Move It, Track It, Count It, Pack It: High Tech In, Garbage Out

Solid waste management technology has come a long way from tracking pick-up routes with paper and pen. New developments in on-board computers, innovative software packages and satellite tracking systems offer a wide array of choices. Despite the pro-gress of today's high-tech world, cost still prevents some from using these innovative management tools.

However, times are changing. As new technology becomes more af-fordable, finding a computerized collection system that links high-tech tools with a time-saving software package can be crucial to the flexibility and profitability of any operation. But, be forewarned: More powerful PC technology development may be required in order to perform many software applications on the desktop.

One of the newest releases in computer software that is particularly significant for large organizations links diverse computer applications from different departments by connecting to existing DOS-based or UNIX office networks, said Mark Wills of PC Automation, Inc., On-tario. "With information placed at the fingertips of users throughout the organization, the data value in-creases dramatically," he said.

The City of Tucson, Ariz., went on line with a new system last August. Karen Hochede, systems analyst, said that, prior to using the new Geoware software, the city was running two separate systems - one at the landfill and one at the transfer station - with no sharing of computerized data. "With over 3,000 accounts, it used to take at least 30 hours just to generate a monthly tonnage report," she said. "Now it takes fifteen minutes."

The new system also has increased turn-around time for new accounts, Hochede continued. What used to take a week now can be done in less than 24 hours.

The extended memory capability has allowed the city to begin tracking all its self-haulers. Hochede said that prior to September, only random counts could be taken by someone who periodically sat at the site with a counter. These weights now have been added to monthly tonnage reports.

However, "near real-time communication" between sites still needs to be developed, said Peter Ho, director of information services in Metropol-itan Toronto. Ho would like to make communication between his ten remote sites and the head office as seamless as possible.

"As soon as we update a business account at the head office, it should automatically propagate to our re-mote sites," he said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't just yet. Even though we have high-speed communication lines, the software is lacking."

Although most large companies already use high-speed digital communication rather than modem dial-ups between sites, Toronto also has begun using it to connect to scale systems Ho continued. "With a high-speed data path, we can handle more than one simultaneous connection, and it makes administration much easier, " he said.

Electronic mail (e-mail) between the head office and the scalehouse can be a worthwhile investment - one that Bill Johnstone, MIS Super-visor, Niagara Waste, Thorold, Ontario, would like to implement.

He is in search of a package that would integrate the two separate e-mail systems for faster communication. "Right now, we use the telephone to tell the scaleperson about new haulers," he said. "Rather than a five-minute phone call, that information could be passed more efficiently through e-mail."

The company also is upgrading its financial billing system to allow for more complex customer coding. Geared toward recycling operations, the software allows for multiple level-pricing on different materials for individual customers.

"It can give incentive to customers," explained Wayne Zwolinski at SuperSource, Paradise Valley, Ariz., who sells software targeted at small- to medium-sized companies.

"If you have a hauler who brings in good, clean quantities of old corrugated containers every week and would like him to receive a special price, the scale can create a ticket that pays the customer an amount more than the going rate," he said.

Pricing levels adjust automatically when input is received on changing market rates.

The 'Millennium Bug' Another concern of industry professionals as the turn of the century approaches is finding software that will prevent financial packages from suffering from the millennium bug - shutting down when the year 2000 rolls around, said Jim Manley of Information Systems Inc., Baltimore.

When inputting data, many applications require only the last two numbers of the year and will not recognize that the year 2000 is higher than 1999, says Manley.

Often, it will read the year as 1900, and thus throw accounts off considerably. Several software suppliers have developed packages with four digit dates to prevent this from happening. Others provide upgrades for existing software with special codes that allow the system to recognize that two zeros mean the year 2000.

"Otherwise, rather than being billed for a month's worth of pickups, your customer might be billed for a whole century," Manley said. Depending on the size of the company, it can take years to upgrade software.

