At Whitbread Food Logistics a combination of ruggedised mobile hardware from Psion and software from mobile applications specialist Blackbay, deployed in the second half of 2006, has made the delivery process faster, more efficient and paper-free.
Over the course of the day's shift, drivers for the company deliver food stocks to 1,400 Whitbread outlets across the UK, including Costa Coffee, TGI Friday's, Brewer's Fayre, Beefeater, David Lloyd Leisure and Premier Travel Inn.
Whether stocks are distributed from the company's national distribution centre in Reading, or from warehouses in Devon, Glasgow, Castle Donnington, or Trafford Park in Manchester, deliveries must reach their destinations on time, complete and, in the case of chilled and frozen products, at the right temperature. If any of these targets are missed, the customer experience and unit profits could suffer.
Order discrepancies must be corrected as soon as possible and drop-offs need to be monitored to ensure that inventory at the depot is kept at optimal levels.
For these reasons, drivers for Whitbread Food Logistics are no longer armed with clipboards stuffed with paper forms. That was the old way. It slowed deliveries, could result in lost paperwork and, owing to poor handwriting, sometimes led to inaccurate recording of information.
Instead of pen and paper, drivers use a Psion Teklogix Workabout Pro. They log in for their shift on this device, and their route for the day is automatically downloaded to the device by the Delivery Connect application from Blackbay.
Before the drivers leave the depot, Delivery Connect prompts them via instructions on the screen to carry out inspections: first to their vehicle's tacometer, odometer, tyres and lights then to the food products loaded on to the vehicle.
As each driver leaves the depot, their time of departure is recorded. Once they have arrived at their first destination, Delivery Connect guides them through the drop-off process. First, their time of arrival is entered. Next, food temperatures are checked, customers are shown a summary screen confirming the number and quantities of products, and any discrepancies are noted. Finally, the customer's signature is taken on the device as proof of delivery.
Later, back at the depot, the drivers are taken through the end-of-shift reporting process by a similar series of prompts on the device.
At every stage, the information captured on Delivery Connect is sent in real-time via GPRS over the Vodafone mobile network to managed mobile application servers located at Canary Wharf. From there, the data is sent over a virtual private network to Whitbread's main datacentre in Maidstone, Kent.
This application of mobile technology has had a huge impact on the efficiency and smooth running of Whitbread's supply chain, says Jonathan Abbott, systems analyst and project manager at the firm.
"We had already made great progress in streamlining our warehouse management operations thanks to our implementation of software from Chess Logistics Technology in 2003, but we had no way of tracking what happened to food products once they left the depot. The end game was always to extend our visibility of products right to the customer's front door - and that is what we have got now," he says.
It is a big improvement on the previous system. "Delivery times, claims and driver feedback all used to be captured manually by the drivers and then entered into the Chess system by a clerk at the depot on the drivers' return. That had a lead time of up to 36 hours," Abbott says.
Now, each scheduled delivery is checked and centrally recorded within minutes of the delivery taking place. Where discrepancies do arise, they can be resolved more quickly.
By supplying mobile devices to drivers, a full audit trail is captured for each route, enabling accurate driver debriefs and providing data to feed back into route and schedule optimisation systems, thanks to integration between Delivery Connect and Whitbread's warehouse management system.
In addition, the administrative overheads associated with the previous system were a real burden, and errors in data capture were not uncommon when clerks had to transcribe handwritten notes from drivers. The recent relocation of all administrative staff to a single site - the national distribution centre in Reading - provided a further catalyst for change, says Abbott.
"In terms of administrative staff, we have been able to reduce headcount by five people, leading to a saving of £125,000 - so that was five fewer people needed at the national distribution centre," he says.
Those remaining should find their jobs a lot easier, thanks to the Delivery Connect application, he adds.
"One of the greatest benefits has been the reduction in the paper trail," says Abbot.
Paperwork has been reduced by three to five pages on more than 6,000 deliveries every week, resulting in Whitbread Food Logistics' paper costs falling by about £10,000 per year.
But it is not only the administrative staff who benefit. The time saving for drivers is about 30 minutes per route per day. With Whitbread Food Logistics operating 90 routes, this means a saving of 45 man hours every day - a statistic Abbott says will lead to a full return on the investment by year three of the project.
Whitbread's system was piloted by two drivers in June 2006, then 70 handheld devices were rolled out to drivers operating out of the national distribution centre in September 2006, and the system was extended to the satellite depot staff at Trafford Park in Manchester in December 2006.
There are plans to roll out 20 more devices for drivers at the remaining regional warehouses over the next few months.
Initially, the introduction of the devices involved a big culture change, says Abbot. "Although many of our drivers are PC-literate, some are not. So the thought of having to use a handheld computer was a bit of a worry to them. They felt that it would be a lot more testing than pen and paper. But generally, their attitude changed once they had a go with the new system," he says.
Training took the form of one- or two-hour individual classroom sessions, after which each driver went out for the day on their regular route accompanied by a "driver-trainer" with an in-depth knowledge of the Delivery Connect system.
"By putting the system into practice as soon as possible, drivers could quickly consolidate what they had learnt in the classroom," says Abbot.
"The success of this project and the ease with which we trained employees to use the technology is testament to the simplicity of the Delivery Connect design. Drivers got to grips with it really quickly, even those who are not very comfortable with computer technology."
The handheld devices are holding up well. "The Psion Teklogix Workabout Pro is a ruggedised device that can take quite a hammering. It can, for example, withstand a drop of about feet with no ill effects," says Abbott.
In the longer term, there are plans to extend the scope of the Delivery Connect application to include more functions. "We are interested in a number of things: satellite navigation is a big one for us, for example, and the drivers are already saying it would be really useful to them," says Abbott.
"They are also saying it would be great to use the devices to access their timesheets. And we would also like to be able to record vehicle damage on the devices. Right now, that is still done on a paper form known as a 'scratch sheet', so that is another area where we could potentially eliminate paper forms."
In some cases, the new functions are already supported by Blackbay - they just need to be added on to Whitbread's implementation.
"As soon as we are fully rolled out, Blackbay has said it will be ready to help us, and it keeps us updated about new capabilities," says Abbott.