The softer side of shops

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Most fleets today use some type of computer software to manage basic shop activities, such as the scheduling and recording of preventive maintenance and repair activities. Increasingly, maintenance managers are taking advantage of more sophisticated packages that can help carriers become more cost-efficient, manage warranties and even run a paperless shop.

The best option for you isn’t necessarily the most expensive or feature-packed. Take stock of your situation. What kind of computer equipment, if any, do you have available for technicians? What is your staff’s proficiency and comfort with computers? The size and complexity of your fleet and maintenance capabilities obviously play a role as well. The most important question, of course, is whether you need to change your current system at all.

Getting started
For many, the move to the computer age was slow in coming. Before 1995, the Highway Division of the Dutchess County Public Works Department in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., “didn’t even have a computer,” says Bob Leroy, stockroom supervisor. The division used a card system to record PMs on its nearly 100 trucks. FleetMax operates in a client-server environment, runs on a Windows operating system, and has three levels of access for security purposes.

“We thought we had a good maintenance program,” Leroy says. But after the Dutchess County agency deployed the modular FleetMax system six years ago, “we found out how bad it was.” For the first time, he says, maintenance staff realized that some PM work was not being done on a scheduled basis and still other work wasn’t done at all. Shop management has changed significantly, adds Leroy.

Fleet managers may not avoid computerized management due to cost concerns, but even inexpensive software can produce significant cost savings. Mike Ward Sr., general manager of Atlantic Shores Distributors in Wilmington, N.C., has been using K-Jon Software’s Vehicle Record System (VRS) for about two years. VRS doesn’t provide PM scheduling, but Ward likes the “bare bones” Windows-based system because it’s “incredibly simple and extremely inexpensive.” The system, which Atlantic Shores uses to record maintenance work on the fleet’s 20 trucks, costs $150. It replaced a system that had cost the beer distributorship $1,000 up front, plus a $500 annual maintenance fee, Ward says.

Given the fact that software can be relatively inexpensive, why does it take so long for many shops to switch from paper to computers? In many cases, the answer lies in the daunting task of transcribing historical data into the new software.

For Builders FirstSource, wholesale building materials supplier based in Arlington, Texas, entering the data on 150 trucks into the FleetWise system three years ago certainly was a chore, says Ron Richter, the company’s vehicle maintenance manager. But now that the job is done, Richter’s staff is capitalizing on the functions and tracking benefits offered by FleetWise, which is marketed by All About Computers.

Particularly valuable to Richter is the system’s ability to access a component’s service history when a mechanic is trying to diagnose a current problem. He also likes the system’s reporting capability, especially one report that shows a detailed analysis of month-to-month costs.

Builders FirstSource’s three other facilities in north Texas also use the modular FleetWise, which is known for strong warranty administration capabilities for components and parts.

Greater efficiency
Keying in paper records is frustrating, but many fleets find that time “lost” to this endeavor is more than offset by the future gains in productivity and efficiency from converting to an electronic system. Before Atlas Van Lines started using the Transman Interactive (TINA) Mechanic Work Station & Shop Planner, marketed by TMTsoftware Co., it often took two or more hours to write up a work order for a $10,000 to $12,000 refurbishment of one of its trailers.

Atlas deployed the TINA system in May 2000 at its Evansville, Ind., shop. Since then, preparation of work orders for major jobs takes only a few minutes, says Monte Vanover, maintenance director. About 500 of the household goods mover’s company-owned 4,000 trailers are on the TINA system. Atlas doesn’t use TINA for tractors because independent contractors operate them all.

The TINA system lets mechanics record all their functions and activities via the paperless system’s touch-screen monitor on the shop floor. As a result, Vanover has constant, real-time access to information on what his staff is doing. Better yet, the comments mechanics enter into the system are legible, says Vanover, and he doesn’t have to decipher smudgy, grease-stained write-ups.

Atlas mechanics no longer waste time searching for their next work order after they have completed a repair job. “It’s right there in the system,” Vanover says. And if a mechanic has to pick up where another mechanic had last worked on a job, a record of the work that has been completed is accessible on the system’s monitor.

Software can be used not just to make a mechanic’s job more efficient; it can be used to measure the efficiency of the mechanic himself. That’s one way Jeff May uses Peregrine Systems’ Fleet Management software in management of more than 2,000 units, including 250 Class 8 linehaul and dump trucks and many pieces of construction equipment. May is fleet manager for Alyeska Pipeline, which runs 800 miles from Alaska’s North Slope to Valdez.

