terms of better routing, insuring that the frequency of our pick ups is right, and in providing the right kind of container for customers," Simmons notes.

Weighing the Benefits While Republic and Casella largely appear to have satisfied their needs with different kinds of commitments to on-board scales, Waste Management Inc., Houston, is reviewing its operations and considering how scales may improve efficiency.

Currently, Waste Management maintains a fleet of 55,000 trucks, which includes approximately 30,000 residential, commercial and recycling trucks. Of those, about 1,400 use on-board scales.

Prior to its merger with Houston-based USA Waste, Waste Management mandated scales for trucks in some operating areas. After the merger, however, this mandate fell by the way. Now, decisions about on-board scales currently are made by local operations managers.

The company's operational review, which only has just begun, will consider issues such as productivity and draw conclusions that may influence whether local divisions should use scales. The issues under consideration also will create high expectations for companies interested in supplying on-board scales and software to the company.

"Our goal is to identify what kinds of scales will provide returns on investment for particular applications," says Dan Beck, the company's technical manager for truck bodies.

According to Sung-ho Chang, the company's industrial engineering manager, scale systems may help Waste Management achieve operational efficiencies that include, but go beyond, simple account auditing. "A scale system may enable us to organize routes better," he says. "For example, it would be better to place heavier loads at the end of a route, so the truck doesn't carry the heaviest loads throughout an entire route. By sequencing loads this way, it may create fuel efficiencies while causing less wear and tear on the trucks. Of course, scales will also help insure accurate pricing for individual customers."

Ensuring Compatibility For a scale system to play a broader role than account auditor, however, the system must satisfy a number of conditions, including compatibility, with the Waste Management enterprise-wide information system. Making that happen raises the need for additional decisions, according to Jason Marshall, fleet product manager.

"We would have to decide whether to build an interface from the scale system back to our core backbone or to have a software vendor write a front end that integrates with our enterprise system," he says. "At the same time, we also have to evaluate the reliability, accuracy, ease of use and other issues related to the operation of the scales themselves."

Beck adds that the ability of a vendor to support a scale across Waste Management's entire organization will be important to any recommendations made by the group.

"In the past, support from vendors hasn't met our expectations," he says. "When a problem arose at the local level, vendors have dealt with it as an individual problem, not something that might have an impact on hundreds of operations. The way we do things today, we would expect a vendor to assign people to us as accountable for support. We would expect regular reports from them, informing us about what problems they are handling and why. We don't want to have to tell them about problems. We want them to find the problems, fix them and then tell us.

"We have done this with other products such as truck bodies and chassis, where the vendor support people issue service bulletins flowing all the time," Beck continues. "In some cases, these vendors have offices in our corporate headquarters."

Along these same lines, Dennis Decker, Waste Management purchasing manager, notes that local branch management must buy into any decisions made about scales and scale software.

"We have not had a lot of success in the past with management buy-in," he says. "Scale systems can be complicated, especially when mixed together with on-board computing. If we made a decision about using certain kinds of scales but didn't provide the kind of training necessary for the branch management and the drivers to embrace the concept, it could be a prescription for failure. Lack of adequate training has been a problem in the past, and we will look at this closely going forward."

Thus, in the end, the problem of selling scales and scale software to big trash companies, or anyone else in this industry, is they have high expectations. The haulers expect more than a product for the truck. They expect a business concept that attacks as many competitive challenges as possible.

And today, that's the price of doing business with the companies in any industry.

Here's a couple new scalehouse features:

Semi-Automated Public Landfill Lanes. Rick Erickson of Norwesco Computing, Seattle, reports the appearance of a new approach to public scale lanes at landfills. One of its landfill customers has built a semi-automated lane system for public use. The configuration of the landfill entrance guides public vehicles - cars to small trucks - to a kiosk with an intercom and a printer. Using the intercom from the scalehouse, located some distance away, a teller asks the customer to specify the type of trash: yard waste, recyclables, and so on. The system weighs the vehicle and prints a receipt with a bar-code.

The customer then follows color-coded lines to the proper disposal area, unloads the materials and returns to another kiosk at the landfill exit. In the exit lane, adjacent to a teller's perch, the customer scans the bar-code received at his entry. The system weighs the emptied vehicle and computes the fee. The customer pays and goes on his way.

By configuring the lanes so customers must stop only once to deal face-to-face with a teller, the system speeds up operations.

Wireless RF Lanes. Steve Cole of Cardinal Scale Manufacturing Co., Webb City, Mo., says that Cardinal recently received assignments to connect its scales to radio frequency (RF) tag readers at landfills.

"More and more companies want unattended scales at both landfills and transfer stations," he says. "RF tags on vehicles speed traffic by eliminating the need to deal directly with operators. Such systems also cut down on the number of staff required to manage systems with multiple scales."

Another advantage to wireless RF systems, Cole continues, is that it affects the configuration and placement of landfill and transfer station lanes. "Laying cable from a scale to a scalehouse located some distance away can be time consuming and expensive," he explains. "With a wireless RF system, a reader/transmitter at the scale can send information to a receiver connected to the computer system in the scalehouse. Because no cabling is necessary, the positioning of the scalehouse and scale lanes becomes easier. All of this used to be cost-prohibitive, but prices have come down to a point where I think we will see more of this."

When system planners evaluate automated collection, overflow waste is an important consideration.

Most families find that 90 gallons of disposal capacity per week is sufficient - especially if recycling and yard waste diversion programs are available. But there always will be exceptions - after holidays, parties or spring-cleaning, for example. And, some customers place set-outs next to or on top of their containers because it is easier than lifting the lids and placing materials inside their carts.

R.W. Beck, Orlando, Fla., contacted local governments and haulers to determine average overflow percentages (the average number of out-of-cart set-outs as a percentage of the total possible). Among the communities that tracked the data, overflow rates ranged from about 6 percent to 16 percent including:

- Tucson, Ariz.: 6 percent

- Memphis, Tenn.: 7 percent

- Plano, Texas: 11 percent; and

- Norfolk, Va.: 16 percent

Carts were not always full when overflow waste was present. In Memphis, for example, spot-checks revealed that containers often had sufficient room to hold materials that had been left on top of or near the carts. Consequently, customer misinformation or unwillingness to comply with overflow set-out requirements may be the culprit, rather than excessive volume demands.

Keeping this in mind, the potential productivity of fully automated systems may be seriously compromised if the local government or waste management staff are not willing to enforce containerized set-out requirements.

In Chesapeake, Va., and Oklahoma City, for example, a manual collection truck completes a second pass of each household each collection day to pick up the overflow. This approach increases fleet and labor demands and undermines the intent of fully automated collection.