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Ben E Keith begins delivery process automation

Foodservice distributors continue to automate the delivery process. While they can never eliminate the need for driver labor guiding trucks and moving product, distributors can certainly take much of the administrative burden from the shoulders of drivers.

One of the best places to attempt delivery automation is an integration of the on-board computers used to supervise driver activity with hand-held computer terminal/scanners that can provide electronic proof of delivery, basically allowing order information to flow through the company system from customer input past order selection to final delivery untouched by human hands. About two-thirds of the computer capability needed for automated delivery already is implemented at Ben E Keith Foods, says Kelly Randolph, applications manager, new development.

The most recent step along the way to taking drivers out of the paperwork business has been implementation of a pilot project for electronic proof-of-delivery, Randolph says. The company put the project into action beginning with three trucks at its Amarillo, Texas, distribution center on December 6, 2004, followed several weeks later with three trucks at the San Antonio warehouse. These steps follow the normal procedure at Ben E Keith that calls for starting any new project implementation at one of the smaller of its six distribution centers before involving the entire company.

Scanning each delivery

The proof-of-delivery process depends on electronically stored invoices in the driver's hand-held computer and the scanning capability of that hand-held, Randolph says. The system allows drivers to record customer returns, to account for collected cash, and to record electronic signatures. In the first phase of proof-of-delivery, drivers will scan case labels during delivery to ensure order accuracy. In a second phase of the program, drivers will be able to print revised invoices or delivery receipts at the time of delivery. In the current form, Ben E Keith uses Cadec on-board computers to monitor route activity and hand-held computers from Symbol Technologies to record deliveries.

Scanning product at delivery provides a complete picture of the order, because Ben E Keith places a unique bar code label on each carton, Randolph says. If the order contains 10 cases of ketchup, the driver must scan all 10 cases, not just a single case 10 times.

Electronic proof-of-delivery should improve driver productivity as well as increase delivery accuracy, Randolph says. The program is designed to increase customer satisfaction as well. In the pilot project, customers already are voicing a positive reaction, he says. Not only does the system improve accuracy, it is more productive for the company and for customers, because it reduces paperwork. “We look forward to the day that drivers no longer carry paper manifests and invoices,” he says.

Nearing 100th birthday

Ben E Keith Corporation is the parent company of two related distribution firms: Ben E Keith Foods and Ben E Keith Beers. The company was founded in 1906 to sell fresh produce in what was then recently frontier Texas. Following World War II, Ben E Keith added frozen foods to produce line. The company was the first distributor for Birdseye in Texas. Today the company operates six distribution centers including Amarillo and San Antonio, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in addition to the headquarters and distribution center in Fort Worth. It is the 9th largest full-line foodservice distributor in the country, supplying customers in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas with fresh produce, meat, fish, poultry, frozen foods, groceries, and restaurant supplies.

Ben E Keith has annual sales exceeding $800 million and operates a fleet of more than 300 tractors, refrigerated trailers, and refrigerated straight trucks. Each of the six distribution centers stocks an average of 14,000 line items. Operations and transportation personnel select and deliver roughly one million cases per week spread across more than 15,000 customers.

The largest facility in the Ben E Keith network is its 416,000-sq-ft Dallas-Fort Worth distribution center just a few miles south of downtown Fort Worth. At the other end of the spectrum is the 64,000-sq-ft center in Albuquerque. Between those extremes are the 245,000-sq-ft center in San Antonio, a 214,000-sq-ft facility in Oklahoma City, a relatively new 155,000-sq-ft center in Little Rock, and the smallest of the Texas locations in Amarillo at 135,000 sq ft.

Transportation gets dedicated server

The distribution functions reside in the company mainframe system at the corporate level, Randolph says. This includes a dedicated server to run software for Cadec on-board recorders used in the fleet. Once an order has been selected, the deliveries routed, and invoices generated, all information is passed along to the transportation server. Information is produced in two forms — route summary data loaded into the on-board computer for the delivery manifest to provide prompts to the driver during the route and details of the orders loaded into the hand-held terminal.

