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Garbage disposal firm cleans up with wireless apps

Garbage collection is dirty work, but thanks to mobile phones and wireless apps, one trash company was able to clean up field force inefficiencies and cut costs.

CHICAGO -- When in doubt, leave the dirty work to wireless applications. With the help of mobile technology, Waste Management Inc. was able to clean up business process inefficiencies and pare down its costs.

Speaking at the Gartner Wireless and Mobile Summit 2004, Alex Popov, director of fleet services and logistics for the Houston-based waste services company, said that, by the end of the 1990s, the company had acquired nearly 1,000 small waste companies and had merged with USA Waste, one of the other large companies in the business. With 27 million customers, Waste Management's trash collection routes were sometimes overlapping, and there was no standardization of processes or dispatch.

Popov began looking for ways to impose order on what had become a chaotic system. He also hoped to cut as many as collection 1,500 routes -- 10% of the company's overall routes.

Waste Management was already using phones from Nextel Communications Inc., so Popov decided to work with the carrier. He also brought in mobile resource management company, AtRoad.

However, Popov realized that he had a long way to go. Waste Management did not even have a list of the residential addresses from which it picked up trash. The company generally contracts with municipalities, rather than individuals. The first step, Popov said, was to find out who the company's customers really were.

He did this by installing GPS systems in its garbage trucks. When drivers picked up a load of trash, they were to make note of it using the GPS system. Over time, the company was able to build accurate GPS maps of all of its routes and pickup spots.

Then, taking it a step further, Popov had drivers begin tracking their own activities. They were each given a sheet with various activities listed on it and a bar code next to each activity. The drivers' Nextel phones were outfitted with bar-code scanners. Whenever they performed a job activity, like picking up a garbage can or returning to a landfill, they scanned in the activity.

That not only gave dispatchers a record of where drivers were going, it told the company what drivers were doing throughout the day -- and all information is time-stamped and tied to geographic data. Today, if the company receives a customer complaint about garbage collection, it can check its database to find out where the driver is and when the pick up was made.

In addition to scheduled residential and commercial pickups, the company also receives requests for same-day pickups, which need to be added into a driver's route.

With a real-time GPS map of drivers' locations and routes, it is much easier for dispatchers to add these pickups into a driver's route with minimal disruption, Popov said.

These same tools are also being used to help with annual driver audits. This is a process in which an auditor will ride along with each driver to judge efficiency and performance. Using this system, an auditor can, for example, place a map of the driver's route over the most efficient route. The visual demonstration is a great learning tool, Popov said.

But this intrusive process has not been without its critics. Many drivers have been resistant to these changes, Popov said, to the point where some of them removed the GPS antennae from the roof of the truck. But eventually, Popov said, drivers accepted the technology.

Such employee pushback against wireless applications was also an issue for attendee Tim Gabel, the director of research computing at Research Triangle Park, N.C.,-based RTI International, a multidisciplinary research firm that, among other things, conducts door-to-door sociological research.

The company deployed handheld devices to its workers in the field. Employees objected immediately, Gabel said -- the company's largely middle-aged employee base was simply uncomfortable with the technology.

The company put extra effort into training users and found that not only were employees accepting of the devices, but also often came up with important suggestions for new features or interfaces, Gabel said.

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Waste Management also helped its workers feel more comfortable with new technology. First, it trained a small number of field workers on the technology, and then allowed them, not the IT staff, to present information about the technology to their colleagues, Popov said. A driver will believe another driver before a manager, he said.

The system paid for itself in four months, and the company is on track to reducing its number of collection routes by 10%, Popov said.

The company plans to implement more wireless functions soon. It is considering tagging its waste containment units with either bar codes or RFID technology so fewer bins are lost or stolen. It also hopes to add camera capabilities to its phones so that drivers can take photographs of a problem customer's garbage if, for example, cans are overflowing.

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