Managing Maintenance With Electronic Speed

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If you doubt the ability of shop supervisors or fleet managers to respond instantly to a garbage truck malfunction while it’s out on the route and without even talking to the driver, consider this:

You’re in your shop or office and your beeper or phone rings. A beeping sound alerts you to check your desktop computer. A message on the screen shows that engine oil pressure on truck No. 19 is dangerously low. While this is happening, No. 19’s driver is automatically alerted over the truck’s radio speaker. Using your computer you look up the repair history of the truck to help diagnose the problem. Thanks to global positioning system (GPS) technology, you can also pinpoint No. 19’s location to find the closest shop or appropriate vendor to handle the problem.

Then you type a message for the driver to pull off the road and wait for help that is already on its way. With a click of your mouse, the message is sent to the truck where it’s converted into a voice message, which the driver hears over the radio speakers. With another click of your mouse, your computer converts the maintenance alert message into an open work order with pertinent data pre-entered. It’s all done in a matter of minutes, without any paperwork and without the driver’s hands ever leaving the steering wheel.

Far-fetched? Not anymore. Not since Dossier OnBoard was introduced in March 2004. Now undergoing field testing, this maintenance management system represents a joint effort by Arsenault Associates of Atco, NJ, which developed the software, and MobileAria, a subsidiary of Delphi based in Mountain View, CA, which developed the hardware.

“There’s nothing else like it,” says Charles Arsenault, president of the fleet maintenance software company. “This is the next level of fleet maintenance automation that the industry has been talking about for years. It will substantially increase productivity and accuracy while reducing downtime and data entry.”

Dossier OnBoard does more than automate the reporting and recording of high-priority maintenance issues, which are detected by MobileAria’s FleetOutlook. Dossier OnBoard also handles less-pressing problems without driver intervention by automatically recording them as open work-pending issues for action at another time. Additionally, Dossier OnBoard automatically records current accurate mileage readings and fuel purchases, eliminating the need for this data entry altogether.

Later in 2004, this team expects to introduce the second phase of Dossier OnBoard at no cost to early adopters. It will automatically record and report pre- and post-trip Department of Transportation vehicle inspections, perform automatic closest/best vendors look-up based on the vehicle’s GPS location, and provide automated driver assignment recording.

This computerized onboard maintenance reporting system represents just the latest in the continuing series of advances in adapting information technology to solid waste collection and the rest of the trucking industry. This technology replaces estimates and guesses with timely, accurate cost and equipment details for controlling repair and maintenance expenses while minimizing truck downtime.

Attacking Problems

These advances include the use of handheld computers and wireless technology, which allow mechanics to review a truck’s repair history, open repair orders, and record driver reports and many other types of maintenance information on the spot – in the shop or parts room, at the fuel island, or around the yard.

“Fleet maintenance software allows you to identify sources of excess costs,” says Mike Ohlinger, president of fleet maintenance software developer Computerized Fleet Analysis Inc. in Addison, IL. “That way, if costs are out of line, you can determine whether it reflects poor maintenance, an accident, or operator abuse. Then you can attack the right problem.”

Today’s software programs allow you to monitor maintenance issues and costs in a broad range of activities. Computerized Fleet Analysis software, for example, offers modules for scheduling preventative maintenance, processing work orders, and tracking such areas as inventories and repair and fuel costs. In all, the software can generate more than 100 different types of reports, depending on your needs.

A mechanic can use these reports, such as a truck’s history of repairs, to help diagnose a new problem or to identify a recurring one. They allow a fleet manager to stay on top of such activities as pending work orders and preventative maintenance schedules. Meanwhile, accounting can use this information to compare costs and profits of various types of trucks, such as sideloaders, rearloaders, or landfill equipment.

Larry Turley, president of Ron Turley Associates (RTA), a fleet maintenance software firm based in Phoenix, AZ, notes other uses of this information technology in the refuse collection business. His company’s RTA Fleet Maintenance software offers the ability to identify immediately any replacement parts that are under warranty. “In some cases, this warranty recapture alone can pay for the software in two or three months,” he says.

This software can also be combined with a Zonar handheld device to conduct a pre-trip/post-trip inspection. After the driver enters any maintenance- or safety-related problems, this system creates a work order to correct them, eliminating the need for paperwork to flow between the driver and the shop.

Another feature is a paperless shop module. Rather than punching a time clock at the beginning and end of the shift, a mechanic clocks in on the computer at the beginning and end of each job or other activity. “This allows the supervisor to see how productively a mechanic is spending time,” Turley notes.

Finding the Right Fit

Despite the time- and money-saving advantages of fleet maintenance software, only about 20% of the truck fleet maintenance programs in the United States are computerized, reports Arsenault.

“For the most part, fleet maintenance management is still behind the technology curve,” he says. “That’s good for the software industry but not for the trucking industry.”

Whether or not such software is right for your solid waste business depends more on the size of your staff than on the size of your truck fleet, notes Turley.

“You need a big enough staff to manage the databases required with this software,” he explains. “It’s a lot to ask of two mechanics who are maintaining a lot of trucks. Staffing can be a real obstacle, even though you’ll probably have more time to manage the data than you might think at first, because this software can save you a lot of time in many areas of your maintenance operation.”

Here are some features to look for when selecting a fleet maintenance software program that best fits your needs, whether you’re a first-time buyer or upgrading to a more robust system.

Ease of Use

The software program should be easy to learn and to use. That includes the ability to enter data and move between different input screens and to correct any mistakes easily. Also, the fewer times you have to enter a particular cost, date, or equipment or part number, the better. That’s where such features as scanning in bar codes and automatic updating pay off. For example, every time you enter a part number on a work order, automation can be used to immediately adjust inventory levels or to compare actual with budgeted repair costs for that piece of equipment.

At least one program allows you to begin using it by entering minimal information, such as vehicle identification number, type, and mileage or hours. That eliminates the need to complete entire sets of tables before you can start working with the program. Such a build-on-the fly approach lets you enter more data later as time permits and as reporting requirements change.

Flexibility

A good maintenance management software program will enable you to set up data entry and reports that fit the unique needs of the waste disposal business. This could include these:

AnchorVocabulary. Can you allow the use of such terms as frontloader, container, or compactor in describing your equipment?

Costs. Can you modify the program to reflect costs in terms of hours of use instead of mileage? Can you group costs under such headings as Hydraulics or Electronics or separate them by residential, commercial, or landfill operations?

Reports. Can you hide or remove input screens for information that you don’t want to track, like expected completion date of a work order or mechanic overtime hours? Similarly, can you add reports or information fields that better fit your operation? What about scheduling maintenance work? Can you tailor your system to reflect different levels of maintenance, such as 150-, 500- and 1,000-hour inspections on each vehicle or to distinguish between preventive maintenance items that are due or are being deferred for a particular truck.

Can you choose to have reports pop up on your screen at a predetermined time or interval or can you select to retrieve them as desired?

Adaptability to Existing Systems

Make sure the software programs fit your computer system, whether it’s a single computer in the shop, one of several in your company’s local business, or part of a much-larger regional or national computer network.

Customer Support

This can be critical to your success and satisfaction. Find out how quickly you can expect assistance when you call technical support for help. That applies both to setting up your system and later as you continue using it. Though more difficult to gauge, the quality of this support is just as important as a prompt Anchorresponse

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