Mobile maintenance

Entering accurate and timely data is a challenge – especially in a shop environment.

Bob Nolen literally holds the fleet maintenance operations of Hagey Coach and Tours in his hands. Since 2000, the Souderton, Pa. company has used Dossier, a fleet maintenance management system from Arsenault Associates. Recently, Nolen installed the program on a tablet PC, a mobile computer that resembles an oversized personal data assistant, or PDA.

As the manager of Hagey’s 200-vehicle fleet of motor coaches and school buses, Nolen now has immediate access to important information at the office or at home in the evenings and on weekends. At the office, his office staff manages parts inventory in Dossier using a wireless Bluetooth barcode scanner and the tablet PC. The main server is updated in real time through an 802.11 wireless local-area network (WLAN).

Nolen’s modest step toward a wireless shop is just the beginning. Eventually, he plans to expand WLAN coverage to the parking lot and equip all technicians with handheld computers. The company’s technicians would be able to scan barcodes on vehicles and create electronic work orders on the spot, and they also could view pending work orders and check the availability of parts.

Hagey Coach and Tours is among a growing number of fleets adopting wireless applications and mobile computers to increase the productivity of their fleet maintenance operations. As functionality and competition for these technologies increase – and as prices decrease – is now the right time to consider their potential value to your shops? Or is the technology still too cutting-edge and unproven for your comfort?

Simplifying work orders
When using any fleet management system, entering accurate and timely data can be a challenge – and those challenges usually are more difficult when data entry occurs in a shop environment. To increase the efficiency and accuracy of data entry, some fleets use PC workstations installed on the shop floor. Technicians can open and close their own work orders electronically using a keyboard, barcode scanner or touchscreen for a paperless workflow process.

Mobile computers enable technicians to capture information faster and more precisely than a PC workstation, say some fleet managers and software vendors. Rather than wait for an unoccupied PC workstation, a technician can complete work orders anywhere in the shop using a mobile device with a built-in barcode scanner, touchscreen or pen-based data entry tool.

Watkins & Shepard has used mobile computers for about 10 years. The company operates 650 trucks, 23 terminals and five shops throughout the country. Each day the shop foreman at each facility gets pending work orders from the company’s Squarerigger fleet maintenance system. After doing a physical yard check and getting each vehicle’s dispatch status, the foreman prioritizes and verbally assigns jobs to technicians, says Kelly O’Toole, parts manager at the company’s main maintenance facility in Missoula, Mont. After receiving an assignment, technicians start an electronic work order process.

At its Missoula shop, Watkins & Shepard has 12 technicians that work in three service bays. Each bay has a “board” where several handheld computers are located, O’Toole says. A technician starts a new work order using a Squarerigger application on a Symbol handheld computer. To complete a work order, he enters the truck number, mileage, type(s) of services performed and the amount of time the service required. He also attaches parts to the work order by scanning the barcodes attached to parts.

“The best thing is the fact that (technicians) enter it in the handheld and not on paper, and that’s the end of it,” O’Toole says. “No one has to take their paperwork and decipher it.” At the end of the day, the Symbol computers are placed in their cradles, and the completed work orders are downloaded and synced to a server, O’Toole says.

Some fleets have added wireless networking – typically an 802.11 WLAN – in their shops for a real-time, paperless workflow process using handheld computers.

Siemens Transportation Group uses Fleet Assistant from Cetaris to manage maintenance throughout its combined fleet of more than 600 trucks and 1,800 trailers. To date, the Saskatchewan, Canada-based carrier has implemented the system in four of its 10 different trucking divisions.

Each technician uses a Symbol MC50 handheld computer with a wireless mobile application to enter work order information. Through a WLAN, managers using Fleet Assistant on their desktop PCs can assign work orders electronically throughout the day to individual technicians.

Ken Price, corporate director of fleet services for Siemens, says monitoring productivity on the shop floor in real time is one of the main benefits of the system. “You do not have to wait until (technicians) punch out and write up repair requests at the end of the day,” Price says. “I can go online in my system and see what the technicians are doing in Toronto, such as what truck and what line item they are working on.”

