5 ways to manage your container inventory

Having complete, accurate and up-to-date container counts and locations allows haulers to turn containers faster and reduce expenses through inventory control.

© Minpan / stock.adobe.com

Traditionally, when haulers think about inventory management, they are mainly concerned with how many containers they have available to sell, which often can be determined by walking the storage yard. However, additional information, such as knowing how many containers are deployed, their locations and how long they’ve been there, can prove to be valuable when it comes to streamlining operations. To manage container inventory, haulers can implement a manual, bar code, radio-frequency identification (RFID), truck-based GPS or a container-based GPS tracking solution.

Having accurate and up-to-date container counts and locations allows haulers to turn containers faster, reduce expenses through inventory control and, ultimately, grow their bottom lines.

Manual tracking

With the original, low-tech container inventory management system, an employee visits storage yards to count the quantity of each size container and logs his notes into back-office systems to align with what’s on-site with customers.

Automation: This process does not involve automation. It is labor intensive and leaves the possibility for human error at multiple points of manual data entry.

Data accuracy: Front-load containers change location infrequently, so they can be relatively straightforward to track manually. Roll-off containers can move multiple times daily, increasing the importance of having up-to-date information about where a container is located. Accurate container information is difficult to achieve through a manual data collection process because by the time information is entered, it has already become outdated.

Cost: No equipment must be purchased, but this method requires employee time. Outdated information can result in haulers unnecessarily turning away work or buying too many containers.

Durability: Because safety and health are top priorities, haulers need to be aware of how much they ask of their teams.

The verdict: Manual inventory management is simple to implement, but it’s also labor intensive. As a business grows, manual tracking can become unmanageable.

Bar code tracking

Bar code tracking involves the same black-and-white coded labels that are on everyday products at the checkout line. Bar codes are placed on containers and are scanned by drivers when a container is picked up or delivered. The container information is recorded and periodically uploaded to inventory management software.

Automation: Bar codes reduce manual data entry, but the process remains labor intensive as someone must still physically scan each individual bar code at close range.

Data accuracy: Bar codes can give haulers a good sense of their inventory for front-load containers, but they fail to provide up-to-date data on containers that move often.

Cost: Bar code stickers and scanners can be affordable and are expected to become less expensive in the future. (Our research has shown bar codes can be approximately 15 cents per sticker and scanners can range from $40 to $500 each.)

Durability: Bar codes work accurately on most materials. They can run into reliability issues when attempting to scan dirty, torn, weathered or blocked codes.

The verdict: Bar code tracking costs more than manual tracking, but it can lighten the manual data entry process. However, it remains a labor-intensive process vulnerable to human error.

Photos contributed by Compology

RFID tracking

RFID tags can track and identify a container using a process that is very similar to bar code scanning, and they have become common in residential waste and recycling collection. Containers are scanned by drivers, trucks or fixed scanners. The container information, which can include much more detail than bar codes, such as serial numbers or addresses, is recorded and periodically uploaded to an inventory management software.

Automation: RFID scanners can read over a longer range, which enables the scanning of multiple containers at the same time. Scanners are installed at yards to track containers, or they are placed on trucks to track pickups and deliveries.

Data accuracy: RFID scanners can provide the correct count for containers entering or leaving a site. However, once a container leaves the storage yard, its location can’t be known unless a driver manually enters the delivery address.

Cost: RFID tags are more expensive than bar codes, but they remain reasonable in price. Scanners can become a significant investment while still leaving room for error. (RFID tags range from 10 cents to $20 per tag, depending on their capabilities and quality. Hand-held scanners can range from $1,500 to $4,000 per scanner, while fixed scanners can range from $1,000 to $20,000 per scanner.)

Durability: RFID tags are considered to be more durable than bar codes because of their hard plastic shells. However, they are still prone to signal interference.

The verdict: RFID systems have demonstrated their value in residential and some commercial waste applications, but the challenge of matching a container to a service location remains an issue for wide-scale adoption on roll-off containers. Integrating RFID tags with truck-based GPS is necessary to get real value from using RFID for container inventory management.

truck-based gps tracking

An in-cab GPS tracker pairs the coordinates of a collection vehicle with work order information to automatically associate a container with a customer. No container-specific information is stored unless the system is paired with an RFID or a bar code tracking system.

Automation: GPS tracking allows for automatic, continuous truck tracking. However, a manual step to verify the pickup and drop-off of containers is still necessary. Truck tracking often is combined with bar codes or RFID to reduce human error.

Data accuracy: GPS data tends to be reliable. However, when it comes to container inventory management, only the last location of the truck is provided when the container is delivered. So, manual documentation of the container location must be entered or this process must be integrated with bar code or RFID systems.

Cost: GPS truck tracking services commonly require an upfront purchase and a recurring subscription on a per-truck basis. Capturing container data typically requires an additional cost of installing a bar code or an RFID system, too. (Purchase price for GPS trackers can range from $40 to $300 each, while service agreements can range from $15 to $45 per month per tracker.)

Durability: Durability is not an area of concern, as the GPS tracker is usually mounted in the cab of a truck.

The verdict: If a hauler is focused on truck performance, truck-based GPS is effective. Yet, when it comes to container inventory management, it can’t provide up-to-date container locations without manual verification or integration with another system.

Container-based GPS tracking

GPS trackers mount to containers and pair location information with customer accounts. This is most often used on open-top roll-off containers and compactors, as well as front-load containers.

Automation: This is a fully automated container inventory management solution that allows for continuous tracking without human intervention.

Data accuracy: Fully automated GPS container tracking provides count, locations and time at location of every container. It also identifies details such as the serial number of each container.

Cost: Container-based GPS trackers may appear to be a costly option since each container requires its own tracker. However, the value of having a solution that provides complete, up-to-date information is the cost/benefit that needs to be weighed.

Durability: Various GPS container tracking products are available, but not all are built to withstand the severe conditions of the waste industry.

The verdict: Container-based GPS tracking automates the container inventory management process and allows for up-to-date container counts and locations. While the initial cost of implementation may be higher, the return on investment is apparent through higher quality data and the removal of manual data collection.

This article was submitted by Compology Inc., San Francisco, a provider of GPS-based container monitoring and tracking technology. More information is available online at https://compology.com.

October 2018
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