In fall 2003, MSW Management sent out a questionnaire to solid waste firms and municipalities throughout North America, asking what kinds of computer software (including brand names) they use to help run their businesses. The questionnaire suggested applications in the following eight areas:
- Vehicle Routing/Communications
- Fleet Maintenance
- Scale House/Weighing
It was assumed that there would be marked preferences for some of the administration software packages on the market; however, such was not the case. According to the survey, only one package, Quickbooks, had been accepted by as many as 10% of the respondents. Even more surprisingly, an overwhelming majority (64%) of the respondents reported that they rely solely on Microsoft Office (including Word, Excel, and Access) for their administration, and more than half of these organizations also use Microsoft Office tools for planning/forecasting and/or billing/finance. Instead of using packaged software, apparently they are customizing these core business applications and creating what in effect are Microsoft Office-based enterprise systems of their own. While software professionals might dismiss such a system as a workaround stopgap, it should be noted that only one of these organizations indicated that it was considering replacing Microsoft Office for its administration. Apparently most of the businesses and municipalities surveyed are content (or perhaps resigned) to continue operating as they are.
These organizations are not necessarily opposed to the concept of packaged software; indeed, for such specialized applications as fleet maintenance and scale-house/weighing operations, more than half of the respondents have invested in packaged software. And with few exceptions, all of the respondents are budgeting more money for software over the next five years. It appears that many organizations (smaller ones in particular) simply have not yet found packages for administration, planning/forecasting, or billing/finance that they perceive to be more cost-effective than their Microsoft Office enterprise systems.
That certainly has been the City of Mesa, AZ’s experience. According to the city’s solid waste software specialist, Melanie Corkill, Mesa has invested in several software packages. “For our needs, they proved to be awkward, hard to use, and fairly inflexible in terms of ad hoc reporting for analysis. I found myself doing most of the analysis we needed using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.
“For example, our billing system is a citywide system geared toward metered data collection of utility usage. Solid waste, of course, is not a metered operation, so I have had to create workaround software using our Access database to format the usage data to allow the utility billing system to include trash charges on utility bills. Similarly the city acquired a fleet analysis package to track the mileage, usage, repairs, and maintenance costs of all city vehicles. However, it proved to be difficult to get the information we need here in solid waste from this software package, so once again we devised a workaround system. I now get a nightly download from the city computer that gives me the usage data and incurred costs of our vehicles. With it, I can more easily track the data, analyze them, put them in reports, do queries, and in general make it easy for us to see what we need to see for solid waste operations.”
Corkill is aware that running the entire solid waste business on Access can’t go on forever. Already she is manipulating so many data that she has to archive large amounts of it every month. And now the city is evaluating a WebTech global positioning system (GPS)-based vehicle tracking system that Operations Research Analyst Pete Klimoski describes as “very promising.” With the likelihood of more and more data to be processed and consolidated, Corkill envisions the need to “take our current enterprise Access system and move it to a larger system like [Microsoft] SQL where it could be divided into three or four interrelated databases. It would still be our enterprise system, but it would make it practical for us to monitor and utilize so much more useful data.”
In response to the survey question, “What new capabilities or improvements would you like to see?” Corkill and several other respondents cited the desirability of integrating all of the packages into an overall system. Derrick Bellows of the City of Regina, SK, phrased it this way: “Packages may work well for their specific purposes, but often it is difficult to combine information from different software applications.” The city uses ArcView and Geoware in addition to Microsoft Office, but these packages are used independently and are not integrated.
Hanna Enterprises in Bloomington, IN, has solved that problem by using just one package, Waste Accounting Management (WAM), for all of its software needs. Paul Bonney, general manager of this small solid waste hauler, concedes that “WAM-Hauler is not the cheapest product on the market, but this one system does everything we need it to do.
“WAM-Hauler is an integrated software package designed for solid waste haulers of all types: rolloff, commercial, residential, and recycling. It provides us with an informational database and a full customer accounting system, including billing, accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger – the whole administrative system. And it has operational software that includes routing, dispatch, and fleet operations. It will track containers by container number or by account number or by size, and this is very helpful in our basically commercial hauling. What’s more, it lets us break down reports by ëline of business,’ which we define as each of our vehicle function types.”
