It sounds simple enough: get your day's orders together, arrange them in a logical sequence, check on directions to unfamiliar locations, and send the driver on his way.

But multiply that by as few as five trucks, add customers who have very specific and limited delivery windows, and try to accommodate ever-changing road and traffic conditions while maximizing driver and vehicle productivity. The simple job of routing quickly becomes an overwhelming, time-consuming chore that forces you to make daily compromises in customer service, fleet productivity, driver satisfaction, and overall efficiency.

Software designed to take over those complex routing decisions has been available for nearly a decade, but only the largest fleets could afford those programs and the computer power necessary to run them. In the last few years, however, changes in computer technology have removed or greatly lowered the formidable entry barriers of cost and complexity, making routing software practical for fleets with a few as five vehicles. Retail and wholesale delivery fleets, field service operations, and even multi-stop truckload carriers of all sizes are turning to routing programs in increasing numbers. And over the next 12 to 18 months, developers predict that new features and technology will make their products even more attractive to both small and large fleets.

The simplest routing programs are actually extensions of basic mileage programs that were developed to make fleet distance estimates easier and more accurate. PC*Miler from ALK Assoc., Prophesy Mileage from Prophesy Transportation Software, and MileMaker from Rand-McNally-TDM all started as electronic replacements for printed mileage standards like the household goods charts.

Today, these mileage programs can also be used to develop and map the most efficient routes between two points. While there are inexpensive consumer software packages that can plan simple routes (see "Off the Wire," p. TC7), the more expensive commercial programs consider truck and height restrictions when developing routes and generally have far more accurate map and address location databases. In addition, add-on software modules can handle hazardous materials and other road restrictions, as well as fuel-mileage reporting chores. In many cases, the commercial mileage programs are also used to provide distance information for integrated fleet management applications.

Every day While the mileage programs can be used to calculate a route, route-planning software is specifically designed to develop efficient multi-stop routes on a daily basis for distribution, P&D, field service, and small-package delivery fleets. In simplest terms, customer orders are fed into the system and it quickly determines who should make each stop, in what order, and by what route.

Initially, route-planning software was limited to large operations because it carried a relatively high initial price and was available only in DOS-based versions that required well-trained staff. Today, virtually all route-planning programs are Windows-based, have easy-to-use graphical interfaces, and can run on stand-alone PCs. At the same time, the high-end programs have added many new features and functions for large and complex distribution operations, while other developers now offer simpler, lower-cost packages for smaller fleets, as well as programs closely tailored for specific applications such as fuel-oil delivery or multi-stop truckload operations.

Better interfaces, lower prices, and increased functionality have now moved route-planning software from the leading edge to the mainstream. But according to software developers, 1998 may be the year it really takes off. Not only has routing been around long enough to prove that it offers a good return on investment, but advances in regional wireless communications and handheld computer technology are going to compound the efficiencies offered by routing programs. If you're managing a fleet with multiple-stop routes, it's going to be hard to continue ignoring the efficiency and customer service advantages offered by automated routing systems.

The leading choices Here are the major route-planning packages now on the market, along with details on new features and related products scheduled for introduction during 1998.

Route View is a no-frills routing package from XATA Corp., which is best known for its on-board computers. Designed to quickly build daily routes for local, regional, and national operations, the program can handle single or multiple locations. Currently, it's being used by fleets with as few as 4 trucks and as many as 270 in LTL P&D, retail delivery, and industrial distribution applications.

Strengths of the program are speed -- it can handle over 200 shipments a minute -- and address location and correction with Zip-plus-4 appending. Route View requires little maintenance by users since XATA provides an updated address database for the U.S. and Canada every two months. In addition, it will update stop details dynamically with data collected from a fleet's host information system. It also offers perpetual routing, adding stops to existing routes as they are entered into the system.

A 32-bit program that can run under Windows 95 or Windows NT, Route View is typically networked with AS/400 and UNIX hosts, but can be used on a standalone PC. If trucks are equipped with XATA on-board computers, the program can be used to provide the OBCs with delivery details, or it can print out route manifests and street-level maps.

As a basic, lower-cost routing system, the program does not handle dispatch functions, which limits it to outbound operations. Although XATA says it will probably integrate wireless communications at some point, the next features added to the system will be designed to help fleets quickly evaluate and suggest minor daily changes for fixed-route operations.

