Time to Get Intelligent

Business intelligence tools and accurate, integrated data will increasingly empower individuals and organizations in the emerging post-recession economy. That includes transportation companies, manufacturers and retailers and government agencies.

I've come across several examples of this lately, one in Chattanooga, Tenn., one in Boston and another in Washington. Let's start with Chattanooga, home of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, a $1.4 billion company that's been on the leading edge of transportation technology for more than decade, often serving as a rolling laboratory for new technologies and ideas.

U.S. Xpress is in the midst of a major data-cleansing project, taking data from all parts of the company and eliminating inaccurate or incomplete information, and then integrating that information in ways that make it usable across operations. That will allow the company to really understand operations and costs at a level it couldn't reach in the past. It's already saved the company a significant amount of money in truck maintenance alone.

I wrote about this data-cleansing project in the May 24 issue of The Journal of Commerce.

InformationWeek's Doug Henschen wrote a May 24 cover story on business intelligence ("You Need Smarter Apps") that described how Boston's Primo Water, a bottled water supplier, uses a custom application to track orders and inventory and adjust shipments on the go.

The system lets Primo's distributor partners and customers see when Primo plans to make its next shipment. I know carriers that would love to have that kind of information to help manage their own capacity as efficiently as possible. It's helped Primo and its transportation partners and customers respond quickly to unforeseen events — such as a water main break in Boston that forced 2 million people to boil or buy water.

The last example comes from the Federal Highway Administration, which in a partnership with the American Transportation Research Institute, a trucking industry group, is tracking a jaw-dropping 650,000 trucks on U.S. highways, retrieving location and speed information. That data — which is anonymous, by the way, thanks to nondisclosure agreements with the carriers that participate in the program — is being used to identify congestion hotspots around the country.

That data is making its way into proposals for highway projects and to help federal, state and local officials plan better policy. Within a year, a Web-based software tool will give trucking companies and others the ability to delve into the data to benchmark their routing and dispatching systems.

ARC Advisory Group logistics expert Adrian Gonzalez addresses the broader benefits of the FHWA/ATRI partnership on his Logistics Viewpoints blog:

The news from the Federal Highway Administration is yet another example of how real-time location and sensor data will transform transportation, logistics, and supply chain processes. ... This is also an example of how network data — i.e., data aggregated from multiple companies — drives enhanced business intelligence.

Large trucking companies can track this type of information for their own fleets, he pointed out, but even the largest carriers have too few trucks to give them a clear picture of what’s really happening on the nation’s highways. "It takes real-time data from several hundred thousand trucks, from hundreds of trucking companies, to obtain a more complete and accurate understanding," he said.

Whether at the corporate or federal level, that understanding is a prerequisite for the informed decision making needed in government and business alike. In this recovery, "guesstimates" are no longer good enough.

--Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com.

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