The application also gives management the ability to track indirect labor. With handhelds, technicians record indirect labor for activities between work orders. Price can monitor, for example, how long it takes a technician to start a truck and bring it into the shop during wintertime.

Typical of how most people respond to change, Price says that technicians often are fearful of using mobile computers at first. Their common complaint is that the handheld computers will “hold us to a standard,” Price says.

“I tell them I want to get some productivity, but my primary concern is to capture what we are doing to the trucks – to know what is failing, and to know what is coming in the shop,” he says.

Limiting factors
Most software vendors say handheld computers offer speed and convenience for data entry. But not all agree that the devices present useful information back to the technician.

Eric Richer, president of Richer Systems, which provides the Enrich fleet management system, contends that the screen size of handhelds is too small to give technicians the information they need to perform engine diagnostics or view a vehicle’s repair history, parts requirements or upcoming preventive maintenance (PM) work.

Kevin Seidl, vice president and general manager of Scully Leasing, agrees. In the past, Scully Leasing – a full-service leasing company based in Fontana, Calif. – has used handheld computers to service its 3,000 vehicles in its six maintenance facilities across the country. But now Scully management has decided to use PC workstations and notebook computers to run the Enrich software system.

Without using handhelds, Seidl can track the productivity of technicians throughout the day in real time from his office, as technicians open and close work orders. The efficiency of each technician is measured relative to an assigned time standard.

But even with a screen size of four to five inches, the latest handheld computers on the market using Microsoft’s PocketPC operating system have significant screen functionality, says Ric Bedard, president of Cetaris. Some of the latest features – such as high-resolution color screens, dropdown lists and a feature that converts natural handwriting on the screen to text – can significantly increase the speed and accuracy of data entry by technicians, he says.

“It is easier to do work on wireless,” Bedard says. “It’s not just about screen size.”

Bedard says the screen size is sufficient for technicians to operate the software as they would on a desktop PC, such as when looking up a vehicle’s repair history. They also can use other third-party applications on the same device such as diagnostics software or a Web browser to search through a vendor’s Web-based parts catalog.

“The technologies are stable now, the market is stable, and fleets are starting to make investments,” he says.

A possible use for mobile computers is for technicians to obtain detailed vehicle repair instructions or manuals on the spot using an application such as Tractor-trailer.net from Mitchell 1. Tractor-trailer.net is a heavy-duty vehicle service and repair information database. The application has the potential to integrate alongside any diagnostic or fleet maintenance management system on a wireless computer, says Susan Fall, a spokesperson for Mitchell 1.

On the horizon
More fleet maintenance managers would like to take advantage of new technology to increase productivity, but “the world of wireless technology, when it comes to shop operations, is still very cutting-edge,” says Charles Arsenault, president of Arsenault Associates.

To move toward a real-time wireless workflow system, most fleets start in parts inventory – an area where they perceive new technology will have the biggest return on investment. A handheld computer with integrated wireless communications, barcode scanners and pen-based data-entry tools saves time by eliminating downloading and re-keying of information, Arsenault says.

“Most people are focusing on using technology for what they understand and what they know how to deploy,” he says.

Competition between consumer and industrial manufacturers of handheld computers such as PDAs continues to drive down prices. Several years ago, mobile computers rugged enough for a shop environment cost several thousand dollars; today, computers such as the Symbol MC50 are about $1,000. Fleets also can use consumer handhelds such as Dell PocketPCs for less than $1,000. At these price points, fleets are more willing to test new equipment on the shop floor and trust their technicians’ hands, Arsenault says.

Today, wireless is the fastest-growing portion of Cetaris’ Fleet Assistant software, Bedard says. Several large fleet customers now are using handheld computers and real-time wireless applications on the shop floor, including one customer with more than 50,000 assets, he says.

Fleet maintenance software developer Squarerigger recently launched SQ.7 Mobile Shop, a Microsoft.Net-based application that works on any PocketPC device, says Ed Cooper, Squarerigger president.

