A Little Artificial Intelligence

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Weighing, routing, asset management, logistics, and telematics technologies all have one thing in common: They allow MSW managers to make better decisions in utilizing the equipment and labor that’s available to them, ultimately making better use of financial resources.

This article will examine some insights into how MSW managers across the country can use these powerful technologies to manage more effective and efficient operations.

Transducers Versus Load Cells
Ensuring compliance with weight laws is a key consideration in refuse hauling, points out Rick Talbot, marketing and sales director for Vulcan On-Board Scales in Kent, WA. MSW managers want to eliminate overloading of their refuse packers for several reasons besides being hit with overweight fines. Additional reasons include reducing liability exposure, improving safety, reducing maintenance costs, and extending road surface life.

Still, maximizing payload can eliminate the need for extra trips to handle the same volume of waste, Talbot adds. This not only reduces costs for additional trips, but can also reduce the number of vehicles necessary.

The marketplace offers both drive-over and onboard weighing technologies.

In the onboard realm, Talbot notes, the standard practice was to install load cells between the body and the truck frame. This is still the most accurate method for weighing payload, he adds, but equipping the axles with transducers from Vulcan On-Board Scales and other manufacturers is a less-expensive alternative to monitoring axle and gross vehicle weight (GVW).

Unlike load cells, transducers indirectly record weight by measuring the bending of suspension components to estimate weight. As a result, accuracy expectations are more varied and dependent on the suspension compared with load cells. Typical field accuracy is generally around 2% to 3% of GVW, Talbot argues. He adds that for trucks with one steer and one drive axle, MSW managers need to have transducers installed on both axles. For trucks with one steer and two drive axles, though, he argues that companies can save money by installing transducers only on the two drive axles. Typically, he says, there is little to no weight transfer on two drive axles to the steer axle, and the rear almost always overloads before the front steer axle does. Also, readings on the front steer axle can be affected when the driver turns the wheel.

Preventing Fines, Reducing Liability
The city of Visalia, CA’s solid waste department sought to prevent overweight fines and reduce liability about 15 years ago and adopted onboard weighing systems for its refuse haulers, according to Abel Flores, solid waste rolloff supervisor. “We had the CHP [California Highway Patrol] waiting for us at the scales at the landfill, and some of our guys got cited for being overweight,” he says. “The city said this is really your responsibility; you’re the ones loading the trucks.” But drivers did not know their trucks’ weights in transit. So the city began equipping trucks with onboard scales.

A few years ago, the city switched to the Trojan Transducer Onboard Suspension Based Weighing System from Vishay Transducers. The system reportedly provides within 2% accuracy and displays both gross/net weight and axle group weight with no driver interaction. It is designed to be compatible with all types of refuse trucks, including rolloffs and dump trucks, and is available for dual rear-axle configurations and can be used with pusher, tag, or lift axles. According to the manufacturer, the system does not require disassembly of the vehicle chassis, suspension, or body during installation, which involves welding Trojan mounting blocks to each transducer, attaching location and bolting the transducer to the blocks. Transmitters mounted to the underbody receive the load information from the transducers and send it to the system meter in the cab. The system memory stores up to 1,200 pickups with customer ID number, weight, time, and date.

Currently, more than 30 of the city’s trucks are outfitted with the system. Besides providing real-time weight data, it also stores data for logistical analysis, says Flores, who reports that the city’s annual commercial volume totals about 35,000 tons. “We keep a daily report, and we have the amount of loads taken per day per route, where they’re taken, how much per route was picked up per day, and how many loads were trucked,” he says. “If it comes to the point where we find out that maybe we need to add an employee for a route, we use it for that. If you’ve got one person taking four loads a day and another person taking two, we can find out that either another route needs to be added or we need to spread some of the pickups to other routes.”Page Break Line