The Peregrine system’s ability to measure time helped improve productivity at Alyeska’s facilities, May says. “We measure direct versus indirect time. Direct time is actual wrench turning on a repair, whereas indirect time means a mechanic is not billing time to a vehicle. Now that our people know that they’re being measured for productivity, our direct time has been dramatically improved.”

In one recent month, May found that productive time was up 7 percent. May now plans to implement labor standards so Alyeska can benchmark how long it takes to do certain tasks. That information will point out needs for training or employee development and help pinpoint locations where there are productivity problems. “For example, is lack of shop space keeping a mechanic from completing a task on time?”

Precision counts
Another advantage of software over paper is the reduction in problems due to human error and forgetfulness. Winter temperatures along the Alyeska Pipeline drop as low as -120 degrees F with the wind-chill. Failure to follow proper maintenance schedules on the vehicles used by Alyeska maintenance crews could be catastrophic for Alyeska equipment, as well as its employees.

The Peregrine system notifies Alyeska technicians of upcoming PMs, DOT and crane inspections. May credits the system with helping to reduce breakdowns 15 percent and to achieve a 95 percent on-time completion rate for PMs. Before Alyeska began using the Peregrine system, the completetion rate for PMs was 80 percent, he says.

There are times, of course, when mechanics can’t get to a job on time. That’s why the system’s “Delay” code allows mechanics at Alyeska’s three repair depots and six satellite locations to input reasons why a repair was delayed. “For example, we might not have enough shop space to do a repair, or a part might not be available,” May says. “By knowing this beforehand, a mechanic can see what jobs are waiting on labor and pick those jobs to complete.”

The Peregrine system helps with the assignment of equipment, May says. Because the system tracks mileage data on all of the fleet’s trucks, no matter where they’re domiciled, Alyeska can easily move low-mileage vehicles to areas where they will see higher mileage duty. And when there is an immediate need for dump trucks, for example, the system can locate those not in use and activate them for duty.

Flexible applications
Another reason to obtain a good maintenance software system is equipment complexity. For many fleets, keeping up with the number of equipment types alone is a huge chore.

The East Farmingdale Volunteer Fire Co., based on New York’s Long Island, has used the Dossier system from Arsenault Associates for about six years. The department, which has three stations, operates and maintains: seven fire engines; a 105-foot ladder platform; a 65-foot squirt with an articulated boom and a water pipe attached, which can be controlled from the ground; a heavy rescue truck; three ambulances; an airport crash/rescue truck; and several support vehicles, including an 18-foot box truck with a liftgate that carries supplies for the confined-space/trench rescue team.

The system is also used to manage the maintenance of special equipment on the trucks – such as generators, Hurst tools and explosion meters – and to track mandated inspections and tests of ladders, pumps and ropes.

Arsenault’s tech support staff provides access to several unique databases that are used for functions such as documenting the inspection and testing of hundreds of air bottles that are used with the department’s 70 breathing apparatus packs and recording the maintenance of the radios used by 135 firefighters, 15 junior members and 20 ladies auxiliary members.

Decision support
Some trucking operations truly leverage their computer systems’ capabilities. Alyeska Pipeline uses its Peregrine Fleet Management system to help direct the company’s vehicle purchasing and disposal decisions by using the cost-per-mile or cost-per-hour data it can generate. “Before, the decisions were intuitive; now, they’re “educated and defensible because we’re able to get the ultimate use of our equipment without sacrificing resale value,” May says.

Likewise, D.M. Bowman, Williamsport, Md., uses the Equipment Management System, marketed by Halberstadt & Co., for spec’ing, budgeting and equipment trade-in decisions.

Chuck Pilger, D.M. Bowman’s technical and training coordinator, especially likes EMS’s vehicle repair history analysis feature, which is programmed to conform to the Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards established by the American Trucking Associations. (For more on VMRS, see “Maintaining good numbers,” July 2001.)

The feature summarizes repair and operating cost data per mile and at the system level, says Pilger. The carrier might refer to cost summaries when, for example, it is writing upgraded repair procedures for a brake system or deciding on which engine system to spec for new trucks.

By using repair history analysis, D.M. Bowman can get a better fix on life-cycle costs. For example, in the past, the carrier ran trucks eight to ten years on the assumption that freedom from financing costs in the latter years outweighed other costs associated with equipment age. But after D.M. Bowman staff gained access through EMS to historical cost data on systems, it began trading in at four years or 400,000 miles. The carrier realized that after that point, says Pilger, the resale value diminishes significantly and repair costs increase disproportionately.

If you are still managing your work orders by paper or just using computers to digitize paper records, it’s time to explore ways to improve your maintenance management dramatically by tapping the power of computers.