As Touchstar’s management systems continue to evolve, Hyland shares his thoughts with gasworld on the latest developments at Touchstar and the wider bulk logistics market, ahead of gasworld’s Bulk Distribution & Asset Management issue.
What are the biggest challenges facing the bulk logistics industry right now?
“The logistics industry has always been a hard business in the sense that there’s always been a lot of competition out there. Operators can start up at very low cost; they just need a truck and a carrier and they’re on the road, competing against companies that are much more structured. I think the biggest threat to this marketplace is also its biggest benefit – and that’s digitisation. It’s what we do at Touchstar; we digitise the bulk logistics paper trail all the way from the order hitting the system, to dispatch and delivery at the customer, with every process of the job stored.
Digitisation is a threat for those that don’t invest in the technology. Surprisingly, a lot of haulage companies, even the larger ones, still use paper-based systems, while others are able to commission very bespoke, very expensive digitised systems. Custom-designed solutions are out of reach for most small and medium-sized companies, those running between 50 and 150 vehicles, so they may question whether any digitised system is right for them. Misconceptions about bulk logistics digitisation often mean companies miss out on the tremendous value it adds – it’s seen as too costly, too problematic for drivers to adopt and too time-consuming and disruptive to implement. Not only are these perceptions false, once you get a system in place and live, it’s nothing but a benefit.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the logistics sector suddenly in the spotlight as a ‘key’ industry, notably those operating in food and fuel distribution. These companies have been able to optimise their fleet operations rapidly, largely due to their prior investment in digitised fleet management solutions.”
Why is a paperless environment so important for bulk logistics companies?
“One side of having a paperless digitised system is legislative; a company has all the data it needs to prove compliance with industry regulations. The other side of it is all the practical operational benefits, like instantly sending a driver a digital manifest in the morning, updating it in real-time if plans change, and not having to worry about lost, incomplete or damaged POD slips, without which a company won’t get paid.
With a digitised solution, drivers can capture a client e-signature on the glass of a connected handheld, along with the geo-coordinates of the driver at the time of delivery, for complete POD. An invoice can then be generated within minutes of POD for improved cash flow. Or, say a driver has a minor accident in the field, they can photograph the damage straight away, write a statement and send it back to the office in seconds, substantiating the incident. A logistics office that doesn’t work with digitisation is nothing but piles and piles of paperwork, job sheets, PODs, drivers’ expenses. It’s a nightmare to keep on top of. Where drivers don’t fill in details, office staff have to spend time tracking down missing info to ensure records are complete.
What sets Touchstar apart from its competitors in bulk logistics?
“Firstly, our systems are cloud-based. Many of our competitors are working very hard to go cloud-based. The advent of cloud technology has dramatically cut the cost of data storage and backup, improved security and made systems vastly more accessible. Touchstar’s solutions are based on Microsoft Azure cloud technology, which means that key issues such as system reliability and redundancy, OS backward compatibility and upgrade paths are all addressed automatically. They’re also accessible anywhere in the world on any connected Windows-based mobile computer, or Android device, as long as you’ve got a Wi-Fi / mobile connection.
Our systems are also really innovative and based on real experience of the bulk logistics sector. We’ve developed our solutions from the back end to the front, applying our practical knowledge on the nuances of bulk and fuel delivery and what it actually requires. While some bigger companies go to software developers for bespoke systems, they often just take what they already do and put it into a software system – they’re not improving operational efficiency or adding value. With that in mind, ours is also a multi-level application. Many other systems are designed for particular applications, say service work. Our system has been developed with a broad application across all logistics sectors, which is really beneficial for the logistics operator who’s trying to grow their business. Today, their business is delivering pallets, but if a contract comes along for a tender that’s delivering oil, they would have to buy another management system because theirs is only set up to deliver pallets. If they acquire the Touchstar software, they could do both within the same system.”
What’s next for the software in terms of new features or functionality?
“Touchstar’s logistics solutions are never ‘finished’, we’re always looking for ways to refine things and improve operational efficiency for our clients. On the fuel side, we’re just about to launch VMI – Vendor Managed Inventory. This will enable our fuel clients to keep their customers’ stocks topped up to the perfect level; between min and max stock so that they won’t run out or hold too much product. We’ve developed an artificially intelligent (AI) algorithm that reads a fuel tank’s gauges every hour, building a picture of sales of a particular product, say super-unleaded, over a 24-hour period, a weekly period, a monthly period and so on.
The VMI algorithm works out average sales from each tank over time, and then triggers an automatic replenishment order when their customer’s super-unleaded stock reaches a set min level, say three days’ worth. What’s more, the system takes into account when the next super-unleaded drop will be made – it could be two days away, for example – what the levels of each tank will be at that time, and the best way to balance the stock across the customer’s super-unleaded tanks for the most efficient delivery. It’s a really exciting new capability for Touchstar, and one that should allow our fuel logistics customers to make and pass on real time and cost savings.
VMI works conversely too, so for waste management companies who need to get rid of product, rather than top it up.”
What do you think the future of bulk logistics will look like, and how will Touchstar continue to support its clients as the industry develops?
“COVID-19 has devastated many industry sectors. As it stands, there’s no alternative solution to existing bulk logistics models, so the industry will need to continue to evolve and seek constant optimisation of processes and minimisation of costs. What Touchstar brings to the logistics industry is the ability to manage and optimise load capacity through digitisation, so that haulage companies can maximise return on every series of drops.
Our systems already warn our clients if vehicles are underloaded or overloaded, enabling them to load more vehicles correctly and cut the number of journeys they need to make. We’re also working on shift and planning optimisation using predictive analytics and AI, which will enable fleet managers to make the best possible use of time on the road. Traditionally, logistics companies lose driving hours through static shift patterns, as once a driver has completed his planned jobs, he clocks off. If a driver makes their scheduled drops quicker than anticipated, there may be time left in a 10 hour shift that’s wasted. We are developing our systems to not only predict journey times for future shifts, but to take into account loading times and discharge times too, all based on historical traffic and statistical data.
The software our solutions use analyses huge amounts of historical traffic data, so it can accurately predict how long a journey will take for a vehicle that’s going to leave at 8.00am on a Monday to drive across London and around the M25, for example, and plans that time into the shift. This way, as a fleet manager plans routes by dragging and dropping loads on to a vehicle, the system will calculate the time it’ll take to load the vehicle, travel to each location and complete each drop, and will alert them if there’s any spare time on the shift to fill. They can look down the list of loads for a job to fill an extra two hours a driver may have spare – that’s shift optimisation.
Eventually, with AI behind it, our software will be able to monitor real-time shift progress and automatically move jobs around between drivers if one is experiencing problems or delays, and another is working through drops quicker than expected, and send them both updated digital manifests. It’s still a way off, but I think one day we’ll see AI transform every part of the distribution chain, from the point of drivers accepting their daily workload, to monitoring journeys, deliveries, time estimations, and automatically updating customers of a driver’s ETA. Whatever happens, Touchstar will continue to provide market-leading bulk logistics solutions that streamline operations and boost efficiency for our clients.”
About the author
Gordon Hyland has 25+ years’ experience supporting customers with complex, field based, technology solutions. He has been with Touchstar Group for 2.5 years and started with the Fuels Division in 2019. In his spare time he enjoys family life and his main passions are travel and skiing whenever possible.