Mobile technology now allows owners to manage crews at multiple job sites in real time.
Photo courtesy of Xora.
Some business environments are easy to control. Take a factory: The manager can simply look out over the floor and see where the employees are, what they're doing, where things are running smoothly and where the hold-ups are. He can then move people and resources around like pieces on a chessboard.
In landscaping, things are a little more difficult to monitor. For starters, there may be 10 different chessboards, spread out over dozens of miles. Fortunately, technology is helping give contractors a little more control over their far-flung operations. And there are many different types of tracking, routing and logistics management systems available to meet the needs of different landscape companies.
NexTraq (http://www.nextraq.com), for example, uses vehicle-mounted GPS technology to track the location of company cars and trucks (or other equipment). Wyn Partington, vice president of marketing, says these dedicated modules offer advantages over the use of cell phone-based systems that track location. "GPS tracking devices have been designed specifically for the purpose of tracking. While there have been tremendous advances in cell phone technology, the primary focus of a cell phone is not to be a GPS tracking device. Cell phones can be turned off by the user rendering the device useless," he explains. "Also, although smartphones and tablets have GPS, they cannot match the sophistication of a GPS tracking device that is designed for this alone."
Xora's (http://www.xora.com) StreetSmart package, on the other hand, uses mobile handsets (for nearly any smartphone or tablet and all top service providers), working in conjunction with a cloud-based management application to electronically connect office personnel with staff in the field. The GPS-enabled phones/tablets are equipped with a mobile app. "Workers just start that app up at the beginning of their day, and that provides visibility for the manager into the location of all the workers throughout the day," explains Patricia Harper, vice president of sales and marketing with Xora.
SageQuest (http://www.sage-quest.com) uses small GPS devices installed in vehicles and then sends information over a cellular data network to let managers see the location of various vehicles in their fleet, as well as a history for those vehicles.
Brian Smith, president and CEO of Signature Control Systems (http://www.signaturecontrolsystems.com), says the company's Avior vehicle management system also uses GPS tracking hardware installed on equipment (not just trucks, but also any type of commercial turf maintenance equipment, such as mowers, tractors, utility vehicles, etc.), which is particularly useful for those managing large sites, such as golf course superintendents and groundskeepers at parks, college campuses, resorts and so on.
"Using the GPS data, you can get a date and time stamp of where any vehicle was at particular given time, and use that data in a number of different ways," he explains. For example, you can check to see what route a utility vehicle took, or find out where all of the various mowers on site are at any given time.
Tracking but much more
There was a time when mobile monitoring systems simply used GPS to provide a dot on the map showing the location of a vehicle. Today's applications are more business management tools than simple location beacons.
"Our devices do much more than show where a vehicle is on a map," says Partington with NexTraq. "Last year we developed a job schedule board to simplify job assigning. We also developed our mobile app which allows field employees to assign themselves to vehicles, report vehicle problems, update odometer readings, clock in and out of work and, of course, receive jobs and update job status."
For example, mangers can get "scorecards" on driver behavior, which can help monitor safety issues (speeding, hard stops, rapid accelerations, etc.) as well as fuel use and wear and tear on vehicles. Vehicle maintenance alerts and schedules also are available from the field. Plus, he notes, engine hours, idling, and other functions can only be obtained with a device that is connected to the vehicle.
NexTraq uses constantly updated Google maps and its Fleet Dispatch application can not only send drivers a daily schedule of jobs and routes, but can also update that information to avoid traffic. "If a landscaping company were to implement the NexTraq GPS Fleet Tracking system and could save a driver just seven minutes driving or remove 6 miles from being driven each day, the company would see savings of around $35 per vehicle per driver," states Partington.
When GPS fleet tracking technology was first introduced, some companies used it as a way to prevent vehicle theft, and there were grumblings in the ranks of workers that it was basically a way to spy on employees. Today, it's recognized as a business management tool, says Partington. "By utilizing GPS software, businesses are now able to obtain critical data that can help in all facets of business."
Specifically, he says that vehicle tracking (and related) technologies can help companies increase revenue by improving efficiency and communications, boosting the quality of service being provided, and ensure that accurate bills are produced documenting all of the jobs (or hours) worked.
Xora, which also utilizes Google maps, recently introduced a feature called Mileage Manager, which allows employees to capture the starting and ending odometer readings for each trip. "This lets managers really dive into routing and look at where they might be able to save fuel and time, and get the workers to where they need to be as soon as possible," explains Harper.
