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Routing Away from Winters of Discontent

Feb. 14, 2014
By centralizing its service fleet operations and getting better visibility of driver performance and customer needs, US Supply can react quicker and more precisely to plumbing and heating emergencies.

If the winter of 2013-2014 is proving anything, it’s that plumbers and HVAC technicians are in the emergency service business. Sustained sub-zero temperatures and frozen and burst water pipes require immediate action. Successful response to those emergencies can depend on how well a fleet of delivery trucks is managed and routed.

That’s the premise by which US Supply runs its business ( This family-managed company sells products to local contractors and plumbers across Pennsylvania and New Jersey out of 12 branches. These are items that these contractors typically don’t stock themselves but need in a hurry when their customers need them. Kevin Hollinger, US Supply’s general manager, explains that, “Any time a customer says ‘I need to have that furnace, boiler or water heater, etc., delivered tomorrow,’ it’s up to our branches to determine when they need it and we deliver to them within a one-hour window of their choice, 99.6% on-time and complete. If a customer doesn’t have to involve their technicians, plumbers or HVAC technicians in logistics, they can be more efficient on their jobs. That saves the customer and home owner money.”

US Supply decided that by centralizing fleet operations for all branch locations, it would enable its branches to sell with confidence and focus on customers. It has a fleet of 27 trucks, from tractor trailers to box trucks to flat beds and stake bodies. Some of the branches use small pickups as well. The company implemented an integrated web-based delivery route planning, execution and mobile system (Descartes’ Route Planner On-Demand, to help them plan routes, track and monitor driver performance, production planning, and capture proof-of-delivery information in real time including photos. It also helps US Supply develop static and dynamic routes to maximize productivity, taking into account geographic zones, time windows and the operational and physical constraints of delivery fleets.

Managing the Driver Component

Logistics manager Jae Seo does web-based on-demand route planning for US Supply’s fleet from his office.

One variable that’s hard to control is the operators themselves. Truck drivers bring a wide variety of experiences and habits to the job, and many of the road veterans aren’t used to the idea of being monitored throughout the course of a delivery. That required some planning before centralization could take full effect, and it’s why Hollinger can offer some important advice about centralization.

“Drivers have to learn a whole new way to drive because sometimes you lose drivers who don’t want to incorporate technology and be managed with accuracy,” he says. “Now all of a sudden they have to log into a mobile device, their directions are on a mobile phone and they’re being directed when to do their safety check, when to finish, how long they have to offload, when they need to depart and when they have to arrive at their next stop. On top of that you’re tracking their performance through a GPS satellite so you can see if they go off course. That feels very ‘Big Brother’ to some people, especially if they’re veteran drivers used to their own routine or preferences. That’s why we did have more driver turnover in the first six months of centralizing.”

The key is in adapting the driver hiring process.

“With any job you have to lay out very specific expectations and show them before you hire them what they’re signing up for,” Hollinger continues. “We tell them we do this to assure our customers of on-time and complete delivery. We find that when people are hired to that expectation, it works very well. We have 20-plus-year veterans who love this technology because they like the structure of a rule book so they know how to stay in bounds to maximize customer service.”

Applying Lessons Learned

Hollinger believes the vehicle fleet is one of the last areas of automated productivity management in a plant, and that this system was inspired by the ability to measure the productivity of people on the assembly line down to the minute.

Of course not every move is done with US Supply’s own fleet, and the system helps the company determine what moves how. Hollinger’s group doesn’t commit to how something will be delivered, just that it will be delivered on time and complete to satisfy their need. If they can do it with their own fleet, that will be their first choice. The criteria they established for the system will determine that, and those criteria are distance, weight and cubic volume. Orders with small packages will go out by
FedEx if not time sensitive, but when there’s an emergency, each branch has same-day delivery capabilities.

“Many of our customers are in the emergency service business,” Hollinger explains, “and anytime a customer has a same-day need our branch managers do an excellent job using their best judgment to take care of the customer.”

The fact those customers haven’t had to resort to that option is a testament to US Supply’s improved delivery service, but this is a business where such service isn’t noticed unless it doesn’t happen. Hollinger’s group is in the process of making further improvements and making those improvements known. It’s also important that all departments in US Supply are aligned with the model and know what’s going on.

Hollinger says what his company’s fleet does is not just a delivery function. Purchasing needs to be lined up with it and inbound shipments have to be scheduled at the dock to give receiving enough time to react so everyone knows when each truck gets loaded. Once the day’s orders are routed and the deliveries are scheduled, US Supply sends a text message, e-mail or phone call to the customer acknowledging that fact to the hour. 

“The next wave of technology will be the integration of live maps with live traffic,” Hollinger says. “The average person has GPS capability on their navigation, and this system will take advantage of that.”

But Hollinger is making sure the growing access to the information available through their new centralized system won’t affect system performance. He designed an interface through the company’s legacy Eclipse software development system to create a bidirectional interface so that nobody in the company needs to use the Descartes system other than the logistics manager. If a driver is two miles from a customer and somebody goes in to makes a correction to the address, the driver will get a notification on his phone about it.

“I wanted to make sure we were not only routing, but that we were properly interfacing with our internal systems and customers,” Hollinger explains. “Secondly, we’re using mobile devices, which require a whole other capability.”

In summary, Hollinger says using on-demand route planning, combined with modeling the operation, helped make the company’s routers and drivers more effective, resulting in annual savings exceeding $400,000 and helping the company average a 99.6% on-time and complete delivery record.

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