Vehicle routing and scheduling (VRS) software is used by transportation companies to create the most optimal routing solutions for drivers and trucks in their fleets. These tools are used to increase control for managers in the transportation, distribution, or transfer of materials and products. Understanding the ways in which these systems work will help managers and companies to achieve the most effective use of fuel, labor and other resources in the transportation industry.
An Abbreviated History of Vehicle Routing and Scheduling
In their simplest forms, VRS systems are used to create schedules for drivers and to provide route instructions for their travels. These schedules and routes were worked initially out using paper maps and calendars that showed assignments, preferred routes and expected arrivals and departures for drivers on those routes. The paper-and-pencil method did not account for traffic conditions, roadwork and other factors that could significantly delay the delivery of materials and products to their destinations.
With the introduction of the truck dispatching problem in 1959 by G. B. Dantzig and J. H. Ramser, the process of finding the shortest route became a mathematical challenge. An article published in OR/MS Today cites the development of the savings method for calculating routes. This method is also known as the Clarke-Write algorithm after its two creators, G. Clarke and J. W. Wright. Many VRS systems use the savings method as the foundation for calculating the most efficient routes and schedules for drivers.
The development of software packages designed to assist in VRS processes has made a significant difference in the efficiency of these activities. Most VRS software packages include a delivery route planner that can accommodate multi-stop trips and can take prevalent traffic and known roadwork into consideration. As expectations for added features and services continue to increase; however, many companies are looking for much more than basic functionality in their VRS software.
VRS processes are of vital importance in the transportation industry. They can also have an impact on other fields.
VRS systems are essential to keep transportation networks running smoothly and ensuring the fastest response times in emergency situations. Therefore, developing an understanding of how these systems work will provide added help in choosing the right VRS software for managers and decision-makers in the transportation industry.
The Basics of VRS
Transportation of products or materials depends on a few fundamental factors:
- The availability of qualified drivers
- The type of trucks needed to transport specific items, such as fragile, refrigerated or perishable products
- The amount of space available in each delivery vehicle in the fleet
- The number of stops expected for each trip on a daily and weekly basis
- The size of the average shipment
- The cost of fuel
VRS systems are designed to consider these factors and to create an integrated approach to routing and scheduling that includes a multi-route planner for trucks and drivers with several stops to make along the way. For delivery companies, a map route planner offers added help for drivers in navigating changing road conditions and delivering the best route recommendations possible.
Scheduling for Transportation Companies
Scheduling and routing are usually viewed as complementary activities in the transportation industry. Scheduling, however, is primarily concerned with matching the right driver and the right vehicle with the appropriate delivery task.
For instance, refrigerated products require a truck that can keep these items cold until they reach their destination. Using a non-refrigerated truck for these perishable items will usually result in spoilage and the potential loss of a customer. In a similar way, drivers who are primarily accustomed to driving smaller delivery vehicles should not be asked to drive large tractor-trailer trucks unless they have the qualifications to do so.
Finding the right driver for the right vehicle and the right amount of space for a specific delivery is one of the goals of scheduling in the transportation business. Selecting a VRS software package that puts a substantial emphasis on scheduling is essential to promote the best possible outcomes for modern transportation, distribution and delivery companies.
Scheduling and Routing for Field Service Professionals
Field service maintenance is another sector in which scheduling and routing activities are vital to ongoing success. Scheduling service appointments within a specific window and establishing contingency plans will typically allow for greater client satisfaction and improved on-time averages for technicians when providing HVAC repair, plumbing, and electrician services.
Because these repair, maintenance, and installation services are not usually tied to regular weekly schedules, finding optimal routes to handle these visits may not seem like a matter of great importance. As businesses grow and expand, however, adopting VRS software solutions to determine the most practical approach to handle multiple requests for service in a particular area will become an absolute necessity for meeting customer demand for emergency repairs, maintenance services, and installations.
Optimizing Routes for Sales Professionals
VRS systems also provide added help for sales representatives, especially those who are responsible for promoting fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) to retailers in a specific area. By establishing workable schedules and efficient routing for these sales professionals, VRS software can ensure the most effective use of available resources in marketing products to retailers and wholesale distributors.
Because the profit margins on FMCG can be relatively small, it is essential to manage expenses in the most proactive way possible. Implementing a VRS system for scheduling and routing sales representatives is a solid step in the right direction for keeping profits as high as possible while managing sales activities in the competitive marketplace.
The Fundamentals of Routing Functionality
Creating the routes for delivery vehicles requires careful attention to detail and an understanding of the flow of traffic in the areas where deliveries are to be made. Tools like Google Maps route planner applications can sometimes be helpful for companies that perform limited to moderate deliveries and service calls within a specific area. The Google Maps route planner, however, may lack the up-to-date information on traffic and road construction necessary to create the most efficient routing arrangements.
VRS systems are typically designed to integrate a trip route planner function that is usually more reliable and accurate than comparable free delivery route planner tools. This ensures the fastest and most practical solutions for getting products to their destinations in a timely way and in making sure that service professionals reach customers as quickly as possible to resolve their needs.
How VRS Systems Work
In general, VRS systems access information on traffic, road conditions, and closures through online sources or dedicated vendors. This information is then combined with parameters governing the minimum and maximum size of shipments, the available trucks and drivers, the optimal cost per mile for each delivery and the time constraints that must be met to stay within contractual limits. This data is combined and compiled to create workable schedules and routes to allow companies to comply with the terms of their contracts and to promote the most cost-effective use of corporate resources in managing deliveries and other transportation requirements.
VRS systems typically incorporate several different types of routing, which may include some or all of the following:
- Static routing methods require that the information be input manually into the system. Also known as master routing, static routing is best for companies that typically make the same runs day after day or week after week and that have established routes that offer efficiency and convenience for drivers and customers. Static routing usually requires added labor to ensure that routes are entered accurately and updated as needed.