Weighing, Ticketing, and Reporting Efficiency
Reducing human intervention in weighing and ticketing provides greater overall operational efficiency and vastly improves customer service by eliminating long lines. The Roanoke Valley Resource Authority in Virginia uses an automated system for these functions within what is reportedly the nation’s first completely rail-based waste-disposal system. The authority—which began operation in May 1994 and serves about 186,000 people in the city of Roanoke, the county of Roanoke, and the town of Vinton—worked with Norfolk Southern to establish a public-private partnership to haul refuse from the Tinker Creek Transfer Station in Roanoke. Every day, all waste that has been collected and loaded into the rail cars at the transfer station is transported 33 miles on the Waste Line Express by Norfolk Southern to the authority’s Smith Gap Landfill Tipper Building, located in Roanoke County. There, the waste is inspected and loaded into haul trucks for burial in a 1,200-acre landfill.

In 2008, the authority had Carolina Software’s WasteWorks-SQL system implemented at its single-scale transfer station for billing, ticketing, and reporting. The system uses the Crystal Reports engine or the Microsoft Reporting Services tool to generate customized, editable reports at high speed. The version used by the authority is based on the standard WasteWorks package and uses MS SQL Server for higher speed and security; stock reports are said to run up to 20 times faster in the SQL version.

Another derivative of the WasteWorks system is the automated WasteWizard system, designed to provide “express-lane capability,” i.e., unmanned or after-hours utilization. The system can use RFID, keypad, barcode scanning, proximity readers, light and gate controls, image capture, printers, and intercoms. A second system, WasteWalker, has the same functionality as the standard package and includes rolloff management and handheld ticketing.

Tracking New Recyclables
As more types of refuse become recyclable, tracking those different types from a single stream becomes a challenge. That reality recently became apparent to Pinellas County, FL, which recently began using Martindale Associates’ Recycle Tracking System to inventory categories of refuse, both at its recycling facility and at remote collection events for homeowners.

With the proliferation of consumer electronics, the county’s household chemical and electronics recycling program volume has grown at about 30% per year in recent years, according to Joe Fernandez, solid waste program manager. “In 2001, we started accepting electronics, and that’s where a lot of our growth has come from,” he says. “From 2001 to present, it has just continued to go up. We had the digital [television signal] conversion not too long ago. Also, the popularity of the flat screen and the new LCD monitors has made a significant impact on our program.” During fiscal year 2008, more than 39,000 program participants discarded more than 2.9 million pounds of these materials.

The paperwork required for tracking materials the old way crimped efficiency and increased the county’s operational costs. Now, household chemical and electronic waste brought to a new 8,900-square-foot recycling facility or to recycling events at home-improvement stores is inventoried using the new system, which uses handheld computers for data collection. Once these items are brought into the facility, they are inventoried and shipped out to two companies specializing in recycling these materials.

Fernandez says that about 100 cars go through the facility every day. Outgoing materials are weighed using automated scales and the data and their destinations are put into the system. “When the contractor picks up a rolloff of TVs, he knows how many TVs there are and the weight,” says Fernandez. “Before, we had to add up all the TVs and their weights and put the information on a piece of paper. It took a while for my staff to do that. Now we’ve eliminated errors with transposing numbers.”

Annual collections of these materials at local home-improvement stores are “where our electronic data collection is really important because we’re processing over 250 cars an hour, and, when it peaks between 11 [a.m.] and 1 [p.m.], we might be processing over 300 cars an hour,” says Fernandez. “The electronic device tells me their zip code, which tells me how successful the location is as far as drawing from the area. Collating the data from the event gives me the ability to process a lot of cars through a line.” All told, Fernandez estimates that the system has more than tripled customer throughput.

The handheld units also can be used to print barcodes for some dropped-off materials that are resold in a “Swap Shop” at the facility. “I get data from the Swap Shop, and it’s a diverted cost from disposal,” says Fernandez. “It’s a win-win—the Swap Shop customers are able to take the products out for free.”

Fernandez takes the data collected throughout the year and compiles an annual report on total weight collected, as well as the various categories of these materials. The report is provided to county and state regulators.

