Chuck Strahm, systems administrator for AG Trucking, doesn’t think mechanics and computers belong in the same room. He does make an exception, however, when it comes to having them enter data into the company’s maintenance software system.

Each mechanic at the 200-truck, Goshen, Ind.-based company, carries a $1,000, pocket-size computer to enter all the parts, labor and other data processed as “work orders.” As you would imagine, this type of computerized shop is rare indeed.

A 2001 survey by Atco, N.J.-based Arsenault Associates found that 79 percent of 2,138 U.S. fleets with 10 or more vehicles do not use fleet maintenance management software. That’s not to say they didn’t want more technology. This group of non-users indicated they would like to automate such tasks as inspection scheduling, maintenance history access, parts inventory and warranty management.

Technology often is touted as a solution to these and other tasks and chores. In the real world, software often fails to perform as promised because of delayed, incomplete and inaccurately entered data. Out of the 21 percent that own maintenance software, one third said they only 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.

During the past few years, forward-thinking fleets like AG Trucking have begun using new input technologies to dramatically increase the accuracy and timeliness of data entry in the shop. These input devices include, but are not limited to, barcode scanners, handheld PDAs, touch-screen monitors and various types of wireless communications.

If fully utilized, maintenance software can significantly help fleets reduce maintenance costs.

Know your parts
To be a useful asset, your maintenance management system must offer easy and uniform data entry and the flexibility to let you use the data however you want. Often, powerful computing potential is short-circuited by a data-entry setup that doesn’t work well in a shop environment.

“Several years ago, we realized that a technician’s handwriting is a lot like a doctor’s handwriting,” says Dan Umphress, vice president of fleet maintenance for FedEx Freight East. “With typical systems, someone is going to have to read that handwriting and there are many errors with that.” The proper remedy, Umphress says, does not call for putting keyboards and computers in the shop and asking technicians to type in the data themselves. “We realized several years ago there must be a better way.”

The “better way,” Umphress says, is to use a barcode system based on the Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards (VMRS). VMRS, developed by the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations, is the trucking industry’s common shorthand for equipment maintenance reporting. (For more information on VMRS, see “Maintaining Good Numbers” CCJ, July 2001, or visit

Many maintenance software vendors incorporate VMRS into their systems to simplify the process of matching each asset and part in their inventory to the proper VMRS code, which identifies parts by equipment category, manufacturer, supplier, etc. Fleets then print out and stick their own barcode label on each part, says Arsenault, whose company makes the Dossier32 and 24/7 Fleet Online maintenance software systems.

As VMRS use continues to grow among fleets, it is possible that someday manufacturers and aftermarket dealers may also use VMRS codes – instead of UPC codes – on their barcode labels to identify parts. Carriers would therefore not have to affix their own barcode labels. What will likely happen first, however, is that manufacturers will supply carriers with a cross-reference of each part with a VMRS code, says David Foster, director of maintenance for Lexington, S.C.-based Southeastern Freight Lines and vice chairman of TMC’s VMRS Codes Committee.

“If the manufacturer has not cross-referenced it already, we have to look it up and assign it ourselves,” Foster says. “If the manufacturers did that beforehand, it would save us a lot of time.” For an additional service fee, some software vendors will do this data conversion process for you – a process which could take months if you do it yourself, says Mark Ashdown, vice president of sales for TMT Software.

Inventory control
One of the most common reasons fleets get maintenance software is to better manage parts inventory and warranties. Since its introduction in the mid 1990s, barcoding is the system many use to keep parts inventory information timely and accurate.

Like many fleets today, Pepsi-Cola & National Brand Beverages LTD, a 220-truck distribution fleet based in Pennsauken, N.J., uses barcodes and scanners to enter parts into inventory and to “charge out” parts to repair orders in its Dossier32 fleet maintenance system from Arsenault Associates.

As new parts come in, an employee enters them into the inventory database by placing printed barcode labels on the parts and scanning them into the system. The barcode label has two stickers. As a technician uses a part, such as a filter, he pulls off one sticker from the label and sticks it on the repair order. To close out a completed repair order, a technician uses a barcode reader to scan in the repair order and the attached part label(s).

“It makes for quick data entry for the mechanic, and for the administration, it gives us a good record for what has been used – there is no mistake on the part number,” says Mark Stone fleet manager for Pepsi-Cola & National Brand Beverages. By using the same procedure at the company’s terminals in Philadelpia, Washington D.C., and in Baltimore, Stone says the company has reduced inventory costs by limiting purchases of “major ticket items” at each facility.

“We can transfer parts down and try to limit what we buy through sharing inventory,” Stone says. The software automatically generates a daily re-order list based on minimum and maximum control levels. After looking over the list, the company faxes or calls in the order to its suppliers.

Truck manufacturers International and Peterbilt offer software systems Diamond Connection 2.0 and TruckCare Connect, respectively, to completely automate the re-ordering process. The software has an automatic dial-up feature that transmits order forms electronically to the carriers’ local International or Peterbilt dealerships overnight. The dealerships can then deliver the parts with the fleets’ customized barcode label – using VMRS or another system – already attached to the parts.

