Rotra keeps complexity under control thanks to software-aided route scheduling

Route planners working with PTV Smartour at Rotra

Importance of IT infrastructure: In the middle of the site on Verhuellweg 5 street in Doesburg, there is a well-equipped server room, with LED lights in a variety of colours showing that both the servers and the software installed are working flat-out. An emergency generator ensures that the hardware will remain operational even in the event of a power cut. Should an unexpected short-circuit occur, three red canisters of extinguishing gas are also at hand to ensure that no small sparks have any chance of developing into a serious blaze.

“This is where our private cloud runs. We are currently only using 20% of its capacity, so we have room to grow,” explains Harm Roelofsen, Operational Director of Rotra Forwarding BV. This is not Rotra’s only server room – there is a replica of it inside the building a little further on. If one of the server rooms is disconnected for any reason, the other can immediately take over its work. “Availability of IT systems is crucial in our sector. Imagine if a customer sent us a transport assignment while the IT system was out of action. The customer would be counting on us to handle the assignment, but we wouldn’t even see it. Of course, you can install security measures to prevent scenarios like this from happening, but it’s much easier to keep the system in permanent operation simply,” explains Roelofsen.

Gross margin

The great importance placed on IT by Rotra is the reason why the logistics service provider decided to develop its own transport management system (TMS) four years ago. This was because Roelofsen was unable to find a suitable system on the market to manage the 450 vehicles – including 180 of its own lorries – that Rotra puts on the road every day. “I visited a lot of TMS suppliers, and what I found was a little bit of vision and a whole lot of confusion. The systems I saw weren’t good enough to go the extra mile with Rotra. That’s why we went and built our own system, even though that isn’t our primary function, of course.” A lot of attention was devoted to the contract module during the development of the TMS. This contains the customer contracts, in which the different prices for each region are agreed. These prices generally also vary from customer to customer. Now that all of the different prices are stored on the system, Rotra can invoice all of its shipments automatically. “What’s even better is that the invoices are then often ready to be sent straight away,” says Roelofsen. “Our customers receive their invoices in 3.5 working days on average – a speed that is unheard of in our industry. It also means we get our money more quickly.” Thanks to the TMS, Rotra knows at a far earlier stage how much money it will make from each shipment.  While planning transports, the planners can immediately see the impact on gross margin. “The system calculates the cost based on volume, weight or the number of loading metres. We use the highest cost as a basis, which offers more opportunity to optimise gross margins than with the majority of TMSs. A trip with ten shipments calculated on other systems will cost €500, whereas we work with an average of €50 per shipment, regardless of how big or small the ten shipments are.”

Map material

One special feature is the module for cross-docking, an important activity that keeps over sixty people busy every evening. The module supports them in their task, helping prevent any packages of hazardous goods from ending up next to children’s clothes by accident.

“We have also given a lot of thought to user-friendliness during the order entry procedure. This often takes place on screens with a large number of fields, most of which are irrelevant. We have now removed 80% of the fields, and you can click to open them only when they are needed.” The geographical screens are a key aid to users of the TMS. For these, Rotra uses PTV xMap Server – a set of map material from PTV that is plugged into the TMS. Every trip can be displayed on the screen at the push of a button, and because every trailer is equipped with a GPS tracker, their positions can be shown with a high degree of accuracy. “The level of detail is incredible. When a driver has trouble finding their destination, we can make adjustments and tell them that they need to head left rather than right. This mainly applies to customers with a different collection or delivery address to their office,” explains Roelofsen from experience. On the geographical screen, planners can click on routes to get more information, such as the expected arrival time or the load volume. “If we need to pick up something extra on the way, we can immediately see which lorry has enough space,” says Roelofsen, who has begun marketing the TMS under the name Logistics Software Solutions (LSS). “That operates as an independent business. We don’t plan to become rich by selling the TMS – we are mainly looking for strong partners who can help us to expand the software further.”

Taking restrictions into account during planning

For its route planning, Rotra uses Smartour – a piece of software that was also developed by PTV. The system runs at full pelt every evening between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. Every assignment for the following day is planned during this time, including both the collection and delivery of shipments. “The planning needs to be finished by half past nine in the evening, as that’s when our cross-docking staff start work. They need to know what shipments they have to load onto which lorries,” says Pim Koenders, Logistics Engineer at Rotra. On average, one thousand shipments need to be planned every day. Smartour generates a proposal that takes into account as many different aspects as possible. As an example, Koenders points to the hazardous goods that make up 15% of all shipments. “These shipments can only be transported in a vehicle with ADR approval that is driven by a driver with an ADR certificate. Smartour automatically takes this into account. When a planner tries to get a driver with no ADR certificate to collect hazardous goods, the system immediately returns an error message.” Another example is the loading or unloading method. At a certain number of the 130,000 different loading and unloading addresses, there is no forklift truck available to unload the trailer from the side or the rear. “At these addresses, we can only get by with vehicles that have tail lifts. Here too, Smartour takes the opening times at each address into account, as well as the time we need to spend there. Sometimes the number of lorries visiting a particular end customer can increase in line with their revenues, which means that our waiting times get longer. We can make adjustments in Smartour to reflect this,” explains Roelofsen. The 10 LNG lorries that Rotra has in operation form a separate vehicle class in Smartour. “These lorries allow us to travel through the environmental zones in Utrecht and Amsterdam. The operating radius of these trucks doesn’t pose any problems either. We’ve fitted them with two fuel tanks so that they can travel up to 800 kilometres.”

Half a million
The planners check all of the planning generated by Smartour and adjusted where necessary. This human input is still crucial. “The planners know exactly what we can and cannot collect. They know when a driver is injured and can’t move as quickly. They also know how customers will react if a shipment arrives a little late. We can’t programme everything into Smartour,” says Koenders, with agreement from Roelofsen. “The best planning is still always a product of the interplay between clever algorithms and experienced planners.” Roelofsen has increasingly seen the role of the planner change due to the impact of planning tools such as Smartour. “The planner is increasingly becoming an operator who monitors the process, rather than a planner who personally arranges shipments.

This is an inevitable development, as with 132,000 different loading and unloading addresses it’s impossible to maintain an overview. No planner can keep all the relevant information about all these addresses in their head.” Rotra has three copies of PTV Smartour running. Two copies are used in Doesburg and Kampenhout for distribution planning, and Rotra also uses a third copy in Doesburg for distributing Gazelle bicycles. “We started using Smartour in the Gazelle department four years ago. This operation is slightly less complex. Once it was up and running, we also transferred the two other planning activities to PTV Smartour.” The introduction of PTV Smartour has now paid for itself. “Thanks to PTV Smartour, we can generate an advance plan at around 4:00 p.m., once around 80% of our transport assignments have come in. We use this to purchase transport capacity from our subcontractors. When we started out, we calculated that we could save around half a million per year on purchasing alone.”