When the driver signs on to the on-board computer at one of the distribution centers, data is loaded to the computer by radio frequency communication, Randolph says. Route information goes into the on-board computer, and the on-board passes the order information on to the hand-held that is cradled alongside the on-board in the truck cab. The two devices provide redundancy for information storage. The on-board computer updates and backs-up the data in the hand-held, and the hand-held performs the same function for the on-board after each stop. At the end of each route, the driver signs off from the system, at which time complete route information is loaded back into the mainframe system through the transportation server. When proof-of-delivery is fully implemented, the daily log-off will include electronic signatures and delivery receipts, he says.

“The main purpose behind implementing on-board computers throughout the fleet was to provide a company-wide logistics management solution,” Randolph says. “The system combines on-board computing, real-time communications, global positioning tracking, and fleet management software. The main objectives were to increase fuel economy, streamline paperwork, improve profitability, increase driver productivity, increase safety, maintain the cold chain, and track route progress through the global positioning system. Information from the on-board systems allows Ben E Keith to become more proactive with customers, to improve on-time delivery, and to use data from the system for accident analysis.”

Active or historical tracking

The system Ben E Keith has adopted has the capability to perform two tracking functions, Randolph says. It can locate any vehicle on a route and note whether or not the vehicle is moving. It also can provide historical data, tracking a vehicle throughout the day, giving managers a sort of “follow the bread crumbs trail” of every move the truck made during a route, he says. This function can report every unauthorized stop and provide data on every speeding event. Tracking trucks in this way also give the company the ability to file fuel tax reports, because the system records mileage and automatically notes state line crossings. The system prompts the driver about crossing a state line. The driver must confirm the crossing by responding to the recorder.

Implementation of on-board computer functionality is a multi-tiered process at Ben E Keith, Randolph says. Presently, the route manifest capability is the most important part of the system. The company is just now beginning to make use of the communications and tracking systems.

When a driver logs in at the beginning of a route, the system loads information about the planned deliveries into the on-board system, including the name and address of every customer on the route. The system has built-in prompts to remind the driver to run the route as planned, Randolph says. “Some drivers have a tendency to start shuffling their invoices as soon as they get them, rearranging the sequence of stops on the route,” he says. “By using the in-route prompts, we try to encourage drivers to run the route as planned so that we can use our route analysis reports to refine future routes.”

Activity reports for managers

The route activity report lets managers see every stop a driver makes and the order in which those stops were made, Randolph says. This report logs delivery stop arrival time, elapsed time and mileage between stops, number of cases delivered at each stop, and cargo compartment temperature at delivery.

These reports provide valuable information about customer service as well as driver performance. “If a customer complains about late delivery, we can run an account service report that shows every delivery made to that customer, who the driver was, when he arrived, how long the stop took, and how many cases were delivered,” Randolph says. “By the same token, we encourage drivers to record delays during routes. These can be traffic delays or extra time required at a stop — for instance another vendor is at the customer when our delivery arrives.”

On-board computers record a wide variety of vehicle operating characteristics on a constant basis. As newer information is recorded, the oldest data is discarded. “These recorders have a big red button on the data entry panel that says ‘Accident,’” Randolph says. “If the truck is involved in an accident, the driver is instructed to push that button, which causes the recorder to freeze the past three minutes of data in its memory. This gives accident investigators the ability to reconstruct an accident without actually visiting the crash site.”

Mobile computing allows the company to set fleet standards tailored to each branch. This allows managers to determine local definitions for excessive speed and operating engines at inappropriate rpm, Randolph says. The recorders also record sudden acceleration to provide insight on driver safety habits. The system does more than just record performance. If a driver is speeding in route, the system sounds an audible alarm, prompting the driver to slow down. In general, standards for excess idle time are the same throughout the company with the system set to record unnecessary engine idle time after the truck has been sitting for five minutes or more with the engine running.

Data from the on-board system provides a wealth of information for driver, fleet, and branch management. For instance, Ben E Keith gets a driver performance summary that can be used as a report card for drivers, comparing actual performance to fleet standards, Randolph says. A branch summary provides a look at every driver, giving managers a way to determine if the entire branch is performing up to standards. A site performance summary provides a single page of data for comparing branches to one another.

TAGS: Foodservice
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