Trucker McLane rolls out dual-mode wireless vehicle system

By Bob Brewin, Computerworld |  Networking

McLane Co. said it plans to install mobile computers with satellite and wireless communications systems in 1,050 trucks in its grocery store delivery fleet, transforming the vehicles into mobile information centers tied into its back-end systems.

Dave Dillon, manager of transportation at Temple, Texas-based McLane, said the project, announced yesterday, costs between $10 million and $20 million, with a payback on investment expected in two years. Dillon said the mobile communications system, developed by Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., provides "exponentially greater functionality" than wireless package-tracking systems used by delivery companies such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc.

The McLane system, built around an onboard communications terminal and a rugged Symbol handheld computer running Palm OS, will provide the company with a paperless process that manages all invoicing and delivery transactions, including capturing electronic signatures for proof of delivery, Dillon said. The system will also manage dispatch operations, automate driver logs and provide McLane with the ability to perform remote diagnostics on the vehicle via satellite.

Drivers will use the Symbol handheld to record delivery information with a bar-code scanner and capture electronic signatures using Track & Trace point of delivery software developed by IBM. Once the driver completes a delivery, he can return to the truck and shoe the handheld computer into a cradle on the onboard communications system.

When the driver returns to one of McLane's 17 terminals that Symbol has equipped with a wireless LAN infrastructure, the onboard communication system senses the 11M bit/sec. wireless LAN and automatically starts dumping data that has been stored throughout the day, Dillon said. McLane intends to use the wireless LAN as its primary means of capturing delivery data. A satellite link, provided by San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., will be used to send and receive short messages from the driver on the road, he said.

The terminal wireless LAN then feeds information collected from the trucks into the company's nationwide WAN and into back-end accounting and inventory systems, replacing what Dillon called a "predominantly paper" way of doing business with a system totally automated from a grocery store dock to McLane's mainframe computers.

Vin Luciano, vice president of product management at Symbol, said McLane has created "an automated warehouse on wheels" that will allow the company to manage information on a delivery vehicle the same way it manages a warehouse with an extensive IT infrastructure.

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