One of main features of SQ.7 Mobile Shop is instant communication between the technician and parts manager; via the handheld, a mechanic can send the parts manager a request for parts, which appears immediately on the parts manager’s screen for fulfillment. Squarerigger also recently developed a PocketPC-based tire management solution to track tire costs and performance from cradle to grave, Cooper says.

Increasing the productivity of managers and technicians is one way to offset rising costs for equipment, maintenance and operations. To accomplish this, the demand for faster, more accurate information on maintenance operations is driving new interest in mobile technology.
Whether or not your shop is ready is another matter – but in the meantime, Bob Nolen already is planning his next deployment. “Wireless capabilities are getting greater all the time,” he says.


Watching key indicators
Maintenance scheduling meets automation

To prevent unscheduled vehicle downtime and minimize vehicle operating costs, fleet managers typically schedule preventive maintenance services using key metrics such as vehicle mileage, engine hours and fuel economy.

To capture these metrics from the vehicle automatically, many fleets use features from their onboard computing and mobile communications systems. Through a software interface with fleet maintenance management software, fleets can get a daily view of what scheduled actions – such as work orders – need to be completed based on their predetermined parameters for these metrics.

Fleets can achieve this level of automation without using full-scale onboard computers and satellite or cellular communications, says Tal Ezra, president and chief executive officer of SCI Distribution, a Clearwater, Fla.-based company that develops wireless fuel and fleet management systems.

“We wanted to bring a solution that would be very cost-effective to the customer,” Ezra says. SCI developed SmartMile, a small device that attaches to a vehicle and communicates through radio frequency (RF) to a gate antenna as a vehicle enters or exits a yard. All data captured by SmartMile can be integrated in real time with third-party maintenance software, Ezra says. The system – which starts at $150 per unit, with volume discounts- collects vehicle miles, engine hours, vehicle number, and the date and time the vehicle entered or exited the yard.

Radio technologies, including radio frequency identification, are becoming more popular in automating the collection of maintenance data. For example, Stemco last year introduced the Bat RF system, which offers a suite of applications for tracking tire pressure and hub mileage through handheld readers that greatly accelerate data collection.

“BAT RF has worked well in identifying tires that need air added much earlier than possible beforehand,” says Todd Dean, president of Eagle Carbon Inc., an 18-truck tank carrier based in Summersville, W.Va. “This has really helped us see big cost savings for our fleet.”

Hopping on the data bus
In addition to radio communications, the SmartMile system also captures data, such as fault codes, via the J1708 data bus, Ezra says.

Fleets increasingly are interested in integrating fault codes and other data from the vehicle’s J1708 data bus into maintenance management systems, by pulling in data from onboard computing and wireless communication systems directly.

Ric Bedard, president of Cetaris – developer of the Fleet Assistant fleet maintenance management system – says that some customers use fault codes to automatically generate work orders. Some customers also have created a macro on the onboard computer that drivers can use to send vehicle condition reports. Depending on the urgency, the macro can generate a repair order automatically in the system, and a red tag could be used for safety-related items that might require immediate attention.

Even though technology can capture and report multiple levels of maintenance information automatically, fleets still have to use sophisticated software to troubleshoot today’s engines and vehicle electrical systems. That’s why Scully Leasing, a full-service leasing company with 3,000 vehicles, recently decided to equip its mobile maintenance fleet with laptops and diagnostic software from eight different engine manufacturers.

“In the first quarter, we fielded diagnostics,” says Ken Seidl, vice president of Fontana, Calif.-based Scully Leasing. “We are only learning now how it is changing the role (of technicians).” Seidl says that in the future, he will be looking to integrate information uncovered by diagnostic software into the company’s Enrich fleet maintenance management software from Richer Systems.

“As trucks run to and from multiple facilities, this is a major step in understanding the entire piece of equipment – not just what the tech at one location sees,” Seidl says.

With accurate and timely communication of a vehicle’s condition and key metrics, maintenance managers can focus on how to complete the work that needs to be done each day quickly and efficiently – with no guesswork.