Blue-Collar BlackBerry

By  Teresa von Fuchs — June 11, 2008

A transportation company updates its legacy system to BlackBerry handhelds for a cost effective, easy-to-deploy, scalable solution.

Canadian National, a leading North American rail operation, also offers freight trucking in its portfolio of subsidiaries. A few years after deploying its first wireless dispatch solution for its trucking operation in 2001, CN was already looking to upgrade that legacy system.

The old solution was based on Mobitex, -- an early public access packet-switched data network -- and required industrial boxes to be hard-wired into trucks. The boxes included three antennae: one for Mobitex, one for cellular radio and one GPS receiver. The solution was expensive and complicated to install and maintain; it was common for at least one of the three antennae to be out of commission.

Rene Roy, project I.T. manager for CN, explains that "at any given time, a good portion of our fleet's equipment wasn't working properly or needed to go in for repair. It just wasn't a very easily maintainable solution."

The expense of the ruggedized equipment also prohibited CN from installing the solution in the trucks used by seasonal drivers.

With its fleet growing and its operations expanding in the U.S., the company realized it needed a new option.

Hence, CN was already looking for a new solution when, in 2003, it learned that the Mobitex network shutting down.

CN wanted its next solution to be:

  • reliable
  • cost-effective
  • scalable
  • easily integrated into its existing infrastructure
       

After looking into more traditional, industrial solutions, CN decided to go with BlackBerry handhelds from Research In Motion running an application developed by Montreal-based Genetec. The deployment first took place in 2003/2004 and has since been upgraded.

"We thought the BlackBerry had more benefits for us [than other devicees]," says Roy. "We already had the BlackBerry Enterprise Server integrated into our back-end because our executives were using the devices. And there is a significant price-point advantage to a BlackBerry."

CN found so many advantages with the BlackBerry-based solution that it sacrificed two aspects of the old solution -- GPS and signature capture. "We decided we could make the trade-off," says Roy. "Though both functions would be important in the future, they weren't being used to their fullest capacity with the old solution."

According to Roy, when CN first rolled out the solution in 2003/2004, it chose the BlackBerry 7750 not because it was the "most up-to-date solution on the market," but because the company knew it could contain costs by standardizing on one device.

The company has since added operations in the U.S. and expanded its fleet from 350 trucks to over 650. CN upgraded devices to the BlackBerry 7250 with Bluetooth and rolled out a signature-capture solution with a Bluetooth pen from ExpeData. After customers sign the specially made pad with the ExpeData pen, drivers transmit the signature from the pen to the device via Bluetooth.

For the next contract cycle, CN is looking into deploying BlackBerrys equipped with GPS.

Reworking an Old Solution

Solution provider Genetec had designed CN's previous wireless solution and, as Roy explains, CN's "pick-up and delivery process is a bit of a complicated business. We knew that we didn't have the expertise internally to do the Java development--We sat with [Genetec] and looked at the old system and found the little problems with it and ways to make it easier and moved it to a system that was much simpler for drivers."

Within two months the company was rolling out the solution.

Because the new solution is so intuitive, very little training was required. Roy and his team would travel to each dispatch terminal and spend about a week familiarizing drivers with the new handsets and solution. Those drivers who picked up the solution quickly, then became the first level of support for their peers.

Drivers now use the BlackBerry to sign in when their workday begins. Once dispatch sees a driver has signed in, the system immediately assigns him or her a job. Drivers see their assignments one step at a time, such as 'now I'm at the terminal and I need to pick up container X.' When that task is complete the driver hits 'complete' and the next set of instructions tell him/her to 'deliver container X to location Y.'

Roy says that this interface simplifies the solution for drivers and ensures that drivers are properly compensated by tracking every task completed.

With the BlackBerry, drivers can quickly communicate with dispatch using wireless messaging. This has been a time saver for CN because it keeps dispatchers from having to be glued to the phone. Previously, in cases where the system wasn't working properly, or where drivers did not have the solution installed, the drivers were constantly waiting on hold to get verbal work orders from dispatchers. According to Roy, since the new solution has been deployed, dispatchers comment on how quiet the centers are.

If, for some reason, drivers haven't received a next step, they can send a message to dispatch; the device also sends alerts to dispatch if the driver arrives somewhere and doesn't have a next move.

While CN has not done any hard ROI metrics, Roy says that since deploying the BlackBerry solution the company has seen a significant decrease in driver wait time.  "We've been able to turn around loads a lot faster and our dispatch has been a lot more productive,"  he says.

Reliability Is Key

As for reliability, Roy says that with the company's previous solution, maybe 25% of the truck wireless systems would be out of service on any given day; now he sees trouble with less than 1% of the devices. Deploying devices to new or seasonal drivers is a snap; the solution is pocket-sized and requires very little training. The company has also seen significant improvements in the cost of maintaining the solution; Roy estimates that the BlackBerry solution costs 65% less than the old solution to keep up.

An important point for CN was that they didn't implement a productivity solution in order to reduce staff. "It's more [about enabling] dispatch -- to concentrate on the moves that are done, so they can do more planning ahead and our drivers aren't sitting around."

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