Bonney says Hanna’s solid waste hauling business is growing rapidly, but he is convinced that the company will never outgrow its WAM system. “We’ll just add users to handle the increased data, without any need to add new functions. And since WAM provides everything we need in one system, we don’t have any system integration problems.”
Overdesigned for Small Operators
WAM is by no means the only comprehensive software package on the market for solid waste applications. A good example is Alpine Technology’s Visual Route Accounts Management System program (RAMS-Pro). Alpine President Mick Baker provided the following detailed description: “The Visual RAMS-Pro [package] is a total route management solution that helps businesses achieve efficient and perfect service tracking. Visual RAMS-Pro contains two distinct software products: the Visual RAMS-Pro Core, the heart of this route/service product, and the user empowerment tools, which personalize the core product to precisely match your unique business processes.
“The Visual RAMS-Pro Core contains the master financial controller that adapts to any of the unique waste industry billing scenarios. Visual RAMS-Pro supports master billing accounts, which in turn can have limitless site accounts. Each site account can have limitless routes, billing profiles, contracts, comments/dispatches, container assets, work orders, office documents, and tray communiquÈ elements.
“Visual RAMS-Pro provides the ultimate design tool for efficient management of complex service relationships. The service diagram provides an accurate and understandable pictorial representation of all services and related entities. This is not just a pretty picture but a powerful working diagram where a single drag-and-drop replaces several minutes of typing. Microsoft Office documents can also be linked to service diagram elements and opened with a single click.
“Visual RAMS-Pro caters to streamlined entry of scheduled and demand services. Scheduled service is automatically dispatched and uses service profiles and suggested routing alternatives for quick setup. Demand services are created in a contract profile and activated as requested using a single click in the service diagram. The highly configurable workflow system takes over from here, creating a work order and stepping it through dispatch, routing, confirmation, billing, container tracking, and/or any other departments or processes defined to that workflow process.
“The Visual RAMS-Pro Core contains two separate report writers, communiquÈ trays, exception alerting, work orders, workflow, contract compliance, fleet maintenance, [Environmental Protection Agency]-content tracking, dispatcher desk, route mapping optimization, and many other extensive features,” Baker concludes.
All in all, RAMS-Pro appears to be quite comprehensive and designed to meet the needs of sophisticated and large solid waste companies. And it has satisfied customers too. For example, six years ago, Humbert Refuse and Recycling in Freewater, OR, purchased the system for its solid waste hauling operations.
“It’s worked great,” says Cindy Granger, Humbert’s bookkeeper. “It’s basically a routing program that lets us pull up customer data by the area they live in or by the type of service they have. Routing our collection trucks is easy, as is modifying the routes to add new customers. I just set up the customer profile and enter the new address. The system finds the closest current-customer address and recommends the best of the existing routes to use for servicing that customer. With the punch of a key, I can modify the recommended route accordingly, or we can override the computer solution. We have never had to balance our routes, but if we grow enough, RAMS-Pro can do that for us too.”
Although Humbert is very pleased with this system, many would question the cost-effectiveness of paying $20,000 for comprehensive automated routing for a hauler that today services just 2,100 customers on eight routes. For this reason, software suppliers interested in tapping the small-operator market tend to make their packages scalable so they can offer affordable modules to smaller operators who then can upgrade modularly as they grow. For example, TRUX Route Management Systems Inc. of Cambridge, ON, strongly emphasizes scalability in its marketing. The company’s Web site advertises the following:
“[Go] from a few trucks to a global fleet. From single-site operations to multi-national corporations. Waste industry managers across North America rely on comprehensive waste management software from TRUX Route Management Systems Inc. With individual or fully integrated components for Billing and Accounts Receivable, Routing and Dispatch with Mapping Interface or Scale and Facility Operations with Recoverable Materials Management, we provide the software you need to simplify your system – and maximize your profits. Our software is user-friendly, scaleable and Windows-native to deliver powerful management information tools right to your desktop.”
Dealing With Drop-Off Customers
Landfill operators that accept small loads from residents or small, intermittent-usage haulers face a problem in streamlining their scale-house operations. Why? Because the two different types of loads usually involve different rates, different measurements (weight versus load or volume), and different handling, says Marsha Papin, solid waste disposal manager for Greenville County, SC.
