Resetting the Scales

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Are you up on the latest developments in scale management systems? When it comes to billing and reporting at landfills and transfer stations, this is a technology that speeds up transactions, cuts hours and days off of reporting tasks, boosts accuracy, and literally redefines the work environment in most every aspect. Does it sound too good to be true? Well, let’s start with a look at how automation helped Deb Bush turn around her organization’s operations at Pinellas County Solid Waste. Then we’ll see some examples of the industry’s best offerings. And we’ll also provide a link to an RFP that you can use to get proposals to upgrade your operations.

Deb Bush took on a tough assignment when she became manager of The Pinellas County Solid Waste department. It’s an integrated solid waste system that has a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant and two landfills. The scales handle more than 1,000 transactions per day, and operations depend on many reports and accurate accounting procedures, in part because of the sorting, and the fact that less than 15% of the waste received ends up in the landfill, while the remaining 85% is converted to energy in the WTE facility. With a capacity to burn 3,150 tons of garbage daily, the WTE facility requires plenty of record keeping, even down to the ash that’s generated from the combustion of solid waste, which is transferred to a residue storage and processing building. There’s also a landfill for mulch, and all these activities are handled by a variety of independent contractors.

The movement of materials for the WTE plant requires tracking, as does the landfill, and Bush wanted software that would track all scale activities, print tickets, and create video logs. “We needed a better tracking system all around, and it had to tie in to the contracts for operators and the movement of the material around the site,” Bush recalls. “The software I inherited wasn’t up to the job, and we were eight months behind the end of our fiscal year and hadn’t balanced things. Every time we pulled a report, there was a different number. We were over 1,000 transactions a day that accounted for $130,000 worth of business, yet there was no way for us to make sure that we had good cash controls, because we couldn’t track things. Also, I suspected that there was theft, and our inspector general office confirmed the problem, but we couldn’t say how much because we didn’t have video or logs tracking scale activation.” Bush gathered her staff and department heads together, and created an RFP to find a supplier that could provide a solution. The search led her to Paradigm Software LLC, of Cockeysville, MD.

“They have six scale lanes, and they do everything from signature capture to drivers license scanning and video monitoring, and it’s all tied into our application,” says Jackie Barlow, II, vice president at Paradigm. “They allow their customers to have access to a secure website, and they can run reports on older data. So instead of having vendors asking Pinellas County for a reprint or data on a ticket, they can log into the system and see transactions from a certain date, and it will run that report and show them the data on those transactions. The data can be exported to EXCEL spreadsheet or an RTF file or PDF file.”

The county also has the option to offer paperless statements to avoid printing and mailing costs. Customers can make payments by check through the mail or online with a credit card, and it’s automatically updated upon approval. The process is fast enough to clear an account for a truck that was turned away at the scales for lack of payment, so it can get back in line without leaving the site. “Paperless billing includes the ticket at the time that driver crosses a scale,” Barlow adds. “So it can be an e-mail copy sent to a specified e-mail address every time the transaction is processed, and a batch at the end of the day or any other time. Now if the driver loses his ticket there’s still a copy sent as an e-mail so the company doesn’t have to call the county and take an employee’s time with a request for another ticket.”

The paperless system integrates well with Pinellas’s video system, and helps with the site’s unattended scales. “I don’t have just a software package,” Bush explains. “It’s also tied into video and everything communicates. So I have videos of trucks on the scale, the contents of the truck, the driver, the tags, and the scale operator. If somebody says they didn’t make a trip across the scales and drop a load we can pull it up and identify the truck and the driver.” The system reduces wait times for onsite contractors by automating a set of unattended double lanes that are designated for use by contractors moving material between the facilities.

“Those trucks have transponders,” Bush adds, “and all the data is captured by the system, so we don’t have to manually input the information and it removes the potential for errors and speeds up the daily reports for our contractors at the landfill and waste-to-energy operations. In the past sometimes it would take two to three days before the scale supervisor could figure out a problem with a transaction, so the reports were behind. Now the reports are distributed at 10 o’clock every morning, and they’re accurate, so it’s very rare that we have problems.”

