Optimizing Optimization

Route optimization can't rely on software alone. The input of drivers and other employees is critical.

July 1, 2010

6 Min Read
Optimizing Optimization

Michael Fickes

STREET SMARTS: Drivers can fine tune a route optimization project with their knowledge of tough turns and commonly congested areas.

When route optimization software first came out, many dispatchers and collection drivers noticed that the resulting routes weren't quite optimal. Effective as they can be, the programs don't know where the bad left turns are, or which stretches of a road are swamped in the afternoon with buses leaving a school, or other factors that can affect a waste truck's productivity. Drivers, however, do.

Moreover, despite the high degree of sophistication of software, preparing for a route optimization project can still require some human sweat. For instance, information in geographic information systems (GIS) may need to be updated.

Finally, optimized routes don't stay optimized. Some neighborhoods decline, and others become popular. Old schools and office buildings become condominiums. New developments go up. These changes need to be accounted for.

Today, haulers are realizing that software is just one part of route optimization. It is a key part, of course. But for optimization to be optimal, the continual efforts and input of people are critical.

Digging Up Data

Simply put, the aim of a route optimization project is to organize a firm or sanitation district's operations with the least number of routes needed to service customers and to sequence stops in a way that minimizes travel time and distance.

Last year, the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority (NMWDA) contracted with Gershman Brickner & Bratton (GBB), a Fairfax, Va.-based consulting firm, to optimize the city of Baltimore's residential trash collection routes. GBB, which operates in the form of a service bureau, uses Fleet-Route optimization software from C2Logix.

Baltimore has a population of approximately 630,000 people living in about 190,000 households. The Baltimore Department of Public Works had traditionally collected trash twice a week and recyclables twice a month from each residence. The department collected residential waste six days a week, with 68 trash trucks and 23 recycling trucks navigating a total of 214 routes.

The optimization project began with a review of the city's geographic information system (GIS) data, and several problems arose. Like many cities, Baltimore collects lots of trash in alleys behind houses, but the GIS didn't include alleys.

Second, the data didn't account for one-way streets, road classifications and speed limits. Third, the map-making data failed to distinguish overpasses from intersections. Finally, parts of Baltimore have many abandoned houses, which had not been removed from the collection list.

By conducting field surveys and examining other statistical records, the consultant collected new data and scrubbed the bad information out of the existing GIS database. Provided with the updated information, the route optimization software was ready to create and compare a variety of routing options.

Ultimately, Baltimore officials decided that picking up trash once a week and recyclables once a week from each residence over the course of a four-day workweek would provide the best service at the lowest cost. Baltimore has dubbed the new collection program, which it instituted in July 2009, "One Plus One."

The optimized routes now require 48 trash trucks and 20 recycling trucks. Baltimore officials estimate that the new routes will save the city $6 million per year.

Permanent Record

The first-hand knowledge of collection drivers can refine an optimization project. The Lexington, Ky., Division of Waste Management is currently working on a way to automate the recording of drivers' tips on how to improve efficiencies on particular routes.

Working with GBB, the city is in the midst of optimizing its 126 residential and commercial routes and adding onboard computers from Beaverton, Ore.-based Routeware. The computers will guide the drivers by displaying the optimized routes and communicate with an in-office, route-management system provided by the vendor.

"Once completed, the route optimization piece will provide the city with a significant savings," says Frank Bernheisel, a vice president with GBB. "Typically, route optimization provides a 15 percent to 25 percent savings on a municipality's overall cost of running routes."

After arriving at a stop, the onboard computers will automatically note that an address has been serviced when the lift arm completes its cycle. If a can isn't out, the driver notes that in the system, which takes a picture of the location and e-mails it back to the office.

If the driver deviates from the mapped directions to get to a pick-up or changes the order of the pickups, the system will record the changes and notify the supervisor. The system isn't meant to be a tattletale. Drivers are free to alter their routes for good reasons. The system simply records the change — call it a suggestion made by the driver — and later the supervisor and driver discuss it.

Maybe it was a quick re-routing to avoid a traffic jam. No problem. Maybe it was a move to avoid road construction. That would call for a temporary route change. Maybe the route optimization program blew it, and a specified left turn would have sent the truck the wrong way on a one-way street. That would call for a new route segment.

Whatever the case, Lexington's aim is to record a driver's route-efficiency ideas so that when a new driver takes over the route, it will be easier to learn the best way to navigate it.

Taking It to the Streets

At the new Republic Services, each local branch is responsible for optimizing its collection routes. Before its purchase of Allied Waste, the company handled route optimization in its corporate office. After the merger, however, senior executives decided they needed to move the process closer to the people managing and running the routes.

"This was a culture change," says Lance Carlson, senior manager of operations research and GIS for Republic. "But it comes with many benefits."

For starters, the change improves safety, Carlson says. Drivers know where the schools, the low bridges and the left turns to be avoided all are. "You don't know these things if you route from 1,000 miles away," he adds.

Each of Republic's 400 local branches use eRouteLogistics, a web-based route optimization application from the Magnolia, Texas-based Institute for Information Technology (IIT). "We don't have to manage software licenses or install new versions of software," Carlson says.

Carlson has been conducting training on the system for at least one person in each branch, a process that is winding down. The next step, he says, will be adding onboard computers with technology that will inform a supervisor when a driver alters an optimized route. The supervisor will then discuss the change with the driver.

"We have an initiative out for onboard computers and route management software," Carlson says. "We're focused on the total route management package today. That includes optimization technology, listening to the drivers, using technology to watch how the drivers work and asking them about it."

In the end, Carlson says, optimization is about people. Software can provide the foundation for route improvement but it's the knowledge and perspective of those in the midst of a firm's operations that are needed to maximize the benefit of any route optimization initiative.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

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