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Toll NZ - Tough books for tough customers

Toll Tranzlink’s Auckland container terminal, deep in the industrial heartland of Southdown, Onehunga, is a vast complex of warehouses, railway tracks, marshalling yards and fenced compounds filled with neatly stacked containers. It’s a hard environment that handles more freight than all but the largest of New Zealand’s maritime ports.

Toll-Tranzlink run several container terminals - vital interfaces between road and rail transport; the glue between road and rail. Southdown is one of eight such inland ports around the country, and it handles around 500,000 containers a year, many weighing 40 tonnes or more. Shifting containers is Toll Tranzlink's business.

Road-rail terminals tend to be grubby, windswept places and Southdown is no exception. It is over 4km long on one axis, so the wind has plenty of opportunity to kick up dust. Machinery is subjected to a constant assault from dust, soot, rain, mud - even metal shavings; it's a challenging environment for electronics.

So when Toll-Tranzlink decided to update the way they organised job scheduling, despatch and communications for the drivers of their 45-tonne forkhoists five years ago, Toll Tranzlink had to consider their options carefully. Up until then, drivers were working from a spreadsheet each morning with a list of jobs for their shift, returning it so the computer could be updated. They relied on two-way radios for live communication - not always satisfactory in a noisy environment where earmuffs are mandatory.

"We wanted a fully interactive, computerised system that gave us the ability to update and monitor our drivers' job schedules in real-time using an interface they could easily manage, even while wearing gloves," National IT Manager Christian Hirano explained. A PC in each driver's cab, linked via Vodafone's GPRS network to a mainframe computer was the obvious answer, but the solution wasn't as straightforward as it sounds.

Limited space inside a forkhoist's cab and harsh operating conditions - dirt, dust, vibration and general hard duty - ruled out conventional PCs or laptops. Toll-Tranzlink was also aware it couldn't afford downtime because of hardware failures - delays could mean containers missing trains, road links or export shipments. Consequently, they wanted to ensure timely, dedicated local support for whichever product they chose.

"We went with Pansonic Toughbooks five years ago and still use them today," Hirano explained. Toll-Tranzlink has 50 CF-18 Toughbooks in commission, making them the largest single user of Panasonic Toughbook technology in New Zealand. "They're compact, lightweight and incredibly robust. Reversible touch-screens and a display that's visible in any light make them ideal. They were the best available at the time and subsequent updates and improvements mean they still lead the pack. Best of all, our drivers really like using them," said Hirano. One look inside the cab of a 45-tonne forklift is all it takes to realise that conventional keyboards were never going to be a viable option. Dust and grime would quickly render a normal keyboard inoperative, while vibration and movement would make operating one inside a moving forkhoist nearly impossible, especially since drivers wear thick gloves for health and safety reasons. Panasonic Toughbooks also scored thanks to their extreme portability, which makes them easy to carry from vehicle to vehicle. Wireless operation makes mounting them inside the cab a breeze.

"The CF-18's touch-screen allows drivers to instantly acknowledge a despatch and confirm when the job is done," said Hirano, "and the units are so small and light." Real-time updating makes it possible for Toll-Tranzlink to keep track of containers 24-7.

Vodafone mobile technology links forkhoist drivers with despatch headquarters. Early model Toughbooks were equipped with GPRS network cards; the later versions currently in service with Toll Tranzlink utilise Vodafone's new HSDPA '3.5G' technology - "Much faster," said Hirano.

Another consideration for Toll-Tranzlink was the Toughbook's ability to run proprietary software applications the company has recently developed in-house for container despatch and tracking. "Toughbooks allow full flexibility to develop .net applications that work across different platforms," Hirano explained.

"They feature a full-blown processor offering performance comparable to most laptops in an almost indestructible case. Fitting simcards, memory cards and other hardware is also easier with the latest models."

But if you ask Hirano the single most important reason Toll-Tranzlink chose Panasonic Toughbooks, he opts for Panasonic's commitment to customer service. "We wanted to be sure that if we needed help, there was someone local with the expertise to sort out our problem fast." "Panasonic have been fantastic. They keep a loan Toughbook on standby 24 hours a day, should we have a hardware fault, and their response time is brilliant."

Toll Tranzlink is still developing their communication interface with forkhoist drivers. Recently they've expanded the system's capabilities to show drivers the grid they're working on within the compound. Displayed graphically on screen, it helps drivers find particular containers quickly, further enhancing operational efficiency. "Toughbooks have been an excellent choice for us here at Southdown and in eight other sites where we use this technology. We've been happy with the performance of the units themselves in testing conditions, and with the quality of service we receive from Panasonic. Toll-Tranzlink and Panasonic Toughbooks have enjoyed an excellent partnership," Hirano concluded.