Timely reporting is critical for meeting state and local regulations at the city of Napa, CA, says Chris Shoop, management analyst (recycling coordinator) for the City of Napa Public Works Department. “The most common reports we use are tracking materials and transactions so we can determine how much of something came in or came went out for specific customers within certain periods of time,” says Shoop. “The city of Napa has been using Soft-Pak for eight years in the scale house at our recycling and compost facility. We conduct and manage a variety of different scale transactions, capturing and tracking needed data and producing various informational reports. This system has the capability to run those easily, and we can do something as broad as facilitywide or we can drill down to the individual material type or an individual customer if we like.”

One of the keys to accuracy in the production of instant updates is RFID/ Bar Code technology, according to Brian Porter, president of Soft-Pak in San Diego, CA. “The RFID/ Bar Code technology allows Napa Valley to instantly close work orders and make data available for reports and analysis,” says Porter. “Too many waste haulers have different scale programs that either upload late in the day or only provide for manual data input. The Scale-Pak software was designed to instantly update Soft-Pak’s main database with the driver’s activities, work orders, and productivity. This real-time information flow assists scale operators, back office personnel, and management’s oversight of their different operating units.”

The system also works with unattended scales for both intercompany and cash customers during normal operations or during off hours. This cost-saving feature allows for additional capacity and efficiencies without incurring overtime or employing additional resources. There’s a variety of options for defining user qualifications and billing methods, Porter adds, “Some customers have taken this a step further, and allowed certain qualified customers to dump during off hours by provided either a scale ticket or a credit process for third-party haulers. Again, allowing the scale entity to collect revenues off hours while still maintaining controls of payments by knowing who is going in or out of the facility.” Further verification is possible by capturing driver signatures at a scale station. The signature is automatically stored in the system to alleviate billing discrepancies when invoices are presented.

Shoop adds that automation has made a great impact in controlling long lines at the scales. “We brought in about 120,000 tons of material last year, and our business is growing. The transaction process at the scales happens very quickly. There’s a few screens to go through and you can print out a ticket and receipt for the customer. If it’s a cash customer they can pay by credit card, and if it’s a billable customer we have accounts and the software allows us to add the transaction and it’s billed monthly. Actually, the software has more capabilities than we currently use but we expect things to evolve and have the software evolve with us.”

With reporting requirements growing in complexity, scale operations and management systems have to evolve to keep up with the breakneck pace for landfills, recycling, and transfer stations, according to Joe Everman, business manager for Mettler Toledo in Columbus, OH. “There’s a tremendous amount of reporting required for the waste industry,” says Everman, “It’s driven by compliance regulations on the state and local levels, and these vary by governments. For example, operators in California have to adhere to all California state laws in regard to tonnage and usage of landfills and how much reduction is taking place in the green space of a landfill-and also how much is going to recycling and how you’re tracking these recyclables.”

To make compliance and reporting easier, Mettler Toledo is introducing DataBridge SS, the company’s next-generation vehicle scale software, designed to replace the company’s current software product OverDrive, a weight and data management product. “Data Bridge MS is our next-level product scale management system,” says Santosh Nachu, product manager for vehicle scale software with Mettler Toledo “It manages entire systems, and at this level operations include unattended terminals, with lights and gates to manage. So rather than make it complicated, we have those instructions built in.”

Quick setups and even quicker data capture are needed as the industry has evolved, says Everman. “Five years ago, 50% of our business was batched information and a 24-hour turnaround was adequate. But now it’s down to less than 20%, and the other 80% needs real-time transmission to a central administration point for invoicing and billing and reporting. The second trend we’re seeing is more and more unattended scale houses. They have to be driver friendly because this is a global product and it’s available in all types of languages. For example, in California and Florida, where you have Spanish-speaking people, they can go to an unattended terminal and choose between English and Spanish or another language.”