Keeping up With Heavy Truck Volume
John Smith, recently retired sanitation superintendent for the city of Sallisaw, OK, likes reliable computer systems, even if he can’t tell you exactly how they work. The city’s weight recording system, used for both inbound and outbound scales at the city landfill, works well enough that management hardly knows it’s there.Page Break Line

The city landfill takes in about 400 tons a day and 124,000 tons of refuse a year, Smith reports. The operation records the weights of trucks entering and leaving about every three minutes with Cardinal Scale’s WinVRS (Vehicle Recording System), which utilizes a database to record vehicles, materials, orders, accounts, trailers, owners, and as many as 10 user-definable tables. The system’s database is compatible with the Microsoft Access database program. The scale-house operator can switch between the inbound and outbound scales on the computer screen and print tickets, and the system automatically calculates sales taxes.

“We initially set it up so that the data had to be put into the system,” he says. “We could set it up any way we wanted to. We set up each customer numerically.” Additionally, IDs are assigned to categories of refuse—white goods, for example. When each customer pulls onto the scale, the ID is entered and the system records the data. At the end of the day, Smith adds, the data gets exported to the accounting system at city hall; the system can interface with accounting systems such as Quickbooks, Peachtree, and Redwing.

Smith, noting that the staff can generate various reports, had to compile a utility study at the end of each year. This involved categorizing revenue from sources such as credit customers, cash customers, and city vehicles. “When it comes time to do the budget, you can figure out how much tonnage you’ve take in and figure out your profit and loss for the tonnage you take in every year,” he says.

Weighing loads is one challenge for MSW managers. Another is making the best use of their capital assets, an endeavor that includes preventive vehicle maintenance and maximizing truck utilization. Another aspect of asset management is dynamic or optimal routing of trucks, which can enhance customer service.

Combining Computer,  Human Intelligence
A fast-growing municipality such as Gilbert, AZ, can use some high intelligence to keep up with a proliferating volume of addresses that need to be serviced. Mike Benschoter, solid waste analyst and specialist with the town of Gilbert, recalls that about 10 years ago, the town had only about 20,000 homes and he used ArcGIS to plot the routes. At that time, Gilbert acquired the RouteSmart route-mapping system, and now the town serves more than 64,000 homes with about 20 refuse haulers. Benschoter says that the new system is showing the staff where greater routing efficiencies can be found as collection demands increase. But the human element has not been removed from the process of plotting routes.

The system uses detailed inputs—e.g., container size, frequency of collection, and day of week—to geocode routes. It then runs algorithms to facilitate route optimization. Route optimization allows a more consistent level of service and provides supervisors with the ability to ensure that drivers are doing assigned work, properly managing time, not committing driving infractions, and not taking unauthorized travel paths.

Benschoter notes that the system also runs on ArcGIS, a platform with which he is comfortable. In tweaking routes, he can determine the total miles a driver covers in a day and the number of hours a given route will take to complete. Using this information, he sometimes redeploys trucks. At a more sophisticated level, he can calculate anticipated truck weight based on the number of pickups or even how profitable a given route will be.

Drivers are given a free hand. Benschoter wants them to feel in charge of their route so that they can provide better customer service. “When they come back from a route, I tell them, ‘Give me an idea of where we can save some time.’ They see some things out there that RouteSmart doesn’t see.” Those things might include noting that a particular customer is always blocking a container with a vehicle. The city can address the issue by asking the customer to make the cans more accessible, Benschoter says.

Real-Time and Historical Information
EDS Waste Solutions of Golden, CO, seeking to improve its real-time logistical capabilities in serving more than 30,000 customers with 45 trucks in west Denver, implemented a scheduling, dispatching, and collection management system in mid-2009 and has gained historical reporting capabilities that are improving its management decision-making capabilities as well.

