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Mobile Computing Streamlines Operations

Labatt Food Service sought to institute a system that would minimize the adverse effects of rising fuel prices through a reduction of miles driven.

Labatt Food Service can trace its roots to the early 20th century. The company is widely recognized in the food service distribution industry as an innovative, customer-focused leader. With approximately 1,500 employees, Labatt operates from distribution centers in San Antonio, Dallas, Lubbock and Houston, and serves customers in Texas as well as parts of Oklahoma, Louisiana and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

To maintain its reputation as a market leader, Labatt has continually innovated to bring improved service to its customers. In 2002, it introduced voice picking technologies, having written a solution for its warehouses with in-house programmers. In 2008, the company realized that two issues needed to be addressed to maintain its competitive edge: driver satisfaction and delivery efficiency.

Labatt’s drivers were using pen and paper to track arrivals, departures and returns, and to update hours-of-service logs to comply with internal documentation needs and DOT regulations. This resulted in a substantial amount of paperwork each day. To add to this, paperwork entered in the field was reentered into a database once the driver returned to the distribution center — creating a layer of redundancy and increasing the opportunity for errors. With hundreds of drivers in the field, the potential for increased efficiency was significant.

Additionally, Labatt sought to institute a system that would best position the company to minimize or counteract the adverse effects of rising fuel prices through a reduction of miles driven on a regular basis.

Labatt began the process of finding a mobile computing solution that would capture telemetry information, engine data, customer interactions and hours-of-service information, while providing navigation and messaging capabilities. A mobile broadband network was also needed to transmit data to and from drivers. Finally, the solution would need to be durable enough to survive the high-vibration and extreme temperature swings often found in truck cabs.

Labatt first looked at shrink-wrapped solutions available to the trucking market, but found these devices were too restrictive — not allowing for upgrades, modifications and customization. These devices required Labatt drivers to adapt to the solution, rather than having a solution that adapted to the drivers’ workflow. In an attempted beta test with one such solution, Labatt drivers went so far as to cut the cords of the new solution to avoid the hassle imposed by the system.

With this in mind, the company decided it needed a customized solution, so it wrote proprietary software to meet its unique needs. After exhaustive research, Labatt selected the Panasonic Toughbook® U1 for its durability, full-scale Windows® operating system, daylight-viewable touchscreen, embedded mobile broadband and GPS.

“The U1 really caught our attention because it had the functionality and flexibility of a laptop in the smaller footprint we were looking for,” said Miguel Escobedo, lead project architect, Labatt Food Service. “Because the U1 runs a full Windows OS, we were able to develop solutions on our own laptops without some type of emulation software to mimic a handheld operating environment. We knew if it worked on our laptops, it would work on the U1. The devices are part of our domain like any other PC, which makes them easy to manage with our Active Directory infrastructure.”

With wireless connectivity a critical component of the deployment, Labatt tested multiple providers to determine which offered the best mobile broadband service in its operating area. After comparing coverage areas and bid pricing, Labatt determined that mobile broadband service from AT&T was best suited to address its needs.

Labatt’s internal team designed the main application and identified a small group of drivers with extensive experience to test the solution. Over a period of three months, it was modified based on driver feedback and then rolled out to almost 400 drivers.

Since adopting the new Toughbook U1-based solution, the benefits have been clear. The new solution automatically logs route data and customer interactions, eliminating the time spent entering data by pen at each stop and reentering paperwork at the distribution center.

Another key advantage is improved driver safety. The solution allows for more thorough and proactive management responses to things such as basic driving patterns and driving hours reports. The improved driver safety practices help to reduce liability exposure.

Thanks to the AT&T mobile broadband network, the company now has near real time access to information from the field allowing for more timely analysis of data and more accurate estimated time of arrivals for its customers.

The embedded GPS has also allowed Labatt to optimize its delivery network, significantly reducing the amount of fuel it consumes — saving money and reducing its carbon footprint.

Satisfaction with the new solution has been so high that Labatt has seen driver turnover reduce since its introduction. This has, in turn, reduced recruiting and training costs for the company.

With reliability a critical component of success, Labatt has been pleased with the Toughbook U1’s performance. The device’s reliability has reduced IT support issues typically found with mobile technology solutions, allowing Labatt to focus on strategic growth initiatives that can further improve the service it offers its customers.

“We have already seen marked improvement in driver-to-dispatch and transportation-to-sales communication,” said Blair Labatt III, project lead, Labatt Food Service. “Since drivers played such an involved role in the system’s creation, they have really embraced it. And keeping drivers happy is important to our bottom line. Since the system’s implementation, we’ve seen driver turnover get cut in half. Although turnover reduction is not entirely attributable to the new system, its estimated worth is just under a million dollars a year. Our next efforts will be to reduce annual expenses by approximately $2 million through route optimization. The solution we created is helping Labatt become a more streamlined and competitive company.”

Once again, Labatt has employed innovation to deliver the greatest level of service to its customers, helping to ensure it will be around into the next century.

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