Xora also has mobile timesheet capability. "The workers can clock in and out at the beginning and end of the day, and they can register that they're taking their breaks. That gives a much more precise accounting of when each worker is on the clock and off the clock," states Harper, noting that the automation results in benefits both for the office and the worker. Not only are paper timesheets eliminated, but this data can be exported into the company's payroll system, she points out.
There are other ways to use the system to track employees and vehicles. "Say, for example, you want your workers to conduct a walk-around vehicle inspection every day," says Harper. Xora has a mobile form that can be integrated into the time sheet function, so once an employee clocks in, the vehicle form pops up asking them to confirm air pressure in the tires, that all safety equipment is in place or any other check a company wants their mobile workers to perform. "It lets operations management tell employees what they want them to do in the order they want them to do it; you can tell them make sure they do the vehicle check in the morning, rather than at 3 p.m. when they remember it," she summarizes.
The company's StreetSmart system can be customized with other forms, as well. "You could ask workers, 'Were you hurt on the job today and what action did you take?'" says Harper.
Of course, the system is also designed to help track and manage the actual work during the day, as well. Instead of yellow sticky notes on a truck's dashboard, StreetSmart can assign workers a list of specific jobs over their mobile device. And each stop can be sub-categorized, as well.
Employees can enter when they start and finish a job, and each task within a job. This gives managers the ability to see how much time was spent, say, mowing versus weeding the flowerbeds. Even if a customer is billed one total rate, the ability to know how much time each task takes is invaluable from a financial management and bidding perspective, says Harper.
The system even allows employees to take a photo of the finished product and/or get an electronic signature from the customer once each job is complete. "This provides proof of service, which is very big thing for landscape companies; being able to show that you did the work and how it looked and what date and time and location the work was done," she explains. This gives the company a permanent record of the job, in case any questions arise later on. If desired, this information can also be easily included in PDF invoices, which the system also can create.
SageQuest says that its Mobile Control system is twofold for landscape contractors. It keeps customers satisfied and technicians accountable. It allows technicians to respond quickly to the needs of customers. The system uses a one-click "find nearest" feature that lets managers identify the crew closest to where an issue has been reported so response time is as fast as possible. By using real time mapping powered by Google, drivers are given exact address details, including street views of the property, along with traffic information, the company reports.
Employee accountability comes in several forms. For example, built-in alerts let managers know if a driver is speeding or idling excessively. And time card capabilities within the SageQuest system allow employers to lower labor costs "by validating hours reported versus real activity."
SageQuest also includes a Control Center that allows managers to make sense of all the data - jobs completed, hours billed, driving time, etc. - in a way that makes it easier to spot areas where business practices can be changed or improved upon.
Signature Control Systems' Avior vehicle management system is designed not just to track the location of vehicles and equipment, but also to serve as a preventive maintenance tracker, explains Smith. "Service schedules are put in place, and as the vehicle gets closer and closer to service intervals, it ties in the inventory, so you can have a just-in-time supply of oil and spark plugs and belts, etc.," he states.
Sensors can be installed on the equipment to monitor any number of different maintenance or performance areas; all of the information collected can be sent via cell signal or wifi to either the onsite maintenance shop or even the equipment dealer.
It's not just regularly scheduled maintenance where there comes in handy, Smith points out. "We can put a limit switch on a vehicle that's set so that, if the hydraulic line broke, we'd be able to notify the operator, the mechanic or the service technician at the dealer within about five seconds," he explains. All of this ensures that parts can be ordered, an appointment scheduled and things repaired as quickly as possible.
Does size matter?
High-tech routing and job management capabilities make obvious sense for larger companies with dozens or hundreds or thousands of crews out on the job, but do they make sense for smaller landscape companies?
SageQuest offers "enterprise accounts" that can track up to 20,000 vehicles, but the company also offers solutions for small businesses, noting that, "When you're running a small mobile workforce, every truck in the field makes a big impact on your bottom line."
Smith says the Avior system can pay dividends even when it's installed on just a fleet of, say, five pieces of equipment. Being able to monitor where, when and how each is accruing miles or hours can help in the decisions about when equipment should be traded in, and how many pieces of equipment are really needed in the fleet. "It gives the owners tools and measurement points that they can make solid business decisions based on," Smith explains.
Harper says Xora's products make the most sense for companies utilizing 20 vehicles or more, but points out that operations of any size can take advantage of many of the business management tools associated with the tracking technology.
"Both single-fleet vehicles and large fleet vehicles can benefit from the implementation of GPS service," says Partington. "We calculate return on investment on a per-vehicle basis and this works for one or 100 vehicles." Even smaller companies, he notes, can still save on fuel and other costs, improve productivity and utilize all the benefits of a comprehensive fleet tracking solution.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.