Mobile data capture improves billing, tracking for BC milk transportation

Sept. 1, 2003
WHEN the British Columbia (Canada) Milk Marketing Board in Canada was asked to take over the province-wide system of raw milk transportation and distribution

WHEN the British Columbia (Canada) Milk Marketing Board in Canada was asked to take over the province-wide system of raw milk transportation and distribution in October 2001, the prospect of tracking the daily pick-ups and deliveries over such a huge geographic region was daunting, given the traditional paper-based system that was in use. Managing the twice-monthly payment transactions in this C$400 million (US $286.6 million) system was an equally intimidating prospect.

“The traditional paper-form pick-up and delivery system caused delays and made the financial administration of payments to the farmers and transporters a labor-intensive and challenging exercise,” says Robert Delage, comptroller for the marketing board and manager of its information system. “We believed that if we could develop a mobile automated data-collection system, we could eliminate all the extra effort and costs involved in the paper system and gain the timeliness and accuracy to run the finance side more smoothly.”

The BC Milk Marketing Board — charged in law with managing the supply and pricing of milk production from 700 dairy farms throughout British Columbia — began by working with the paper system for the first 12 months in an attempt to gain a sense of the transaction volume and complexity. The down-sides were obvious immediately. It wasn't just the tedious nature of the paperwork — timeliness was a major concern.

Efficient inputting of the information into the main computer system so that payments could be processed twice monthly was problematic, often impacted by drivers losing paper slips or forgetting to submit them for weeks. Mistakes also would be made in writing down the information or in adding up the figures, so that totals would not reconcile at the Board's office.

“We ended up with many problems — missing or incorrect information or plain addition errors,” notes Delage. “A lot of administrative time was required to follow up each error by phone. The errors were really no one's fault. They were the result of the sheer volume of daily data entry. The constant inputting and re-inputting of information were duplications of effort and magnified the risk of errors.”

Paper cost

The expense of using couriers to deliver paperwork and receipts to the central processing office from all over the province and the direct cost of the paper system were estimated at C$80,000-$100,000 (US $57,000 to $71,600) annually. And this total didn't include the driver work on the paper forms and central administration time in managing the system and following up on errors. The overall cost of the inefficiency was considerable.

Propelling the need for a more efficient system were tight payment deadlines involved in the production and distribution of milk in British Columbia, which included receiving and paying out C$17 million (US $12 million) twice per month from processors to farmers. Annual administration costs added up to C$2.1 million (US $1.5 million), while C$12 million (US $8.6 million) was committed for trucking expenses.

In order to keep this twice-monthly payment system flowing under deadline pressures, the BC Milk Marketing Board had just three days to get information into the computer system, pull the billings out, report how much milk each processor received, and report back how they processed it. With this tight timeline, any delays from the paper system caused headaches for the marketing board's payment system and staff.

Electronic solution

The solution lay in simplifying and automating the data-entry process by bundling numerous transactions into just a few. The centerpiece of the system that was put into place in the fall of 2002 is a wireless automated data-capture software system using Epic Data's eXpresso software that minimizes the amount of hand keying of information about pick-ups and deliveries at every stage. The goal is to reduce the volume of manual record-keeping and data entry.

The software is used with 35 Symbol PPT 2833 handheld wireless scanning units — a daytime driver shares a unit with his nighttime counterpart. The wireless system features a unique bar-code identification for each farm and processing plant, as well as portable printers that fit easily inside a truck's cab. It connects via the Internet with the marketing board's main computer system by transmitting information over the cellular data network.

The eXpresso software includes customized features that connect the data collection information to the enterprise system, enabling the BC Milk Marketing Board to receive reports very quickly, easily update and overwrite totals, and separate and sort information into meaningful segments.

“The eXpresso software automatically manages all the incoming data and synchronizes and updates 35 separate databases of information,” says Delage. “eXpresso also provides us with a log of errors and allows us to monitor the entire system in real time, to see incoming data.”

One key value to network users is eXpresso's functional abilities when the cell network is inaccessible or down. In this case, eXpresso automatically senses there is a problem and stores the information until it reconnects with the network. Upon reconnecting, it transmits the information. In addition, it can detect when the information has been received by the home server.

Quality assurance

Digitizing the milk lot pick-up and delivery information also deals with an important quality assurance issue, that of determining the originating farm for every shipment of milk that goes to processors and from there to consumers. In these days of product tampering scares and concerns about the safety of food products, health authorities must act quickly if a shipment of substandard milk accidentally gets into the public food supply.

The board's system can quickly call up records of milk pick-up and match them against the processor's products sent into the marketplace. This identification system would enable the government to trace the source of a problem milk shipment very quickly and determine whether the problem originated at a farm or somewhere else in the supply stream.

“If there was a problem, we could tell within minutes which farm provided the milk,” says Delage. “This capability moves quality assurance to another level.”

Farm data

The wireless data entry process begins at the dairy farm. The transport driver uses his scanning unit to scan the farm's barcode. He then punches inputs data regarding how many liters of milk are being collected, the number of milkings performed, the milk temperature, and any comments and other pertinent information. This information does not need to be re-entered after initial entry.

The scanning unit also can perform some quick on-site numerical analysis for drivers, telling them, for instance, the available room in each cargo tank and how to split the load between the front and back tanks.

After the driver has delivered the milk to the processor, the processor's barcode is scanned and the handheld unit automatically records the delivered amount. Paper reports can be printed immediately and the entire data collection shipped to the central computer. To initiate the process, the driver simply hits “send.” In two minutes the transmission is complete.

“It's an excellent system,” says Delage. “Although the farms are located in the countryside, we have excellent reception for the cell system everywhere we need it. Each morning, the system can report on everything shipped the previous day. There are no more delays. In fact, since most milk is delivered by 4 pm, quite often we can look at the dayshift milk input totals only a few minutes later. It used to take three or four days to get these daily reports.”

Transporters have found the new system to be quite impressive on the road. Delage notes: “We've had great feedback from the drivers. They have much less paperwork and no longer need a pen or a calculator on hand. In fact, it's so much easier they often feel as if they've forgotten to do something. The receipts are printed at the farm and everything is automatic.”

Aside from the improved timeliness and reduced cost, probably the most important benefit for the marketing board has been improved accuracy in its information. Delage estimates a savings of up to C$30,000 (US $21,000) per year through the elimination of follow-up work to track errors.

“More than the savings from the reduced paperwork, the accuracy is vital to us,” he says. “With our tight timelines, it improves our ability to report and manage the system properly, and that's worth a lot more.”

The BC Milk Marketing Board's new mobile data-capture system has eliminated much of the non-value-added paperwork from the transportation system financial payment structure. In doing that, it has greatly reduced concerns that paper errors could lead to mistakes in the payment system, and is allowing farmers and transporters to focus on what they do best: producing and moving quality milk from the farms to the market as quickly and efficiently as possible.