Spinning Software Solutions

November 1, 1998

8 Min Read
Spinning Software Solutions

Keith Sternberg

In the early '80s, as computers were starting to change the way the world did business, almost no software had been developed for the solid waste industry.

Today, industry-specific software can do almost everything from capturing scale customer data to generating invoices - functions that can create neat statistical analyses that track garbage trucks on the fly.

Unless you are starting from ground zero, integrating software into an existing system is every bit as important as finding a software package tailored to the way you do business. "It's difficult to take anything off the shelf and assume it's just going to pop right in. That's not realistic," says Bill McConkey of Mobile Computing, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

McConkey notes that the biggest value that software companies tout is the ability to integrate their packages into each customer's particular business practice.

Not integrating software packages just creates islands of automated tasks - ultimately defeating the purpose of computer automation. No one knows about these islands better than Karen Hochede, systems administrator for the city of Tucson, Ariz., which serves approximately 450,000 residents.

Two years ago, the Tucson sanitation department was using a stand-alone proprietary application, which required several hand-generated reports. The city's move to a UNIX-based application, purchased from PC Automation, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, has increased the system's speed and has allowed the department to multi-task and generate ad hoc reports using applications such as Microsoft Access.

The city of Tucson isn't the only operation that has changed its high-tech tools. Before 1989, Magic Disposal, an Egg Harbor Township, N.J.-based, family owned hauling company and transfer station, performed all business functions on two Apple IIs with applications written by the office manager's father.

Today, the company has five UNIX-based stations (purchased from Solid Waste Technologies, Jamesburg, N.J., and integrated with existing scale software), 250 customers, including Atlantic City casinos, and one transfer station.

But Delores Welcz, the office manager, wasn't always convinced that she had made the right choice. Moving from a system the company had been using for six years to what the family considered to be "a monster" was difficult.

Both Welcz and her mother were terrified that they would fail to produce invoices during the transition. However, she concedes, "if we didn't just do it, we would be 'Appling' till the end of time."

Welcz need not have feared: The transition to the new system took only one day, and the invoices were sent out the following day.

Ticket to Ride "The key to automation is integration," says Patrick Sweeney of Transcomp Systems Inc., Orange, Calif.

To this end, software appears to be moving in two distinct directions. One trend revolves around technologies developed by Microsoft, and the other revolves around connectivity and communication.

"You are either on the Microsoft train or on the open-systems train," Mobile Computing's McConkey says. "Open systems" refer to packages that are networked with phone lines and can use Internet and Java technologies. The Microsoft/Windows faction is a devoted group that appreciates the platform's simple graphic user interface.

"In our search for software, we found that there weren't too many [packages] that were truly Windows-based," says Sam McNeiland, sanitation superintendent for the city of Edmond, Okla., just outside of Oklahoma City.

Edmond, which has a fleet of eight automated trucks, four front-end loaders and two roll-offs, serves 22,000 homes and 5,500 businesses. It contracts with one of eight landfills in a 60 square mile radius.

Until recently, the sanitation department had been using a suite of home-grown computer applications, including databases and route sheets.

However, Year 2000 (Y2K) compliance sent the department searching for an alternative. [For more information on Y2K, also known as the "Millennium Bug," and to see if your systems are susceptible, see "Ghost in the Machine," World Wastes June 1998, page 38.]

"We've got big problems looming in the future, so we're in the midst of changing software," says McNeiland, who hopes to be online by December 1998.

However, many of the software packages that McNeiland reviewed were oriented around an accounting package - the one function that the city didn't need. "We have the world's best bill collection system: If you don't pay your garbage bill, we shut off your electricity," McNeiland says.

The city is working with Transcomp, but is only adding routing and customer service functions to its current system. "Route profitability [analysis] is not something that is easy for us to do unless we use our Big Chief notepad and a Crayola," McNeiland says.

In the future, the department hopes to compensate its drivers based on profit sharing rather than on an hourly wage, he adds.

