TRUCK TRACKS

Dec. 28, 2000
Logistics. That's the new buzzword in truck management, and truck management has a way of attracting buzzwords. About 25 years ago, full-service leasing was advanced as a plan that would ease many problems of truck operation. For instance, paying the steadily rising cost of new trucks along with managing the myriad details of having the vehicles serviced were recognized problems of truck ownership. Why not solve them both by turning those worries over to a company that not only leases the vehicles but also handles service duties as well?
Logistics. That's the new buzzword in truck management, and truck management has a way of attracting buzzwords. About 25 years ago, full-service leasing was advanced as a plan that would ease many problems of truck operation. For instance, paying the steadily rising cost of new trucks along with managing the myriad details of having the vehicles serviced were recognized problems of truck ownership. Why not solve them both by turning those worries over to a company that not only leases the vehicles but also handles service duties as well?

Full-service leasing is still around. Some truck operators swear by it, while others were upset to find that they paid extra when someone else bought their trucks and took them off their balance sheet. Leasing has yet to solve some of the problems of truck ownership; meanwhile, logistics has now moved into the lead among plans said to take the headaches out of managing trucks.

As a truck program, logistics is so new that no one knows exactly what it covers. However, a survey of those in the truck-logistics field indicates that they feel it includes everything which could possibly have some bearing on truck operations. Logistics is more than an effort to help auto owners or operators of long-distance trucks, and will deliver some benefits to readers who use trucks in their work.

The contributions of computers to bookkeeping and "smart-bombs" to fighting wars also are well known. Some logistics people are asking why not take similar advances that can be applied to truck management and combine them to bring management into the 21st Century?
Trucks already have benefited from many such gains. Diesel engines that can diagnose their own malfunctions are a leading example. One problem, however, is that the application of these modern wonders has been uneven throughout the truck field. Therefore, logistics people are pushing for organized application of new advances.

The use of computers, radios and satellites to schedule truck maintenance, spot on-coming mechanical problems and route and reroute them to meet changing conditions is frequently covered in articles published in the truck trade press. Although it wasn't labeled as a report on logistics, an article in the Sept. 18 issue of the consumer magazine U.S. News & World Report detailed the trucking success of common carrier, Schneider National, headquartered in Green Bay, Wis. High-tech communications, service planning and routing programs were discussed in the report.

Schneider established itself as a trucking pioneer in 1988 when it started equipping its trucks with satellite radio equipment at a reported cost of $3,500 per unit. Communications 24 hours a day, seven days a week, helped the firm build the logistics strength of its fleet. Now the carrier has a free-standing logistics business and sells its services to outside companies. In one of its biggest transactions, it was reported to have signed a $200-million contract with General Motors to improve the flow of repair parts to the automaker's dealerships.

While there are big name companies in the business of making diesel engines with self-diagnostic capability and radios that send signals into space, the list of big names in logistics is short. However, the number of individuals who offer logistics advice is growing. Increasing acceptance of the logistics concept indicates that there will be more big operators before long.

That brings up what some view as a seamy side of logistics. Computers and robots are not the only innovations in business in recent years. New buyer-seller and employer-employee relationships have been worked out, resulting in long-term deals which give the buyer or customer a secure source of a needed service, and the seller or trucking service a steady flow of business.

This "partnershipping" works out fine as long as both parties communicate and stick to the deal. However, in regard to logistics partnerships, some truckers became upset when they discovered that the partnership lasted only as long as it took the shipper to find a carrier who'd do the work for less.

In an effort to cut the high costs of warehousing parts, manufacturers are moving toward the novel "just in time" setups under which materials are delivered to their assembly plants just before they are needed. This increases the need for coordinated shipping.

The field of logistics has some ideas on how this situation can be handled: Expand the use of two-way communications to steer the truck around traffic tieups, to make rush changes in the hauling schedule and let those at the destination know when to expect the truck. Keep records on the truck's use for future service work (an engine with electronic controls will help here), monitor the driver's safe operation and supply information on finding the destination with the aid of maps displayed on a dashboard screen. Implement radar-based collision-avoidance systems, particularly when they cover the driver's blind spots and aid in backing up safely.

In view of the limited number of firms in the logistics field, how does a truck operator go about getting reliable help in this field? It has to amount to more than finding a company with no special expertise that has simply added the word "logistics" to its name. Those who have unique skills and a real attitude of partnership are the logistics advisers to look for.

Kelley is a truck writer based in Dearborn, Mich. You may write him in care of the editor.