“The key that we were looking at was real-time information, identifying the efficiencies that we were going to claim,” says Preston Loos, vice president. “By having that information, we could be proactive rather than reactive,” he says, adding that goals of adopting the technology included reducing paperwork, real-time monitoring of trucks for logistical purposes, and more accurate billing. The Routeware system uses an onboard computer and Routeware BackOffice software that analyzes the field data collected by the onboard unit. Data are transmitted to the office computer system via cellular communications. The two components integrate into EDS’ billing software, a configuration that allows a paperless system providing management with real-time access to driver, customer, and vehicle status for dynamic decision-making.Page Break Line

At least as useful as the real-time data is the “electronic trail” marked by the system’s GPS-based automatic vehicle location capability. “It provides service verification, and if it was not performed, why it was not performed,” Loos points out. “It also returns any additional services performed on location, such as extra volume, large items, any extra services like that. We’re capturing the time the service was taken, and we’re also able to monitor the speed of the vehicle and miles traveled.” Loos reports that pickups are recorded via actuators that report when a front-loading arm has lifted past a certain elevation, when a hopper cycles through on a conventional rear-loading truck, or when rails lift above a certain elevation on a side-loader. Although some intervention is possible for reporting exceptional situations, such as when the driver wants to report that containers were not set out at a particular address, for the most part the system “saves us from having them handwrite the information down and then come back and enter that through a manual data-entry process,” Loos says. “A lot of manual labor is eliminated through the process.”

Dynamic asset management is possible by using the system and vastly improves operational profitability and customer service, according to Loos. “We’re really able to look at what’s going on out there in real time from a bird’s-eye view,” he says. “We’re getting more efficiency out on our routes and we’re able to gain more revenue from extra volume and large items. With verification of the actual service being performed, it provides us with the adequate backup for our customers to show that this is what we actually performed for you.”

In terms of logistical efficiency, “in our industry and specifically in our business, we have a need for trucks to go help out another truck because we have a truck that goes down—by being able to transmit those helper routes to the vehicle that’s going to help out another route, it saves at least a half hour a day. We’re not having to have a driver meet up with another truck, exchange route sheets, and figure out where they’re going.” Loos relies heavily on one report that allows management to determine, in real time, an individual truck’s history over the past four weeks, including whether it has traveled above a certain speed, hours of operation in a day or week, idling time, and missed pickups on a route. From a customer service standpoint, “the ability for us to have that real-time data is saving us a tremendous amount of time in our customer service,” he adds. “When customers are calling in, we’re able to respond and let them know what’s going on instead of passing the call on or putting the call on hold.”

Improving Exceptional Item Collection
The city of Asheboro, NC, uses a logistics management/Enterprise information system that uses smart phone applications and an online map interface to capture historical route information for route optimization while improving efficiency across multiple city departments. In spring 2009, the city implemented the Mobile311 system, after helping engineering and surveying firm Withers & Ravenel—which spun off Mobile311—to develop the application, and began scheduling pickups for exceptional items using optimization data.

The city uses Windows-compatible phones in its trucks and, when desired, drivers mark their locations—e.g., a brush pile that needs to be picked up—by pushing a button, and the data are stored in a GIS database. The driver of a dedicated brush-collection truck can then get a printed report of the exceptional pickups, or a polygon can be drawn around a particular area of the GIS map and specific color-coded items to be picked up are identified. Photos or audio files also can be used as supporting documentation. Other buttons can identify additional exceptional situations, such as inaccessible containers, or potholes, or dead animals for the streets and sanitation department to pick up. A “breadcrumb” feature, with user-definable data-sending intervals, identifies when a driver was in a particular location for future reference.

This level of information automation is addressing previous significant inefficiencies in the collection of exceptional refuse, according to Kermit Williamson, sanitation superintendent. “We tried recording where the items were with a piece of paper, a route sheet, we tried little voice recorders in the trucks—none of those really worked very well,” he says. For collection of brush, “if it wasn’t spring or fall cutting season, typically it would take us about a week to run the whole town to pick up brush, and they’d pretty much have to run every street to see if anything was out. But in going to this system, we’re pretty much getting the brush collected the next day, unless there’s an unusually large amount set out, in which case we get it done in two days.”