- Dynamic routing, by contrast, allows the creation of routes on a daily or hourly basis in response to information on traffic, construction, and the parameters created by the operator of the VRS system. This allows companies to put the power of advanced computing algorithms to work to find shorter routes and more fuel-efficient strategies for deliveries and other transportation activities.
- Real-time dynamic routing is the most responsive and practical approach for most transportation routing requirements. VRS systems that incorporate real-time dynamic routing strategies allow drivers to have a real say in trip route planner activities, which often results in greater autonomy and improved performance by drivers.
By combining elements of all three types of routing, companies can typically achieve the most practical balance between pre-determined routing decided by managers and the flexibility and on-the-fly changes made possible by real-time dynamic routing.
Deployments of VRS Software
Depending on the type of system chosen, VRS software and services may be accessed through the cloud or as Software as a Service (SaaS). These deployments are ideal for companies that need access to their VRS from many different locations or that are interested in scalable solutions for their transportation routing and scheduling needs. The anytime, anywhere convenience of the cloud and SaaS VRS systems can prove valuable to transportation managers in the modern environment.
Although traditional systems continue to predominate among smaller trucking firms, the move to SaaS and cloud VRS systems is expected to continue well into the future. The ability to access only the services needed, to pay on a monthly basis and to reduce downtime and maintenance issues will make these types of deployments even more affordable for smaller transportation firms in the future.
Most modern VRS systems access traffic information from online sources or through a dedicated service that feeds traffic information directly into the system. In most cases, the information derived from a dedicated service is available more quickly and is more reliable than that found through online sources, which is why most VRS systems are tied to integrated sources for real-time traffic and road closure information. This will typically ensure the best and most accurate information on which to base routing suggestions and recommendations.
Factors Affecting Modern VRS Implementations
Some of the most critical developments in VRS technology in recent years include real-time locating capabilities, integrated maintenance and tracking, advances in the algorithms used to create routes, the addition of electric cars to some fleets and an increased emphasis on reduced carbon footprints for transportation activities.
- Electric vehicles are sometimes considered as an alternative to vehicles that are powered by fossil fuels alone. Some VRS software is designed to include information on charging points for these electric cars and trucks as part of the standard routing information. This can often make a big difference in the fuel efficiency and sustainability of activities in the transportation industry.
- Some VRS systems are now capable of determining the precise size of the carbon footprint for a particular vehicle, a specific trip, or both. Monitoring carbon emissions will allow modern companies to manage their activities in an environmentally responsible way.
- Real-time tracking of drivers and trucks is becoming a standard feature for VRS systems. Large-scale delivery services have adopted these technologies to increase visibility for their customers and to allow for the gathering of data on driver performance. As GPS devices become more reliable and more accurate, the degree of transparency available to managers, consumers, and companies will also continue to increase to a significant degree.
- Transportation management systems, including fleet maintenance, shipment tracking, proof of delivery, and compliance functions, are beginning to overlap the features of VRS systems to allow companies to choose just one solution for their needs. Rather than getting these two software packages to talk to each other and share data, modern VRS software can often do it all for transportation and delivery companies.
- The algorithms used to generate routes for deliveries are becoming more precise over time, which allows companies to optimize their fuel use and the time of their drivers for greater efficiency on the road.
Who Uses VRS Software?
From a geographical standpoint, North America and Western Europe are the most important markets for VRS software packages. Research conducted by Gartner indicates that there are more than 1.6 million fleets in the United States alone. Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also have significant concentrations of users for VRS systems.
The growing trend toward SaaS and cloud implementations has made it much more practical for companies of all sizes to use VRS as a map route planner or multi route planner solution. Data collected in Gartner’s Market Guide for Vehicle Routing and Scheduling indicates that 98 percent of all fleets consist of 50 vehicles or fewer, with 77 percent having between one to four vehicles total. The scalability of SaaS VRS implementations can help companies with smaller fleets to achieve optimal efficiency for their delivery and driving needs.
VRS systems can be useful in a wide range of industries:
- The food and beverage business requires the timely transport of items to grocers and other retailers. The items to be transported may require refrigeration, freezing, or other special treatment.
- Delivery companies, especially last-mile companies, can also benefit from the added routing assistance made possible by modern VRS systems.
- Construction firms depend on on-time deliveries and reliable shipments to complete their tasks on behalf of their clients. Companies that serve the construction industry can often streamline their delivery processes and provide greater transparency for their clients for their supply chain activities.
- Long-haul trucking and transportation companies are the most obvious candidates for VRS systems. The right routing and scheduling can promote the most profitable activities for these companies and the highest degree of environmental responsibility in the transportation industry.
VRS capabilities are especially important for transportation companies in the current environment. A shortage of qualified drivers has made it essential to use available labor resources in the most efficient way possible. VRS systems are a proven way to manage the resources of labor, equipment, and time for improved customer experiences and increased satisfaction for the clients served by these businesses.
The Increasing Role of Artificial Intelligence
One factor that is likely to affect the way transportation companies use VRS systems in the future, and that is already having an impact on the current crop of VRS software is artificial intelligence. A study published in Procedia Computer Science in 2019 analyzed a VRS used for optimizing urban distribution for an e-commerce company in China. Researchers found that the addition of heuristic artificial intelligence to the system increased the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the transportation network while ensuring that delivery windows were met by drivers. Even readily available tools like the Google Maps route planner can benefit from the algorithms and artificial intelligence features included in these online routing systems.
Understanding the basics of VRS software packages will provide added insights into the best ways to resolve routing and scheduling problems in real-world scenarios. This will be the topic of our next blog post.
Executive Director, Opti-Time Inc