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EVOLVING TECHNOLOGIES

JOHN LOVETT & THOMAS SACCENTE // Times Record

In addition to the ever-evolving medical technologies available through Fort Smith’s health-care providers, the city’s tech world continues to benefit from a presence by the U.S. military and several logistics companies.

The 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard is likely the most high-tech and security sensitive area in the region. The unit flies MQ-9 Reapers and other remotely piloted aircraft overseas from Ebbing Air National Guard Base.

Many of the military personnel live and work in the area, and provide the community with additional tech-savvy minds. A spokesman for the 188th Wing noted there are about 1,000 Airmen who are wing members, and around 325 full-time wing members working on base. This includes various state employees. Recruiters are looking to fill almost 100 positions at the Fort Smith air base.

“There’s plenty of opportunity for aspiring tech wizards in the region who want to join,” Tech Sergeant John E. Hillier III writes.

While many companies rely on third-party agencies to provide software development, one Fort Smith-based company has taken it in-house.

ProPak Corporation, a Fort Smith-based logistics company, has hired 24 software developers to write computer programs tailored to their customers’ needs.

Justin Marshal, chief commercial officer for ProPak, runs the technology department from within their restored 110-year-old building overlooking downtown Fort Smith.

“We have a strong commitment to the area,” Marshal said when speaking of recruiting coders and other tech-savvy employees. “The software community is a tight-knit group … This area has the talent, we just may not have the numbers as some other communities do. But we’re making inroads.”

Marshal and others at ProPak stay in touch with the young tech crowd and innovative entrepreneurs in the region with their Hack-a-thon and a company pitch contest in association with StartUp Junkie. The company also has developed relationships with local Fort Smith Public Schools, the new Fort Smith Future School and the Prism Education Center in Fayetteville with a keen interest in business and technology development.

Marshal said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s mandate on coding technology training in Arkansas schools has done a great deal of good for the state’s longterm technology initiatives.

“The governor has raised awareness of coding on a national level and show that opportunities are there” Marshal said.

The governor’s initiative, and efforts from companies like ProPak, have also begun to lift a veil of uncertainty about computer languages — something that impacts everyone, every day.

“It’s certainly nothing to be afraid of,” Marshal said. “My 7- and 9-year-olds play on Code.org all the time. Technology is changing every day. So if you’re not focused on it, a lot is lost. For us, we focus on technology that can get you there, and we’re not going to walk away in the process. We’re building something to solve a problem that evolves every day. And whatever we’re building we want to make it scalable.”

ArcBest, an international logistics company based in Fort Smith, has more than 1,000 employees in the area who also deal daily in a high-tech environment that calls for tracking thousands of vehicles and ships all over the world.

While driverless trucks are being developed by automakers and tech development groups, ArcBest is preparing for other major developments. An ArcBest spokesperson said they don’t think there will be just one major change in the logistics industry but a convergence of many.

“Examples are autonomous technologies, ongoing digital transformation, blockchain advancement and heightened customer expectations for rapid and easy delivery,” writes Kathy Fieweger, communications director for ArcBest. “As goods will still need to travel on equipment to their destinations, both commercial and residential, we foresee continued advances in how that equipment is built, operated and allocated and customers will seek out experts in helping them efficiently manage their supply chains and logistics needs.”

ArcBest management believes there will be a mix of driverless trucks and ones that remain with drivers because some operations are simply too complicated to done completely driverless. Driverless technology, while promising, has a number of hurdles including safety-related, regulatory, legal, operational including rapid decision-making capabilities, information security-related and general acceptance by the public, Fieweger said.

ArcBest does not currently have any driverless vehicles, but like other logistics companies they have technology experts in Fort Smith who monitor all emerging technologies in their industry, as well as other industries, that may have a potential impact on their business.

Fieweger also said they are “always looking for top talent who want to help ArcBest make a tangible difference for our customers.”

Another local company that utilizes technology to a great extent is the Van Buren-based USA Truck, Inc. Kim Littlejohn, vice president and chief technology officer of USA Truck, said technology is keeping the company’s trucks safe on the roads. The company does this in many different ways.

Littlejohn said technology is advancing with regards to automation.

“There are all kinds of sensory safety capabilities on the trucks these days … for lane changes, for the space capacity, and time to react,” Littlejohn said. “The trucks will automatically break when they’re sensing a slowdown in the traffic up ahead.”

USA Truck has cameras in its trucks as well. Littlejohn said she believes that has been the most pivotal, useful technology the company has put in place so far from its perspective.

These cameras are both inward and outward facing, which allows the company to observe both good and bad driver behavior.

The cameras also allow the company to provide coaching, in addition to rewards and recognition, to do real-time event coaching with its drivers.

USA Truck also employs telematics technology, allowing the drivers to communicate with the company when they are on the road. An aspect of the Electronic Logging Devices mandate and the telematics technology will give the company more engine information and new data to analyze.

“You could start preventing maintenance breakdowns before they happen looking at the data patterns and that kinds of things,” Littlejohn explained. “You can keep the trucks safe by repairing things in advance. There’s just a lot of good information that we’re going to get from these new solutions that wasn’t available to us before.”

“So we’re finding a huge transition from the normal mainstays in the cab. It’s an all-inclusive solution to more of an a la carte solution where … you have a telematics device, and then you have an application standalone. You have a tablet by which all of the information can be delivered to the driver and that kind of thing, whereas before it was all in one unit.”

The dedicated transportation page on the USA Truck website states the company has industry-leading systems for 24/7 tracking and reporting already installed in its fleet so no extra expenditure is needed for start-up. Littlejohn said that is talking about the company’s main Transportation Management System.

“We partner with one of the leading vendors in the industry for our Transportation Management System, TMS, and we’re just going through an upgrade on that right now,” Littlejohn said.

“And so that’s going to be delivered to our operations group in April 2019, so that’s another big initiative that we’ve got going on.”

Littlejohn said all the technology USA Truck currently uses is third-party. The company’s IT strategic planning took place Jan. 21 and 22, 2019.