Data Bridge takes the process a step further for operators that want to limit driver input. By issuing a badge with a magnetic strip, all the driver has to do is swipe the badge and the system identifies the holder and the language. “You can add a video camera to take a picture of the driver and the contents of the drop,” notes Nachu. “Then it can be used for auditing purposes to reconstruct a transaction or to review the approvals and the history of when the load came into the landfill or transfer station”

For reports, the software provides controls to drag and drop a column header for grouping or sorting. “You can manipulate this massive trove of data and filter down to exactly what you’re looking for and export that into various files,” says Nachu. “There’s also the ability to visualize and populate a chart to see data on customers and metrics, because when you’re looking at a sheet of paper it’s hard to visualize numbers, but if you can put them in some sort of graph and show a relationship between the entire span of data, that’s something valuable to make a quick decision on. The whole point of reports is to understand your business, and graphs are better than a whole bunch of numbers for visualizing the information.”

We started in Florida, and branched out to software that’s designed for worldwide usage, but let’s circle back to Florida to see what it takes to keep the scales at the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County running efficiently. The authority provides solid waste disposal and recycling services and programs to the county’s 1.4 million residents and businesses. Solid waste and recycling collection services are also provided to the residents and businesses in unincorporated Palm Beach County through private haulers under exclusive franchise agreements. To keep track of the high volume of traffic and material processing, the SWA uses AutoPro X Data Collection software from Scale Automation Systems, Dunbar, WV.

“The SWA has collection transfer stations all over the county, where city and private trash haulers bring their trucks,” explains Mike Shafer, sales manager for Scale Automation Systems. “The material has to be sorted for either a landfill or a waste-to-energy facility, and they use our system countywide to automate the weighing function with their trunks, and the private companies and local residents. Previously, there were problems with their original system, because the staff did things by hand and the terminals didn’t even capture the weight off the scales.”

With 700 to 800 vehicles a day, the sheer volume caused mistakes, such as long lines, and trucks ending up at the wrong tipping floor sections, which caused intermixing of materials that bogged down operation when personnel had to hand sort the mixed waste. “That was solved when we implemented the bar coding and classification of materials and tracking in real time,” Shafer recalls. “Now if a truck goes to the wrong tipping floor, the system stops them with a display that’s bilingual and flags the operations people to warn about a truck unloading in the wrong place, and they can use their radios to stop them.”

Bar coding and directions for dumping of loads are critical to the SWA’s operations, says Shafer. “The waste has to be tracked, and there can’t be intermingling of different waste materials and categories, because the waste-to-energy plants have their own collection points for metals and plastics. The trucks have RFID tags and there’s a scale specifically for the trucks leaving the landfill and sorting areas. The tags are scanned at terminals designed so drivers don’t have to get out of their trucks. The terminal asks questions about the load and prints a receipt. It’s all linked to the county’s accounting system, and data is processed on a large mainframe server for reporting in real time, so the information is available immediately.”

For the future, the SWA is looking at unattended low-volume transfer stations specifically to handle the county’s municipal trucks-only accounts. Those stations will benefit from the progress in RFID technology because RFID tags are no longer just passive carriers of data. Shafer notes that the new systems have reading and writing capabilities that can further boost efficiencies. “When a truck comes to facility, you can read the RFID tag and do the processing. And instead of printing the ticket, an electronic ticket is transferred back to the truck’s tag, so the tag stores the data and it can be read and updated at every stop on its route. So there’s a history of the vehicles activities, and by fully automating this process, you eliminate the human error factor, and that saves time and money.”

Saving time and money seems to be the overriding theme when it comes to scale automation software. For transactions, billing, and reporting, automation has proven to be an ideal tool for accuracy and timely execution of these critical tasks. Moreover, the ability to eliminate costly errors, such as intermingling waste and recyclables, can boost employee satisfaction and even reduce safety risks. Multiple-language capabilities can have the same benefits.

Now the final question is that of finding the right scale automation software for your organization (see sidebar for a list of automation resources). Again, it’s time to look to Florida and the experience of Deb Bush at Pinellas County Solid Waste. “Since we’re a government agency, we wrote this RFP so others could piggyback off it,” Bush explains. “Rather than reinventing the wheel other cities and counties have used our contract because they know how much work we put into this. Our RFP is on the Florida SWANA website, and this organization has a great scale and finance committee that helps our members.”

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