No wasted effort

13 Feb 2008

A fast-growing waste-management and recycling company depends on innovative use of IT to provide efficient services to its corporate and domestic customers. Conor O’Carroll (pictured) tells David D’Arcy how technology underpins its processes.

With concerns about a sustainable environment high on the political and media agendas throughout the western world, waste-management companies now find themselves operating in a dynamic, expanding and competitive industry. Rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, demands for innovation and new services at lower cost are very much the order of the day. And they must operate under the scrutiny of a media that is paying far more attention to the waste-management and recycling industries than it ever did back in the days of plain old bin collecting.

Greenstar is one of the new breed of waste management operators. Part of the NTR group of companies, it was established eight years ago as a small company called Celtic Waste operating a single landfill site in Kilcullen, Co Kildare. It has grown steadily since then, having embarked on an aggressive acquisition policy buying up such companies as National Waste, Murphy Waste, Ahern Waste in Cork, Tallaght and St Margaret’s in north Dublin. It is a process that is still not finished, with the company continuing to acquire smaller operators.

Greenstar provides a range of services to both corporate and domestic customers from about 20 sites around the country including the Greater Dublin Area, Cork and the south east. The majority are material recycling facilities (MRFs) where waste is collected from customers and sorted into that which can be recycled and that which cannot. Greenstar also operates a number of onsite recycling facilities at the premises of major multinational manufacturing firms. Finally, at the end of the chain, it operates a number of landfill sites for that waste which simply cannot be recycled. Even here the company is reclaiming material for future use by collecting, for energy purposes, land gas emanating from the landfill sites.

Not surprisingly IT plays a crucial role in helping Greenstar deliver its services and manage the integration of new acquisitions within the overall company. IT manager Conor O’Carroll, who has been with the company since its early days in October 2001, has overseen the growth of an IT infrastructure that has gone from almost nothing when he joined to a state-of-the-art network spanning depots all over the country, linking into a centralised customer call centre and running a specialised waste-management enterprise resource planning (ERP) application which is increasingly helping to drive paper-based processes out of the company.

IT wasteland

“When I joined the company we had no IT infrastructure whatsoever, no servers at all,” says O’Carroll. “There were only about 15 people in head office, and even our email and file and print facilities were provided by our parent company NTR.”

Joining as IT co-ordinator having previously worked in voice-application development and network management for a variety of companies, O’Carroll’s role was to develop an IT strategy and to put in place whatever IT infrastructure the company needed to develop and grow. “At first I was on my own but gradually we built up a team,” he recalls. “At the moment there are six IT people in total, including myself, three helpdesk engineers and a database administrator who looks after the back-end core databases.”

By 2004 the IT department comprised two people to support between 300 and 400 users. Now there are six IT people with a full helpdesk system behind it supporting about 600 users in depots around the country. There is also a fully centralised customer call centre at Greenstar’s Millennium Park headquarters in Ballycoolin, Dublin which O’Carroll describes as “the most advanced materials recycling facility in the country”.

Even as its user base grew, Greenstar’s IT infrastructure initially evolved slowly. “For a long time our IT was a very basic point-to-point wide area network (WAN) with local file and print servers at each site and with little or no integration or consolidation,” says O’Carroll. “It got to the stage where it would take us nearly a month to do our month-end process.”

To improve this state of affairs the company decided around 2003 to standardise some basic business procedures and embarked on what O’Carroll calls “an ERP application hunt to integrate and make our ordering process more transparent, to get more reporting capabilities and to enable management to have a more group-level knowledge of what was happening in our business”.

It settled eventually on a system tailor-made for the waste management industry called WIMS (Waste Industry Management System), produced by a Scottish company called Solution Works. “We also looked to consolidate our financial systems and so we bought an application called Sun from Systems Union, now called Infor,” says O’Carroll. “We then linked the two systems together to produce a single customer services, operations ordering and invoicing system.”

Acting on a WIMS

WIMS manages all the customer-facing processes around waste collection and disposal, whereas Sun is used for all general ledger and profit and loss processing. Shortly afterwards, Greenstar implemented a full document management system to streamline the processing of its delivery dockets.

“These dockets are like cash in hand to us,” says O’Carroll. “We developed the system to record all these dockets, signed or unsigned, which we can then push up to our ERP system so that when it comes to invoicing time we can match each docket against individual invoices. An invoicing process that used to take a week to 10 days, followed by another week to process all the numbers, now takes a day and a half. It really took us from division three to division one level in terms of our customer services.”

Integrating newly acquired companies into the centralised ERP system has particular challenges in the waste management industry. Typically, when one company is taken over by another there can be problems integrating several highly customised IT systems together. The companies that made up Greenstar, however, tended to have very basic PC-based systems, typically using spreadsheets or small database applications for their invoicing systems. “There were no standards, not even for formatting,” says O’Carroll. “Each company’s data was contained in different systems and applications so it was impossible to integrate or consolidate those systems in the form they were in. That is why we had to do what we did in moving to a centralised ERP system.”

