Business Technology: Head-On Collision With Reality - InformationWeek
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Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Business Technology: Head-On Collision With Reality

We're urged to dream big, believe in the possible, to not be held back by limits. Just think of what we could do if....

But sometimes, just occasionally, reality dares to rain on such enthusiasm.

Schneider National has endured more than four years of such a drizzle in pursuit of one clearly defined, ROI-minded, technology-enabled goal. It's a tale anyone who's lived through a stormy project can relate to--one of great promises, bankrupt vendors, conflicting tech standards, even some lucky breaks. By next summer, Schneider, the trucking and logistics company best-known for its orange trucks, expects at last to break through the clouds.

If you're outside the logistics business, Schneider's goal sounds like the sort of thing you might assume a trucking company can do: Know where all its trailers are. But like most businesses, a peek inside shows how it's not so simple, and how much manual processes, uneven technology, and uncertain data remain a part of our "real-time" world.

Schneider can, right now, tell you where 15,000 semitrailer cabs are. For 15 years, in fact, it has used wireless satellite communication and global positioning to track shipments, something that's become table stakes for any serious logistics player. But since an unhooked trailer can't draw on an engine's power, tracking trailers has been a much-tougher technology problem to solve.

Schneider has about three times as many trailers as it does cabs to pull them--trailers it owns or manages for other companies. They might be in a retailer's lot waiting to be unloaded, or in a lot by a highway waiting to be picked up by a driver, or on a railroad car. Know how it tracks those unhooked trailers today? Someone walks the yard with a notepad and counts them, sometimes several times a day, and phones or faxes in the trailer numbers.

The trailer-tracking project isn't one of those far-out pet projects waiting for someone to gin up an ROI rationalization. Schneider surveys found two-thirds of customers want trailer-tracking and will reward carriers that deliver it with more traffic. The project will let Schneider manage its trailer assets better and provide its customers better data. And once that data becomes more reliable than manual counting, Schneider and its customers could build systems that truly rely on that data. "We've been committed to bringing this capability to market literally for years," VP of technology services Paul Mueller says. "It's a great technology opportunity."

Ah, the technology. Schneider was working with a company called Orbcomm Global LP in the late 1990s to deliver a trailer-tracking system. Orbcomm went Chapter 11 during Schneider's beta test.

OK, out with the Innovative Startup, in with the Trusted Partner. Schneider teamed with Qualcomm Inc., which provides the satellite system used in cab-tracking. The trailer-tracking system was working like a dream in field tests. Then, in 2001, Qualcomm pulled the plug on the product.

It turned out to be a lucky break. Qualcomm worried that the analog cellular network the system ran on would decay as providers moved to digital, despite FCC rules requiring carriers to maintain analog. But in 2002, the FCC changed its rules to put a sunset on the analog support.

At last, Schneider believes the technology pieces are in place. Qualcomm's system runs on a dual digital-analog cellular system, relaying signals from a sonar-like sensor inside the trailer that tell where a trailer is and whether it's loaded. A battery with at least a 30-day life powers it and is recharged when hooked to a truck. Schneider plans to offer the service by the middle of next year.

The work is far from done. As Mueller says, the business value now comes through building information systems and changing business processes to use the technology and the data it delivers. Four years of ups and downs, and Schneider basically will have a few new pieces of data. But once Schneider has it, just think of what it could do if....

Chris Murphy
Executive editor

Bob Evans is on vacation and will return next week.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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