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The advancement of mobile technology in the last decade has changed how we live, work and communicate. With the click of a button, a person can now have groceries delivered to his or her door, request a ride to the airport or instantly transfer money to someone across the globe. Not surprisingly, these advancements have trickled down to the waste and recycling sector.

New advancements in route optimization technology are changing how haulers, commercial businesses and local governments think about waste collection. These new systems tout the ability to fine-tune routing to increase efficiency, cut costs and better serve customers. However, with the sheer amount of companies producing this technology, end users have to do their due diligence to find the solution that’s right for them.

Kessler Consulting Inc. in Tampa, Florida, is a consultancy that has focused on serving clients in the waste sector for 30 years. Over that time, it has specialized in collection system analyses and on-route audits to help clients identify the route optimization technology that works best for their unique needs.

According to Mitch Kessler, principal at Kessler Consulting, doing ample research early on is critical because of the abundance of vendors in the market.

Kessler regularly gets pitched by route optimization companies in order to better recommend services to his clients. While attending an industry trade show a couple years ago, Kessler says he counted 28 different vendors that were promoting some type of route optimization service on their show banner. With the amount of noise in the market, he says he’s not surprised that people don’t know where to look for answers.

“Most people don’t even know where to start when they begin looking for a provider,” Kessler says. “Every vendor is going to tell you their product is the best thing since sliced bread. That’s their job.”

The first thing to recognize is that these systems often specialize in different facets related to route optimization and come with different tools and abilities.

“If I was in the government or someone looking at one of these systems, I wouldn’t know which end was up or what the term route optimization meant,” Kessler says. “This is compounded by the fact that some of the software companies I speak with, all pitch various services that are quasi-related or possibly related to route optimization. Some talk about accounting, others talk about tracking programs, or back office stuff, so there is no rhyme or reason to it. I think there is confusion in our industry right now on what route optimization actually is, and I think that’s actually gotten worse, not better, over the last few years.”

Figuring out your intentions

Because these tools offer different capabilities, it is important to figure out exactly what functionality is wanted and needed before weeding out vendors.

“What we tell our clients is that before they start down the road of buying something, they have to ask themselves what the purpose or objective they are trying to accomplish is,” Kessler says. “Then you have to match that with the program you’re getting, what support you’ll need and what the cost of all of that is. We’ve had a number of clients come up to us and say that they want to invest in a particular program, and then we ask them a series of questions and they start to realize that the program in question doesn’t match their franchise contract or what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Creating a wish list of desired services is the easy part. What is more challenging in assessing the fit of a route optimization program is being critical in determining what capabilities and systems a stakeholder has the resources to handle. As with any technology onboarding process, the right people are a prerequisite.

Kessler relays a story about a client who purchased a $50,000 route optimization software package some years back, only to find that it was still wrapped up and untouched on its shelves years later because nobody could put it into action.

“They only realized when they bought it that they had nobody to install it, utilize it or understand what it would take to run the program,” Kessler says.

For those who have the right people to get up and running with a system, the next challenge is making sure that they’re investing in the proper training. Some people within an organization are naturally more equipped to understand and work with these new technologies; others will need continual training and supervision. These considerations are important to factor in before the purchasing stage.

“We’ve seen many times that people have purchased something and then they go, ‘Whoops, that was the wrong size, that was the wrong application, we didn’t know it required that amount of sophistication and training,’” Kessler says. “They don’t have the personnel to implement it. A lot of these companies need a substantial amount of intensive training, and if you don’t go to that regularly, and you don’t have people who are really computer literate, you won’t be able to continue to run the program.”

No one-size-fits-all solution

The cost and size of route optimization packages can vary dramatically among vendors. There are web-based solutions that are designed to cater to mom-and-pop operations and those that cost tens of thousands of dollars that might be implemented by the largest publicly traded companies.

According to Kessler, these technologies aren’t just something for bigger companies to consider. Increased efficiency is something even those with just a few trucks and a few routes can benefit from if the software fits in with the company’s budget and scope of operations.

Of course, Kessler says, the greater the functionality provided, the greater the cost in most cases. That’s why organizations need to be discerning to ensure that their eyes aren’t bigger than their stomachs when shopping around.

Kessler notes that he’s seen companies add on all the bells and whistles a service has, adding thousands of dollars to the overall cost, only to be stuck using just a few of the tools while they’re only halfway through their contract.

"These tools can help provide a level of accountability that was never possible before. Now operators can tell where a truck is and what it’s doing and tie this to the bottom line."

New changes mean new ways of doing business

The waste industry is dominated by companies that are used to doing things the way they’ve been done for years. Likewise, experienced drivers are often hesitant to change how they schedule their routes. While experience and good old-fashioned know-how can’t be replaced, they can be supplemented with new tools.

“We are an old-school industry, so the people who have been doing routing and driving for a while might say that they just do right-hand routing—just keep making right turns, never make a left turn, never back up, and everything is good,” Kessler says. “Those people are hard to change. They think they can draw a route on a map as good as anybody, but in reality in the new world of route optimization, everything is going to be done on a smartphone or tablet.”

In addition to the actual route mapping, these tools can help provide a level of accountability that was never possible before. Now operators can tell where a truck is and what it’s doing and tie this to the bottom line.

“I think there is great application moving into the future with these tools,” Kessler says. “Now, everybody knows everything you do, where you stopped, where you had lunch. There is no longer going to be a driver pulling over on the side of the road in a place where you’re paid by the hour and getting overtime because he took a two-hour nap in the afternoon. So, we think this technology is a good tool, we think it is more efficient, it is more accountable and provides important information, it just has to be managed. I would say in 10 years, there will only be onboard services and routing that ties into back office accounting because people need to know this information.”

Kessler sees these solutions bringing a new level of operational efficiency into the fold for organizations, which will likely be met with both a positive and negative reception depending on what side of the aisle the organization is on.

“In the private sector, I think you’re going to see sweeping changes of people adopting this technology because all it can bring to the table,” Kessler says. “In the public sector, there might be a little bit more hesitancy because of the exposure. If you’re contracted with a government, do you want to share all your information in terms of where the truck is, how long it’s been there, what’s it doing—it’s very revealing. Then there are governments who are running their own operation, and those people could definitely use these solutions.”

Looking back to look forward

Collection operations are the single largest expense in solid waste management systems, sources say. The emergence of new software can help organizations decrease costs and work smarter by pairing the right solution for their needs.

The challenge for organizations is sorting through what’s available to choose a program that can grow with their needs. Kessler relates what he’s seeing in the market now to the computer wars of the 1980s, where a number of software and hardware providers were jockeying to gain market share in a crowded field, only to be left with the Apples and Microsofts of the world standing years later.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more types of route optimization software on the street,” Kessler says. “I think some are going to work, some are going to be partial answers, some are going to be too expensive, and maybe some will be the whole answer.”

The author is editor of Waste Today and can be reached at aredling@gie.net.