IT delivers optimal route for Con-way

2008 InfoWorld 100 finalist: Freight carrier turns to IT to cut down forklift use and keep shipments on time

To hear Jackie Barretta, CIO of Con-way, tell it, the freight carrier's strength is in its on-time performance.

"When we say it will get there in this amount of time, it will get there," Barretta says.

But in the increasingly complex world of transportation, making good on that promise takes a great deal of hard work -- and some serious IT.

[ See the full list of this year's InfoWorld 100 winners, as well as the other Top 10 finalists ]

And to help ensure those on-time deliveries, Con-way turned to Suranjana Chattopadhyay to bring its Step Saver initiative to life.

Before Step Saver, Con-way dock coordinators spent at least two hours manually determining the best-choice dock door out of the 200 in a typical Con-way FAC (freight assembly center) for every trailer to use on arrival. Factor in the time necessary to map out the most efficient paths for each forklift to unload and load freight, and you can see how difficult it can be to ensure on-time delivery.

Just to begin configuring those forklift operations, says Chattopadhyay, you had to know the expected arrival times for each trailer, note how many were arriving at approximately the same time, and calculate how many forklifts and forklift movements would be required for each delivery. Plus, you would have to take into account the weight of the shipment, as well as the configuration and location of each dock, then project what the best load for each outgoing trailer would be.

In other words, Step Saver was the perfect task to optimize using IT.

To get the job done, Step Saver leverages an array of development tools, including Java, CA Gen, IBM WebSphere Information Integrator Replication Edition V8.2, Tibco Application Integration Suite, Flux Java Job Scheduling, C++, and iText.

The actual "optimizer" is a model written in C++.

The optimizer completes its task in less than two minutes. Using an SOA architecture, the optimizer integrates with Con-way's trailer-tracking applications, which monitor the actual location of any given tractor trailer and its estimated time of arrival. Combined, these two systems keep coordinators abreast of the latest delivery information, and if trailer arrival times skew en route, the optimizer reconfigures dock-door assignments.

By minimizing the distance between arriving and departing trailers, fewer steps are necessary in transferring loads, resulting in a 5.6 percent improvement in pounds handled per man-hour. This alone translates into $3 million in annual savings.

Moreover, Step Saver has reduced forklift usage by 21 percent in its first six months, resulting in additional savings on fuel, maintenance, and tire wear.

Overall planning time has been cut by 38 percent, or 44 minutes per shift, allowing coordinators to focus on other issues that have not yet been automated.

Due to Step Saver, CIO Barretta says, trucks are on the road faster, invoices can be sent out sooner, and customers are even happier.

2008 InfoWorld 100 Award winners

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