As new companies are acquired and their processes integrated with the ERP system, O’Carroll says the biggest challenge Greenstar’s IT team faces is trying to maintain data integrity. “It varies from site to site,” he says. “Some are very good, while others are poor. There is a lot of knowledge in people’s heads and a lot of processes are undocumented.” By way of example he says that an employee who has been with a company for many years may have a perfectly workable routine, but as it is not documented, the company does not know how to replicate it should that employee leave. “We are now very strict about setting down our processes in writing and ensuring that people adhere to them. But this always takes time.”

Setting sites on comms

In technical terms, O’Carroll says IT integration is usually straightforward. “Our biggest problem is usually getting the right connectivity to the site. By their very nature MRFs and landfills tend to be in remote locations and it can sometimes be difficult to get proper telecommunications services to them.” This situation led to Greenstar centralising all its services at its Millennium Park site. It now hosts a call centre in which 20 to 25 people deal with all enquiries from customers. Using a Cable & Wireless contact centre platform the contact centre is also linked to depots around the country.

As well as that, the company has upgraded its telecommunications network from a point-to-point WAN to a multiprotocol layer switching (MPLS) network from Eircom. Greenstar staff now use IP phones, also supplied by Cable & Wireless, a factor which has greatly reduced telecommunications costs. “We found that 25pc of our phone bill was internal depot-to-depot calls,” says O’Carroll. “We now have free internal calls, so that has been a big saving for us.”

The MPLS network has also helped to improve the reliability and performance of Greenstar’s communications. “We now have full visibility of the network using monitoring software from Crannog Software,” says O’Carroll. “We used not to know who was doing what and where and if there was a problem, we couldn’t locate it accurately. Now if the network starts to run slowly we can identify exactly where the problem is and address it specifically. That’s been a great improvement.”

O’Carroll says the core objective of the IT department is to establish a core network and to ensure continuous uptime. “We have made a lot of investments in redundancy because we cannot afford to have the system down at all,” he says. The company runs its own data centre which is heavily clustered for reliability and has “as much redundancy as possible”.

Technology in the trash

Putting in place central systems to manage customer care and financial processes is only part of the investment in IT that Greenstar has undertaken. Increasingly, IT is finding its way into the trucks, bins and skips that carry the waste from customers’ sites to the company’s depots.

When a customer service representative at the Millennium Park call centre receives an order, he or she notifies the dispatcher at the Greenstar depot most appropriate for that customer. The dispatcher issues a delivery docket to a driver who brings it to the customer site along with the skip. After a few days the driver returns to collect the skip and the signed delivery docket which is returned to the dispatcher who scans it into the main ERP system. If it is a core customer, the docket will be compared against the transaction and issued with an invoice.

Currently a document management system is used to scan paper dockets into the core ERP application. To make the system more foolproof, Greenstar is looking to replace the paperwork with an all-electronic process. “Humans being humans, the paper-based system doesn’t always work the way it is supposed to,” says O’Carroll. “Dockets get left in pockets or don’t get filled in properly.”

The new system will see drivers issued with handheld devices that will contain electronic dockets for customers to sign on-screen. “We have already carried out a very successful initial trial in one of our depots,” says O’Carroll. “We are currently carrying out another trial and if it proves successful, we will roll out the system to all our depots.”

As well as being more reliable, the advantage of the new system is that it will eliminate the need to print out jobsheets and dockets for drivers and the process of scanning in the dockets once they return to base. Furthermore, Greenstar is planning to integrate wireless GPRS modems in the handheld devices so that jobsheets and dockets can be transmitted remotely to and from the trucks.

This will greatly boost the efficiency of the overall customer service because Greenstar will be able to give customers much more detailed and reliable information about when their drivers will deliver and pick up skips. “Until now we could tell people what day we would arrive but we couldn’t give them an exact time,” says O’Carroll. “Now we will be able to know exactly what is going on each day and be able to tell customers when our drivers can be expected.”

Trucks are becoming increasingly hi-tech. Those collecting domestic waste now have rear-end loaders that automatically scan the chips now embedded in most bins so that they can charge customers for the correct number of collections. “We are also working to introduce onboard weighing of bins and skips,” says O’Carroll. Traditionally, trucks with empty skips are weighed on a weighbridge at the depot before they leave and again after they return laden with waste. The customer is charged for the difference.

“With onboard weighing and wireless delivery of electronic jobsheets and dockets there will soon be no reason for lorries to return to the depot at all except to dispose of the waste,” explains O’Carroll.

By David D’Arcy