Old habits don’t compute

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What do onboard computers, satellite communications, digital dashboards and smart engines, tires and fuel islands have in common with America’s fleet maintenance shops? Surprisingly little, according to a survey conducted by Arsenault Associates, Atco, N.J., which found that 79 percent of U.S. fleets still do not have or use fleet maintenance management software.

Of course, you could argue that the sample size – 2,138 fleets – isn’t statistically projectable to the fleet universe. And one could assume that, because the survey was completed last April, that percentage might be a little lower by now.

But if it’s anywhere close, that’s an unthinkable, ocean-sized information void.
So, what gives? Arsenault President Charles Arsenault partially blames “a lack of administrative organization and use of standards in a large percentage of America’s 238,000-plus on-road fleets of 10 units or more.”

Other contributing factors cited by Aresenault are:

  • The average fleet manager lacks the authority, skills or budget necessary to evaluate and purchase software on his own.
  • Rarely are the maintenance manager’s technology needs a priority for the people who do have the needed authority, skills and budget. Remember, maintenance is not a profit center and is often viewed as a necessary evil.
  • Forecasting fleet maintenance technology’s return on investment is difficult, as many fleets have no base cost and cost-per-mile starting point from which to measure.
  • There is no time to implement and no one to run the software once it’s installed.

Yet surveyed fleets that were not using maintenance software indicated several areas they would like to automate. These include, in ranking order: asset management; inspection scheduling; maintenance history access; cost per mile; parts inventory; warranty management; labor productivity; and fuel and tire management.

Surveyed fleets that do use maintenance software confirm that such automation is financially beneficial. The following averaged values were reported by fleets during the first three years of maintenance information technology implementation:

  • Maintenance costs – 12 percent reduction;
  • Parts inventory costs – 10 percent reduction;
  • Labor productivity – 15 percent increase;
  • Fuel costs – 3 percent reduction;
  • Tires – 5 percent savings.

And these savings do not reflect the hard-to-quantify value of accountability and administrative consistency.

But even among fleets reaping the rewards of maintenance software, there seems to be room for improvement. According to Arsenault’s survey, only one third of such fleets use 40 to 60 percent of their software’s features daily, and keep their versions current and supported. Another third uses only specific features of its programs as needed. The final third, basically, doesn’t use its maintenance software at all.

Moreover, the survey found that the typical, on-road fleet of 125 units with a maintenance shop uses its maintenance program only 2.5 hours per day.

So, what can a maintenance manager do to make the most of information technology? “Maintenance managers need to learn how to ask upper management for the resources they need,” says Arsenault. “Information technology and business courses at community colleges, as well as discussions with peers at Technology and Maintenance Council meetings, can be very helpful in preparing a presentation.”

And the process should get easier if some of Arsenault’s predictions come true. These include: more consolidation of technology companies and more vendor alliances; more original equipment, onboard and integrated technology, as well as services that automate labor or paper-intensive processes; a continuing decline in technology costs; and more collaboration among tech firms, OEMs, dealers and fleets in service/product development.

In short, maintenance managers who don’t embrace information technology will have fewer and fewer excuses. And, according to Arsenault, they’ll “find it harder to compete, and will be left behind.”