“For loads brought in by regular haulers from standard commercial or residential routes, the weight can be measured automatically at the scales,” Papin points out, “and those data can be electronically transferred to the landfill’s accounting system for invoicing and/or running reports that track waste patterns. Conversely, when small loads come in, the scale-house operator must manually enter the identification data, calculate the appropriate rate, and collect the fee. Hence, if both types of loads have to be handled at the same scale house, the automated operations are frequently interrupted and trucks are delayed.”
When Greenville County opens its new landfill, probably in 2006, it intends to have separate gates for large haulers and small, drop-off users. The automated scale system for the large collection trucks will continue to be Carolina Software’s WasteWIZARD module of its WasteWORKS software system. As is currently being done, the system will be triggered by the trucks as they drive across the scales, and the weight and identification data will be passed on to the accounting system. For the small drop-off loads, separate gates will be provided, each equipped with Carolina Software’s new WasteWALKER system, which consists of a PDF-style, hand-held computer; a battery-operated printer; and desktop software.
“The WasteWALKER system allows you to process vehicles very quickly,” says John Leeds of Carolina Software. “The attendant identifies the vehicle and customer, codes in the type and quantity of waste material [by either estimated volume or vehicle type], and immediately calculates and displays the disposal fee and any taxes, contract rates, or discounts that may apply. The attendant then presses the ëSave’ key, and a charge ticket is printed and given to the customer to allow for immediate cash or credit card payment on the spot. WasteWALKER keeps a running total of cash, credit sales, and number of tickets throughout the day. At the end of the day or shift, the stored data are uploaded into the overall WasteWORKS database for consolidation and further processing.”
The City of Regina faces the same small-vehicle data-handling problem, and it intends to construct a transfer station for small vehicles at its landfill, near to but separated from its automated scale house. No longer interfering with the city’s automated scale-data collection system that uses Geoware software to process large truckloads, small drop-off loads will pass through gates equipped with Geoware modules designed expressly for small-vehicle load processing. According to Michael Latowski, Regina’s senior engineer for solid waste, the attendant will enter each small vehicle’s license plate number as the identifier, determine whether it is a cash or credit card transaction, collect the $4 fee, and print a receipt. The system will track all of the transactions and consolidate the data with the scale-house transaction data at the end of the day.”
Automating Recycling Operations
Only one company reported that it uses packaged software in its recycling operations. That company is VISY Recycling in Conyers, GA. It’s quite large too. Executive Director Jeff Kibler describes the company as “the largest provider of recycling collection front-end service in the southeastern United States.” The company has a fleet of 55 8-ton loaders in nine cities that pick up and haul mixed paper products to its 45,000-ton/month fiber mill in Georgia. And this doesn’t count the company’s other barge-supplied fiber plant in New York.
“We have 14 dispatch points in the Southeast,” Kibler explains, “and the trucks are sent on 180-mile routes that take 10 hours for the roundtrip. En route, we service 18,000 local waste haulers, picking up paper products from them at regularly scheduled intervals. And they expect us to pick up when we say we will.”
To manage this large and complex routing, Kibler uses a single software package, TRUX. What’s more, the company uses just one of the TRUX products, its Map-IT Interactive Mapping Module. Kibler likes the system’s flexibility in developing routes. “We can open four ghost routes at a time,” he says. “Then we can move virtual pickups from one route to another until we are satisfied that we have routes that make the most sense for our collection points. That’s important because our routes are quite variable in length since our supply comes from Florida in the south to Alabama in the west to Tennessee and North Carolina in the north.
“That TRUX system is all we need for our hauling operations. We don’t have a maintenance package because our trucks never go off concrete, and we routinely sell them – at good prices – after five years. So we can afford to have truck and tire dealers handle the maintenance for us. We do have an @Road GPS-based package, but we only use it so we can prove to suppliers that we did indeed go to their site and that we didn’t miss a pickup.”
The financial system Kibler uses is WasteTrak’s recycling system. “We bought it four years ago,” he says, “and we have had them customize it for us. Now it’s perfect for our operations. For example, we have almost a dozen different payment systems keyed to different supplier situations, and our WasteTrak system now handles every one of them. By the way, we do not weigh each pickup; we weigh the entire load at the paper-mill destination. Periodically we do an audit, and WasteTrak then bases our payments on that. There is no direct link between WasteTrak and TRUX because there doesn’t need to be one.”