Truck Tracking With most business taking place on the road, truck productivity is key to maximizing profits. To make the most of a route, many high-tech tools exist to provide haulers with the ability to consider distance and time.

A Global Positioning System (GPS), for example, allows dispatch operators to pinpoint the exact location of a truck at any given time. This is accomplished through an electronic device on the truck that sends out satellite signals which are relayed to the head office. Dispatchers then can add or cancel pickups on any route.

The system also can be beneficial for tracking stolen property - dumpsters, roll-off containers and even trucks, Zwolinski added.

A full on-board computer provides another way to monitor the profitability of accounts as well as the driver, who must log in and out at each site. "If the time involved to service the customer makes the account unprofitable, maybe it's time to adjust the rates, pass on the business or talk to the driver," Zwolinski said.

Truck computers have gone through an evolution, according to Dave Ness, president of Hardy Instruments Inc., San Diego. His software program is designed to combine a truck computer with radio frequency identification (RFID), scales and host software.

RFID technology has been used in the waste industry for about five years, but not prevalently, said Ness. He expects wider use now that prices have fallen. Another useful innovation, radio frequency is used as an electronic identification device to track containers and trucks.

On a truck, it can be used as an automated scalehouse to identify the hauler and process the load. On a container, an antennae on the truck pinpoints both the bin number and the exact pickup time. Combined with a truck computer and host software, it can offer a whole system solution to tracking trash and satisfying customers, said Ness. "Now, not only can the driver be watched, but when a customer calls about a missed pickup, a clerk can call over the radio modem to the computer on the truck to find out why."

Whether it was a blocked container or a customer trying to get two collections in on one day, it takes this type of interconnection to bring out the power of automatic identification. "Unless the customer service rep is able to access the account when the customer calls, it won't pay off," he said.

The system is handy for communication between customer service and the drivers. If a customer complains about trash left on the street, for example, a clerk can type the message into the truck's computer while still on the phone, assuring the customer that when the driver picks up at that site, the reminder will flash on the screen.

Concerned with eliminating route sheets and the human error factor involved in inputting data, family-owned Macera Brothers, a commercial and municipal hauler in Cranston, R.I., wants to systemize its operations, said Jim Simoneau, recycling coordinator.

Simoneau likes the idea of a "complete systems solution" but wants to be able to integrate the computer system he currently uses with a scale and software system capable of downloading files from the truck every night.

"Since my operation is already computerized, I have to be able to integrate a new routing package with my existing software," he said. "I don't want to have to input one thousand accounts again."

Although many operations, like Macera Brothers, still effectively use two-way radio communication, seamless service provided by digital wireless networks "can radically improve the efficiencies and productivity of employees and help deliver first class customer service," said Kim O'Brien of Mobile Computing Corporation, Toronto.

Besides providing real-time communication between the office and the vehicles over radio waves, systems can be linked via a network designed to work with the cellular telephone infrastructure, she said.

"CDPD" (Cellular Digital Packet Data) enables users to easily combine two-way voice, fax and e-mail communication on the same network while the truck is on its route.

"The rising popularity of geographic information systems has brought a new wave of interest for routing software which now feature map-based display and output capabilities," said Marc Dupont of Giro Enterprises, Montreal.

As the industry gears up to provide service that deals with environmental concerns, as Zwolinski sees the trend heading, wireless communication also could be an important aspect of the tracking system. But for all types of haulers "what really matters is how all these peripheral tools integrate into your software to become your whole management system," he said.

While the newest technological developments tend to be in equipment rather than in software, what is truly innovative, said Alan Mastic, of WAM, Reno, N.V., "is that many of the new technologies of a few years ago are more affordable and therefore available to everyone in the industry today."

Routing packages that used to cost $30,000 a few years ago are included free with his standard system and are PC-compatible, Mastic continued.

"Having this technology available to any size of company allows the smaller companies to compete on the same level as the bigger ones," he said.