McNeiland expects customer service and efficiency to improve with the software because it will allow a transaction to be complete when a customer service representative hangs up the phone.

In this new Windows environment, representatives can switch between screens in multiple applications, a capability that facilitates quick action while the customer is still on the phone. On the old system, a representative had to handle one transaction three or four times and risk error, due to the difficulty of running more than one application simultaneously.

Eventually, McNeiland hopes to expand the software's use to aid in truck routing.

The Open-System Side For the past 15 years, the city of Toronto has been riding the open-system train to manage its solid waste.

Eleven software upgrades later, the current generation handles all of the billing for the city's curbside trash and recycling pick-up service.

It has connected all 10 of the city's transfer stations, which are centralized, across a wide-area Integrated Services Digital Network, through the city's administration system.

Toronto's twelfth upgrade will rely even more on connectivity and increased capacity for handling data when the city and six surrounding municipalities join to form a "megacity."

"Obviously, the data requirements are going to grow with the size of the city," says David Carter, Toronto's weigh scale coordinator.

Part of the newest upgrade will involve replacing the present operating system with LINUX, a character-based system, which Carter says can run a relational database without compromising speed.

"Some sites are processing 1,000 vehicles a day," Carter says. "At one minute per vehicle, it is easy to see that there won't be enough minutes in the day [to accommodate the transactions]." Last year, corporate accounts and individuals paying cash accounted for $42 million in revenue. "We don't want to turn any of that money away," Carter says.

The relational database also provides statistical analyses on drivers and crews. "With that information, [managers can] hire and fire guys daily," Carter says.

While true real-time applications are possible, they are not common, especially in the Pacific Northwest, according to Penny Erickson, operations superintendent for Metro Regional Environmental Management, Portland, Ore.

Frequent storms and, consequently, line outages make real-time applications impractical because failures mean downtime.

Like the city of Toronto, Metro Portland, which serves the Portland region, uses its software in a semi-real-time application, in which the agency's downtown office is connected to its two transfer stations.

It uses a software package from Information Systems Inc., Baltimore, which is deigned to track and process scale transactions.

Although a Windows-based version of the software is available, Metro officials chose the DOS-based version because they believed that DOS would be more efficient at processing Metro's high number of transactions (600,000 customers and 750,000 tons of trash a year).

"Some of the graphically based applications spend a lot of time on output to the screen, which can require a lot of processor time simply to keep the screen updated," says Mark Wills of PC Automation.

"But in reality," he adds, "there's so much hardware horsepower available today, that [slow processing time] is not always an issue."

Client-server technology also can compensate for longer processing time that is typical of graphic-intensive applications by taking part of the processing burden off of the client machine, freeing it up for the next task.

Metro, which has been online for 12 years, reports that computer automation has enabled it to maximize its customer service staff by reducing the number of employees needed to weigh in trucks.

Additionally, the radio tag system, in which truck identifications are recorded from radio frequencies, has allowed the transfer stations to expand their operating hours without increasing cost.

But there still is room for improvement, says Erickson, who would like an update capable of different rate structures. "The commercial customer is less expensive," she explains. "It takes longer to service residences."

The price of a software system varies with the size of the order and whether or not the organization requires special programming.

"But hardware is the majority of the expense, not software," says Erickson, who notes that Metro currently pays a $5,000 annual licensing fee to use the software at its two transfer stations.

If there is one common thread tying solid waste software end-users together, it's better customer service made possible by computer automation.

Improved customer service is what prompted Ventura, Calif.-based E.J. Harrison and Son to abandon its proprietary system in 1992 and adopt a new billing software.

Today, this 60-year-old, family run hauler, which has been automated for 10 years, boasts a system consisting of an AS400 server connected to Windows clients. The company uses a Soft-Pak (San Diego) system in conjunction with a route-optimizing application from RouteSmart, Columbia, Md.

"Before [implementing the system], we were limited in customer service because we needed certain employees for certain areas, and they could only handle those [particular] calls," says Controller Mike Marostica. "Now, with the new system, anybody in the office can take any call."

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