Until recently one big gap in the supply chain has been the ability to know the precise location of delivery trucks once they leave the warehouse. Mobile phone communication is expensive and open to abuse as drivers can easily give a false location. Spurred by the need to cut rising transport costs and improve customer service, retailers are starting to introduce in-cab communication systems to monitor and control every movement of their vehicles on the road network. Following a pilot scheme nearly three years ago, Marks & Spencer has equipped 240 vehicles handling its general merchandise distribution with a system from Isotrak Logistics. The system uses global positioning satellite technology to pinpoint the exact location, performance and status of every vehicle. Real time information is captured via an in-cab computer and a hand-held terminal used by the driver and transmitted by radio modem to Isotrak's headquarters. Performance data is analysed against plan and transmitted to M & S's transport provider, JRL. Used in conjunction with Manugistics' transport management system and Paragon's routing and scheduling system, the Isotrak technology enables M & S to share vehicles between sites, re-route them away from traffic jams, accommodate changing pick-up or delivery times and immediately respond to backhaul opportunities. With immediate access to fleet performance and behaviour on individual jobs, the multiple can also make changes that improve cost efficiency and driver safety. Logistics manager Garth Thorne says the system has proved its worth. "When we first invested in it, we felt that even if it proved cost-neutral, it would probably be worthwhile on the environmental and customer service fronts alone. Three years on, there's no doubt that the system provides tangible cost benefits." These are quite significant l 15% reduction in mileage l 8% improvement in fuel consumption l 11% reduction in driver waiting time. Thorne adds: "When you operate fleets out of 16 sites, integration is not a desirable option, it's an essential one. You have to manage and control the entire process and to do that you need to be able to see each stage, which is where Isotrak comes in." Sainsbury is now trialling Isotrak, which has an installation base of over 500 vehicles, including major fleet operators such as Bass. Pricing is based on a monthly service fee, so there's no hefty capital investment. Telematix, which uses satellite technology to monitor and control vehicle position and performance, is also targeting grocery retailers. Chief executive Nick Milne Home claims his company's system is ultimately self-financing, saving more than 10% in logistics costs. "The technology is very much at the embryonic stage, but it will be used heavily within the next five years," he predicts. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}