When Companies Get Bigger
When solid waste companies grow large through acquisition or unusual internal growth, packaged software no longer might fit their expanded operations. This does not mean that these large companies must reinvent the wheel, however. A good case in point is the third largest firm in the solid waste industry, Republic Services Inc. Operating in 22 states, Republic has 142 hauling operations, 56 landfills, 33 recycling stations, and 90 transfer stations.
Republic Services Inc. is quite young; it has only been a standalone company since 1998 when it began acquiring solid waste companies at a rapid rate. “And in the process, we acquired many different operating software systems,” recalls Karl Marks, the company’s director of information technology. “By 1999 we began concentrating on standardizing the operations and systems of all of these newly added operating systems. We took care not to overly centralize them, as we believe that our divisions should operate with autonomy in their markets. However, in the process of acquiring these companies, we had acquired a variety of incompatible customer service and billing systems. So our first order of standardization was to develop an enterprise customer service and billing system that would serve all of the different divisions yet enable us to consolidate all of the division data seamlessly at our Fort Lauderdale data center. Running on five AS400 computers with 46 Windows/Intel data servers, this data center provides our top management with a clear and accurate picture of the company operations at all levels.”
Republic took a somewhat different approach to adopting a standardized fleet management system. In this case, it analyzed available fleet management packages on the market and determined that Arsenault Dossier best approximated the system that would meet Republic’s needs. Accordingly it contracted with Arsenault to customize the Dossier fleet management system for Republic as an enterprise system. This centralized fleet program will provide Republic with a total fleet management solution necessary to track and control costs and maintenance services at all management and operating levels. Deployed incrementally to all 250 Republic locations, full implementation of the system by the end of 2003 was anticipated at the time of this writing.
Some of the goals of deploying the enterprise fleet management system included allowing Republic to perform fleetwide, real-time cost analysis; measure equipment performance; control and reduce maintenance expenses; ensure manufacturer warranty compliance; track equipment utilization and fuel consumption; monitor vendors; and automate parts-quantity order points to maintain proper inventory levels to prevent overstocking or understocking of parts.
Recently Republic began the same process to seek an enterprise solution for route tracking and optimization for its 142 hauling operations. The company has adopted RouteSmart for about 25 of its locations both to evaluate the package and to develop an interface approach to feed customer information into RouteSmart and feed route solutions back into billing. The attraction of RouteSmart can be summarized as follows:
- It addresses specific, side-of-street level routing and sequencing precision.
- It explicitly makes all routing calculations over a street network to factor for real-world service and travel constraints.
- It automatically sequences stops in delivery and pickup order.
- It balances routes based on time, number of routes, or volume.
- It handles high-density residential and low-density commercial service routing.
- It prints maps and detailed route sheets with computer-generated driving directions.
“The goal here,” Marks says, “is to embed RouteSmart or a modified version of it in our overall enterprise system. We won’t have to reinvent a very good wheel here, but the overall system will more precisely meet the needs of our hauling operations nationwide.”
A number of software packages persist in the Republic family, Marks concedes. “There are several different scale systems in use there, primarily PC Scale. Since PC Scale is primarily a standalone PC system, we can use it as is since we added an input feature that uploads PC Scale data to our enterprise system in a form it can readily accept. Similarly, there are individualized, GPS-based tracking systems in use at some of our divisions. We are just beginning the process of evaluating such systems to determine if and how they will have application throughout our operations.”
While there is still work to be done, it is clear that Republic has made great strides in its software standardization program in less than five years. Not only has the company developed and/or customized software that streamlines and standardizes operations at the division level, it has created the ability to roll up all of the resulting information to the corporate level.
Perforce, this article has been highly anecdotal in nature because there was no clear pattern in the survey responses. The lack of any strong preference for particular software packages seems to indicate the lack of a perceived need for packaged software in this industry, particularly among smaller businesses and municipalities. It certainly is not that users – even those restricted to Microsoft Office – are disappointed with their current packages. An amazing 72% responded that their current software packages have lived up to their expectations – as opposed to just 12% who have been disappointed with one or more of the packages they acquired.
About the only safe conclusion that can be drawn is that the solid waste industry as a whole is still ambivalent (at best) about the need for or value of packaged applications software. At the very least, though, this situation represents a great marketing opportunity for the software industry.