CIO interview: Vince Sparks, IT director, Eddie Stobart

Eddie Stobart trucks are a familiar feature on the roads of the UK and Europe, with about 3,000 vehicles generating vast amounts of data every day

Eddie Stobart trucks are a familiar feature on the roads of the UK and Europe, and with about 3,000 vehicles generating vast amounts of data every day, better use of analytics is essential to managing the firm’s operations.

Lorries record data relating to vehicle routing, working hours and whether drivers are heavy braking, speeding or consuming excess fuel, as well as electronic signatures and a range of courier-related information.

“All logistics organisations now have some form of technology in the cab, with manufacturers generating fata off the vehicle or via any other additional data sources,” says Vince Sparks, IT director at Eddie Stobart.

Supporting the processing of information at Eddie Stobart is a data warehousing setup and external providers process all the information.

“At the moment telematics technology is providing a lot of real-time insight back to the operations side of the business, so we know how vehicles are performing and whether they’re being used efficiently – and that use of data is growing,” Sparks tells Computer Weekly.

“Masses of information that’s coming back into the business has to be aggregated, summarised and analysed, which is done by data aggregators. But additional things are coming along, such as video analysis, which also has to be looked at. We are definitely seeing our own big data boom in logistics.”

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The challenge of overlaying information

The increasing sophistication of data analysis in Eddie Stobart’s sector brings the challenge of overlaying information.

“A lot of organisations selling data see a future around overlaying data into your existing data, to help companies plan how to manage vehicles and deliver customer orders efficiently, taking into account weather patterns, roads, current road use volumes, accidents, highways maintenance and so on,” Sparks says, adding that suppliers are “not quite there yet”.

“[Suppliers] don’t quite know what to do with this data yet, they are looking at the value of that information and what can be sold. There are companies like BT and IBM looking at amassing all these disparate data sources, to see if that can be sold and used by a variety of businesses but all of this is very much in its infancy at the moment,” he says.

“The general trend is that we now have the ability to generate, process and record huge volumes of information. [But] we still have to master how we make use of that in a sensible way.”

Currently, Eddie Stobart relies on an aggregator -–the norm in most large logistics organisations – which processes all the data sent from vehicles via a SIM located in the cab, which is fed back to supplier Isotrak, which stores and buffers that information in what is effectively a cloud-based service.

“Although they were set up 10 years ago, these services were effectively early cloud models, because organisations such as Isotrak have been doing this for quite some time,” says Sparks.

Logistics organisations use insight provided by third parties by pulling data back into core transport planning systems. These platforms can then create reporting on activities that manage and drive efficiency in the business such as vehicle departure and arrival times and the amount of total elapsed time that a vehicle has been on the road.

The telematics data based on positioning of vehicles is “nothing new”, according to Sparks, but the change comes as the volume of vehicle-related information to be processed is increasing. For example, the data that stems from engine management systems and driver-focused systems that manage aspects of the job such as rest breaks, as well as video feeds from the cab.

“There are lots of disparate data sources that all come back through aggregators into your ERP or transport management system,” Sparks says.

Getting closer to real-time data

Eddie Stobart has taken several approaches to its data analytics strategy. According to Sparks, the company has implemented “tactical business intelligence projects” over the past 24 months using standard toolsets such as Microsoft Excel, supplemented by IBM Cognos TM1 technology. 

“There are other products out there that allow disparate data sources to be modelled to look at financial efficiencies. We are also embarking on projects focused on data that bring back operational information and present it to operational managers within the business,” says Sparks.

The ideal situation, he says, is to get closer to decision-making driven by real data rather than looking at historic information.

The data analytics market has become saturated and other new entrants into the market have come up with lower-priced, more innovative technologies

Vince Sparks, Eddie Stobart

“I think the challenge for all logistics organisations is around how we use data modelling tools and the masses of data that we have to try and make sense of, so that we can generate greater efficiencies in planning the use of vehicles and the consumption of resources. Our resources are the actual vehicles, driver hours and fuel, plus we also need to minimise environmental impact,” says Sparks.

The IT director expects that within the next 12 months, Eddie Stobart will be at the stage of implementing a “near real-time” managed information setup to support business operations and to help manage the fleet on an hour-by-hour basis.

“I’d also expect that in the telematics side we will be looking at more advanced in-cab technologies and devices. I can only see the volume of information being generated by higher capacity, more intelligent devices that enable disparate data sources to come back to base,” Sparks predicts.

He also expects within that timeframe that in-cab technology will be more advanced.

“We will have to see what other information will be pushed out to the cab, as well as coming back from the cab. At the moment, most of the information is pushed back into the enterprise, and there may well be opportunities to push information back out to field workers, who are the people out there in the truck,” says Sparks. 

“But there are a lot of technical challenges around engaging with people while they’re driving, so I think it’s about using them at the right time to do things like vehicle, safety and security checks, as well as driver awareness training. So there is a push and pull dynamic, but all we can see is that there will be an increase in that flow of data from and to the business.”

The cost of data analytics

Sparks says the price of some data analytics products has actually decreased: “That is because the market has become saturated and new entrants into the market have lower-priced, more innovative technologies as they realise the next tier down of business can’t afford the big ticket prices of some of the large big data offerings,” he says.

“So you are seeing the cloud aggregators, as well as some bottom-end solutions using conventional Excel spreadsheet technology supplemented by memory-resident technology, in addition to a general lowering of price points for business intelligence software,” he adds.

“It is becoming more realistic for companies to make use of their data and data analytics products and move towards near-real-time or real-time information.”

Vince Sparks was a speaker at a recent CIO Event. The next UK CIO Event takes place near Heathrow Airport on 12-13 October 2015. 

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