“We looked at the big picture and said, ‘We’re running every street in town two or three days a week, sometimes finishing and sometimes not finishing,’” adds Drew Fioranelli, GIS specialist for the city. “We looked at the overall picture and said, ‘We can’t not run every street in town at least one or two days a week.’ Now we can identify our bulk trash that requires a different truck. We’ve been able to identify our C&D, our white goods, our tires, our junk, and our brush on days when we go and pick up our residential cans.”

The city reports that it is saving about $2,400 a week by using the system. “We went from running two bulk collection trucks to running one. We went from two or three brush collection trucks to running one or two,” says Williamson. “Before, we were doing about 40 hours of actual collection a week, and now we’re down to 24 hours.” Still, exceptional refuse is being picked up more often, Williamson adds. “We’re still doing it twice a week, but we’re doing it more efficiently, so we don’t have stuff sitting around for more than a couple of days,” he says.

Enhancing Asset Management, Logistics
In Dallas, TX, continuous improvement was the motivation for the city’s sanitation services department to adopt an onboard telematics system for its roughly 400 trucks serving 240,000 customers on routes covering about 385 square miles. Having conducted a successful pilot program on about 70 vehicles in late 2006, the city began outfitting the entire fleet in mid-2009 with the REDIview system from Telogis. The system uses a wireless mobile data unit mounted either in the cab or in an external, waterproof enclosure. The device records engine status, current location every minute, and sensor inputs, transmitting data via cellular networks to a secure data center. The REDIview software then analyzes the data and makes the data available to a Web site and various operational reports in real time.

According to Catherine Saucier, departmental technical analyst, telematics are taking the department’s customer service to the next level. “We can send the closest truck to a particular customer that has reported a missed service call,” she says. “Our supervisors can also see potential issues a little more quickly. They can use their office time more effectively, identifying operational bottlenecks at our transfer stations, for instance. Or, if a driver is behind on his route, the supervisor can see ahead of time that he may need to assign other trucks to assist that driver. That saves us overtime costs. When supervisors do go to the field, they’re more efficient—doing less driving around and more pinpointed service work. We can also utilize the system to see if our drivers are duplicating portions of a route—we save on fuel and time—and correct any potential bad habits like speeding, improper shortcuts, and general misuse of work time.”Page Break Line

Another key report monitors truck idling time, which is limited by a city ordinance. “When a report shows excessive idling, there’s cause that the driver has no control over—but a manager may be able to correct quickly,” says Saucier. “This is very much a self-serve system, so each of our managers has the opportunity to find those reports that they would like to use. We can utilize a cost analysis report to highlight areas where we can save money. We can analyze customers per route, time for route completion, fuel usage, idling times—and compare routes and drivers.” In early 2010, Saucier says, the department used data from the system to verify route accuracy when Dallas converted about 180,000 residents to same-day service.

According to Saucier, the department has reduced missed pickups since verifying the routes using the system. “As customers adjust to a changed day of service, our normal ‘missed service’ rate jumps from less than 1% to about 8%. But in the first week of the OneDAY Dallas program, we had less than 5% missed calls, because we were able to review the routes and make sure that drivers were following them correctly.” Supervisors can also determine if the pickup was missed or if the customer placed the roll cart out after the driver went by, she adds, offering a simple means to educate the customer without penalizing the driver.

Some driver intervention is possible for the reporting of exceptional situations, Saucier notes. For example, drivers can proactively report broken roll carts and request repairs before residents even notice the need for them.