RiMMS is a program from the Lightstone Group that adds strategic route and bid analysis to daily routing functions for single or multiple locations. Although the current customer base is varied, wholesale distribution and field service fleets make up the largest block of users.

Lightstone has also recently purchased the routing software developer RoTec from Comdata, which has a number of fleet customers in home delivery and third-party logistics. Although it will continue to support current users of RoTec's 16-bit routing program, it will not upgrade that program. Instead, it will offer to help fleets upgrade to the Windows 95 32-bit RiMMS package, according to CEO Kenneth Bob.

Lightstone's routing package can be used as a standalone system, "but 80 to 90% of our customers have integrated it with their other information systems," says Bob. As the cost of handheld computers comes down, integrating wireless communications into the routing system has also become "a hot, hot, hot issue," he says, and will play a major role in the company's development plans for 1998. The growing importance of third-party logistics will also push the company to make it easier to handle inbound as well as outbound routing.

ROADNET 5000 from the UPS Logistics subsidiary Roadnet Technologies Inc. is a full-featured route-planning package that can run under Windows NT, Windows 95, or OS/2. Used by approximately 640 companies, nearly half of its customers are in the food service industry, with the rest in soft drink, beer, paper product, or other wholesale distribution operations.

The program is being used to route 29,000 vehicles a day with an average of 15 to 20 stops per truck, according to Len Kennedy, chief operating officer. Map accuracy and ease of use are the strengths of ROADNET, he says. Other major features include automatic address matching that can be used to update customer databases, a built-in road network, and the ability to easily run "what if" scenarios.

A second program called Territory Planner is a strategic tool that helps route-sales operations develop and optimize sales territories weeks or months out into the future. It's proving particularly popular with beverage distributors, according to Kennedy.

As for future developments, the company is currently beta-testing a wireless real-time dispatching system that continually updates the routes calculated by ROADNET. Called Mobile Cast, the system will use location information transmitted from a handheld unit to match actually delivery performance against the planned route. If it detects a problem, it will offer alternative delivery suggestions or let the dispatcher notify customers about a delivery delay.

Other plans for ROADNET include features that would extend the system from local to regional and even national routing chores, making it suitable for LTL and multi-day routes, according to Kennedy. "It already handles multiple depots, so adding inbound (capabilities) would be a natural progression," he says.

Not the shortest Roadshow, which was acquired by the supply-chain software company Descartes Systems Group late last year, is the largest supplier of route-planning software, with over 700 customers and 1,200 installations around the world.

The routes built by Roadshow "are not necessarily the shortest or the quickest," says Rich Moore, senior vp for marketing. "Our results are cost-based. The routes are computed using the fleet's own data on things like current road conditions, special customer requirements, and other ongoing changes."

Also unique to Roadshow is the use of commercial rather than digital maps for its display. "It can use digital maps, but we can also scan in full-color commercial maps, which is what most dispatchers are used to working with," says Moore.

Most of its customers are private fleets with food and beverage distribution operations, although it also has a number of customers in other industries. "The common denominator is dynamic demand and a high volume of transactions, often with short order-to-cash cycles," says Moore.

While some fleets use Roadshow as a standalone routing tool, in the last year or so, larger companies have begun pushing to integrate it into the supply-chain system, he says. "As they start looking at their distribution operations strategically, routing with rich functionality becomes a key link in that supply chain," he adds.

The program has offered a wireless communications extension for a number of years, mostly in LTL and field service applications. However, as the cost and technology of both wireless service and handheld hardware continues to evolve, "routing will absolutely become part of mobile solutions for many fleets," says Moore.

As for other future developments, Moore isn't willing to say much beyond, "We'll continue focusing on doing what we do well." However, even closer integration with Descartes' supply-chain suite of programs is likely.

Routing for TL LoadExpress Plus from Prophesy Transportation Software Inc. takes a somewhat different approach to route planning. Unlike the other programs, which are intended for daily distribution routes, LoadExpress plans and optimizes multi-stop truckload routes.

Used mostly by dedicated carriers and private fleets with backhaul authority, the program consolidates less-than-truckload shipments and creates a multi-stop schedule based on customer delivery time windows, available vehicle capacity, backhaul considerations, DOT driver-time regulations, and other parameters defined by fleets.

In addition to building actual routes, the program can be used to analyze bids and traffic lanes, according to Dan Phillip, national account manager for LoadExpress. Able to run under Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, it can be used on a standalone PC or in a network environment.