Turn On, Tune Up, and Rev Out

By / 2 months ago

Pro dealer lumberyards brace for big data truck telematics and self-driving vehicles.

Truck Telematics

Two thousand, two hundred and ninety-nine. That’s how many forklifts and subcontracted delivery trucks Eighty Four, Penn.-based 84 Lumber puts to work every day, give or take a truck.

“We’ve got approximately 1,300 forklifts plus a mix of fleet vehicles and small trucks,” says 84 Lumber’s Vice President of Delivery Handling Mitch Feldman. “And we subcontract close to 1,000 Class A and Class B specialized dedicated delivery trucks to professional trucking companies as well, including everything from tractor trailers and straight trucks to boom trucks, and most of them with forklift offload capabilities.”

Keeping all of that iron running lean and mean is no small task, so much so that the national pro dealer relies on a combination of manufacturer fleet service providers that deliver operational performance benchmarks that include cost per hour and avoidable damage metrics.

“This helps us make important decisions regarding our fleet,” says Feldman. “We use national fleet management companies to track cost per hour and service intervals, we use DOT compliance software to track inspections and driver medical renewal notifications, our safety department does spot field audits, and then there are daily equipment check-ins that are entered into our point of sales system.”

Smaller pro dealers are no different when it comes to keeping fleets tuned up and operating at optimum performance. “Your fleet is the front line when it comes to executing on your customer service promise,” says Brandon Deering, Fleet Manager and Safety Coordinator for Petaluma, Calif.-based Golden State Lumber. “Your equipment needs to operate at high performance, be clean, and look good out there. There’s nothing better than showing up at the jobsite with a brand new truck running on all cylinders, and we use it as a competitive advantage.”

Control Parameters

But is the pro dealer set ready for advanced equipment and vehicle telematics, or even the end game of self-driving pro dealer delivery trucks? Originally developed by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like CAT, CASE, John Deere, Komatsu and others, telematics began with basic GPS to identify where vehicles were and keep them from getting stolen (remember LoJack?).

The telematics big data push has since spawned into deep, mineable analytics on fluid and fuel consumption, temperatures, and pressures; engine run and idle times, RPMs, maintenance intervals, and even the safety and training record of the driver behind the wheel. And that’s how driverless trucks are likely to be born.

Mika Majapuro is the Director of Product Development for Glenview, IL-based Teletrac Navman, a provider of mixed fleet telematics solutions for the construction industry. “Obviously you can’t get to driverless until you establish telematics, because the goal is to somehow be able to control those mechanical and operational parameters that telematics measure,” Majapuro says. “Everyone knows that there eventually will be self-driving vehicles, but how we get there is less known. It’s a huge opportunity, but from a technical perspective it is still pretty out there.”

For lumberyards, telematics promises to help optimize fleet efficiencies by providing business intelligence on the most cost-effective ways to operate and maintain trucks, forklifts, and other heavy equipment. But system costs may need to come down before the typical round of first adopters sees a reason to ditch analog maintenance hacks that have already proven out where the rubber meets the road.

“We’ve looked at it a little bit. There are plugins to keep track of nearly everything you are doing, but those options are on the higher end of price,” says Deering, who adds that most of Golden State’s preventive maintenance and miscellaneous vehicle records are on old-fashioned Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. “We do have telematics on our trucks, including GPS tracking and idle and speed, but we don’t mine the data beyond what it offers us in real time.”

Reality vs. Robots

Specifically, Golden State sets geolocation boundaries so trucks from one market don’t necessarily cross into another market supported by a different yard location. Dispatchers also use GPS to have loaders begin to prep deliveries when a truck is 15 to 20 minutes inbound for a pick up, and idle and speed metrics are used to help train and reward great driving.

84 Lumber is likewise currently investing its available fleet dollars into implementing electronic driver tablets for delivery tracking, GPS, cloud-based picture taking applications, DOT check-ins, and general driver communications. “We have spoken with select manufacturers regarding their use of telematics,” says Feldman. “We’re looking into it to add more capabilities to our business.”

And while Google, Apple, Tesla and others continue to R&D driverless car prototypes that could conceivably make it into commercial delivery applications, pro dealers remain uncertain that a faceless technology can pull off the nuance of a perfect LBM delivery, even if it’s in Silicon Valley. “It would be cool to see if that could happen, but with everything we do it would be pretty difficult for robotic cars to roll off loads,” says Deering. “It is a high level, sometimes rough job to be able to put deliveries exactly where the customer wants them.”

Feldman agrees, and questions whether or not driverless technologies provide the market and jobsite intelligence that allows lumberyards to keep pace with their evolving contractor customer base. “We spend the time and resources to keep our fleet in tip top shape including constant analysis, evaluation and updates,” Feldman says. “Of course we are always open to new technologies, but with that said, we believe some things should never take the place of our jobsite customer service and the personal touch that comes along with that service. It’s pretty important to us.”

Chris Wood

Chris Wood is based in Sonoma, Calif. and writes frequently about real estate, construction, lumberyards, apartment buildings, and technology.