Managing Equipment Maintenance Workflow
A very large MSW operation such as the one in King County, WA, might operate hundreds of trucks and pieces of processing equipment, and getting maximum utilization out of those assets can be a tall order. In early 2003, King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks Solid Waste Division implemented asset-management software from Faster Asset Solutions, formerly CCG Systems Inc., to track the operating life cycle of its transfer haulers and heavy equipment used at its 1 million-tons-per-year, 920-acre Cedar Hills landfill. Lisa Huntley, project program manager, reports that the division operates more than 50 tractors, more than 140 transfer trailers, and 15 stationary compactors at its eight transfer stations, as well as a large amount of equipment at the landfill that requires periodic maintenance: tippers, dozers, scrapers, graders, front-end loaders, excavators, tippers, forklifts, and generators.

The system has a flexible design, is constructed around the work-order process, and provides access to real-time data. The division’s maintenance staff not only accesses work orders in the system but, more importantly, inputs data used for preventive maintenance scheduling in the future. Historical information for each piece of equipment can be viewed by month, year to date, and life to date, and reports can be customized by querying with multiple criteria. Huntley describes how workflow is organized in the maintenance shop using the system. Work orders are assigned, and technicians log on to the computer and see what has been assigned. When the equipment becomes available for maintenance, the technicians can view the equipment history, diagnosing problems quickly.

“We have a pretty aggressive maintenance schedule that is implemented through the system, too,” says Huntley. “It’s a feedback loop—we use the information to revise the schedule.” In some cases, she says, manufacturers’ recommended maintenance intervals are minimum intervals, and the schedule is adjusted to unique operating conditions. The system also prompts maintenance leads—i.e., those who assign work orders—that preventive maintenance checks are due. In turn, the maintenance leads alert the truck driver leads, who assign trucks that a given truck is due for service, and it is taken out of the rotation. Additionally, says Huntley, the availability of this data can allow completion of upcoming preventive maintenance at the same time that unscheduled maintenance issues are handled.

Besides keeping up with maintenance, the division also analyzes historical data to perform such functions as assessing downtime and tracking warranties, Huntley says. After implementing the system, the division used it to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of rebuilding walking-floor trailers. Ultimately, the decision was made to use tippers at the landfill. “A good chunk of the analysis we did to be able to make that change was to show the cost incurred under the old process by getting the information out of the computer,” notes Huntley.

Concerning Weight
Other municipal departments have same weight concerns as MSW.

As local municipalities feel the pinch of declining tax receipts, many may find that multiple departments have the same technological needs as municipal solid waste departments and managers may want to address the problems in the same ways as for MSW. Such is the case in Bellevue, WA, where the city recently adopted onboard weighing technology for sewer and catch basin cleaning trucks.

Todd Shepler, contract administrator for the city of Bellevue Fleet Operations, reports that two of the city’s trucks—one used for wastewater, the other for storm and surface water—have had Rice Lake Weighing Systems’ PrecisionLoads onboard weighing systems installed.

“These trucks hydro-excavate, and we can use them on storm drains or sewer systems,” says Shepler. “They extract debris and store it in a tank. The trucks carry 1,500 gallons each, so when you start adding more liquid and debris into the tank, your truck goes up in weight. One, we want to stay within the legal limits for both Washington state and the city and the surrounding cities.

“Two, we want to keep the weight on the truck within manufacturers’ recommendations—a lot of what drives that is that we don’t want to put too much strain on the cab and chassis, which increases our maintenance and increases our downtime.

“On top of that, we want our folks to be compliant, so we’re driving accountability by the driver; it’s their responsibility to drive within the legal limits. If you’re running over in weight and there’s an accident, there’s a huge liability issue there, and we want to be responsible as well and operate a safe vehicle.”

Shepler views the load-cell-based system as a virtual necessity. “The Washington State Patrol will patrol even our city streets, and they have mobile scales and can pull you over at any time and put you on the scales and that will put you out of commission,” he says. “You’re looking at pretty healthy fines—they can put you out of commission on the spot where you can’t move the truck until you get it to legal weight. It’s a small investment, and I think it pays off in big ways. When you’re spec’ing a truck, you’ve got a lot of different aspects that come into play nowadays: legal risk, liability. There are a lot of other things to consider besides spec’ing a good truck.”

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