Computers in the shop require extra care, but they may still be better than relying on a technician’s handwriting

“The primary focus (of Diamond Connection 2.0) is to solve inventory management problems of the fleet customer,” says Bill Finn, product manager for Diamond Connection 2.0. “At any fleet, usually mechanics are the ones managing the inventory. At a small shop, the main focus is to get trucks up and running. There is not much time spent managing inventory.”

Productivity count
In addition to using barcode scanners to charge parts to repair orders, many fleets use barcodes to standardize – and simplify – the collection of other data related to a repair order, such as labor.

Ruan Transportation Management Systems, which operates nearly 200 maintenance centers, handles contract maintenance for approximately 16,000 trucks. Next to each shop computer is a small three-ring binder that holds a set of barcodes that include identities for each mechanic at that location, and barcodes symbols that represent each task – such as brake work, a full PM, tire change, etc., says Chad Johnson, Ruan’s vice president of maintenance and vehicle purchasing. When working on a work order, mechanics scan in their identity, the kind of work they’re doing, and start and stop times.

The only text mechanics enter, Johnson says, are short descriptions of the job – but only when necessary. Occasionally a technician may type in, for example, that a bolt broke when replacing a starter or the reason a job took longer than standard.

“We gain a lot of accuracy, and it’s far quicker than sitting there trying to type it all in,” Johnson says. “We want our folks working on trucks, not typing on computers.” Because the company tracks each employee’s time spent on a task, Ruan’s management can run employee labor analysis reports for each employee, shop, repair category, etc. They pay special attention to unapplied time, Johnson says.

Cutting the wires
Although input systems such as barcode scanners can improve the accuracy of data, computers are rarely within arm’s reach for mechanics – even in well-organized shops – as they walk among the parts room, computers, vehicles and everywhere else. In fact, might adding a computer in the shop actually slow down productivity in some cases? To provide more mobility for data entry, some companies have began using handheld devices.

AG Trucking gives each mechanic a Symbol SPT 1800 handheld computer that runs Palm OS-based software. The data entry process of charging parts and labor to a repair order is nearly identical to systems that have a barcode scanner tethered to a computer, as previously described above. The major difference, however, is mobility.

The repair orders from the carrier’s McLeod Software Vehicle Maintenance and Inventory Control system are downloaded into the handhelds through a cradle, Strahm says. After selecting a repair order, a mechanic hits a start timer, and the screen displays a running time so mechanics can monitor their pace. At the end of each shift, AG Trucking’s mechanics return their handhelds to the cradle. The data is then downloaded into the McLeod system.

Strahm says the handhelds, which cost about $1,000 each, haven’t sped up the data entry process for the normal repair work. They have “definitely helped” speed up the process of comparing the actual inventory to what the software says it is. “It’s been amazing since we went with that,” he says. When doing a physical inventory count, an employee scans an item in the parts room and enters the quantity of parts in the handheld – with no paperwork involved. The data is uploaded to the system later.

Before using the handheld pocket computers, Strahm says that the physical inventory process used to take 3 to 4 days to complete. He says they can now do it in one.

Touchscreen systems are another type of uniform data entry structure that can speed up manual processes. TMT Software has offered touchscreen as an upgrade option for its TransMan fleet maintenance system for over three years, Ashdown says.

K&R Express, a 248-truck Midwest regional LTL carrier with corporate headquarters in Hinsdale, Ill., has touchscreen monitors in its shops at all terminal locations, says Dominic Trodgalia, director of maintenance. As mechanics come in each day, their foreman has previously set up work orders in the TransMan system the day before.

“The mechanics come in, touch the screen, enter their ID number, password and touch enter. A list of work for them to do comes up on the screen, and they highlight which job they want to do,” Trodgalia says. “This brings up a work order and they view it, hit post, and they’re set to go on a job.”

After mechanics complete a job, they go to the screen and enter their password again. The TransMan system brings up the job they are working on. The touchscreen system then guides the mechanics through a selection process – similar to a multiple choice test – to input the details of the job, such as how many gallons of oil were added or on which axles did he install brake shoes. They can also scan-in parts with a barcode reader at anytime during the job, Trodgalia says.

“(Touchscreen) has sped up data entry immensely. Before, all our work orders were done in writing and papers would come up all greasy.” An additional benefit is that shop foremen and supervisors at K&R Express can monitor, in real-time, the status of all work orders without walking through the shop.

“They can look at what each mechanic is doing at any time of day while sitting at their desks.”

Victory or defeat?
Many times, your data entry processes, not your maintenance software, prevent you from having real-time maintenance information. Without a uniform and simple process by which your mechanics capture and input data into your maintenance system, the implementation of a maintenance software system will most likely result in failure.

According to Arsenault, up to a third of all efforts to computerize fleet maintenance management ultimately fail to fully implement the fleet program they need. And worse, Arsenault says, is that many of those fleets return to manual systems, if any system at all. But sooner or later, they realize, once again, that there must be a better way of entering data than interpreting greasy, illegible paperwork.

Expecting ROI
If fully utilized, maintenance software can significantly help fleets reduce maintenance costs. The values presented are averages reported by fleets using maintenance management software during the first three years of technology implementation. Values varied by fleet and by industry.

Maintenance costs: 12 percent reduction
Parts inventory costs: 10 percent reduction
Fuel costs: 3 percent reduction
Tires: 5 percent reduction
Labor productivity: 15 percent increase
Source: 2001 survey by Arsenault Associates, Atco, NJ.