Choosing the right shop software

The term maintenance software covers a wide range of products. At one end, there are complex systems that tie the shop floor technician into a corporate-wide information network, giving everyone in the organization access to repair and maintenance data in varying forms and levels of detail. At the other end are stand-alone programs running on a single PC in the shop office, electronically organizing

The term “maintenance software” covers a wide range of products. At one end, there are complex systems that tie the shop floor technician into a corporate-wide information network, giving everyone in the organization access to repair and maintenance data in varying forms and levels of detail.

At the other end are stand-alone programs running on a single PC in the shop office, electronically organizing work orders, PM schedules, and other basic maintenance information in quickly accessible reports. And in between are systems that split the difference with widely varying levels of features, functions and costs.

Picking the right maintenance package for your shop depends on many variables, including fleet size, in-house information technology capabilities, available capital, maintenance objectives and even top management interest in maintenance activities. No matter how complex or simple the system, however, good maintenance software shares two common characteristics: It's easy to enter the data on or near the shop floor, and it's easy to get at that data in whatever form you need.

For 10 years, Manfredi Motor Transit collected maintenance information with a home-grown “green screen” system. With a fleet of 500 tractors and 700 bulk-liquid trailers maintained at 18 facilities throughout the 48 states, the system did provide good statistical information about maintenance activities, says John Hazenfield, formerly senior vice president of operations and now chief information officer. But with time-consuming batch entry of all shop paperwork by clerical staff, it was too labor-intensive. And “our maintenance people couldn't get a report without IT help,” he says. “It became too expensive to operate.”

About a year ago, Manfredi began installing a new Windows-based package that when fully deployed will offer real-time data from the shop floor integrated with all of the fleet's other information systems.

“Our main facility in Newbury, Ohio, has touchscreens on the shop floor that let mechanics enter repair and maintenance data directly,” says Hazenfield. “We're still in the batch mode at the other facilities, but we're getting ready to put touchscreens in those shops right now.” Even those without direct data entry allow mechanics to call up a complete vehicle history along with electronic work orders and parts lists on a shop computer terminal.

The new system, ShopLink from TMT Software, was installed as a fully integrated module of Manfredi's TMW Software dispatch system under a partnership agreement between the two developers. The real-time system has also been integrated with the fleet's financial and accounting packages. “We're working on the warranty side right now,” says Hazenfield, “and we expect to continue expanding integration.”

The goal in moving to the new maintenance system was “to have a users' tool for everybody in the organization” from the shop to dispatch to top management, he explains. “Now with the Windows (interface) and real-time data, everyone can get the reports they want when they want them.”

SOME STAND ALONE

While organization-wide integration is often the holy grail for IT, many fleet operations are quite satisfied with dedicated maintenance systems and see no immediate need to shoulder the expense and effort of full integration.

Cream-O-Land Dairies has been using a stand-alone system since 1987 to separately track maintenance activities and costs for 120 delivery trucks and nearly 180 refrigeration units. The system, Dossier 32 from Arsenault Assocs., has been updated continuously over the last 14 years, but the dairy has never felt the need to integrate it with other information systems, says Greg Walsh, the fleet's director of maintenance.

Relying on batch data entry, Cream-O-Land uses its shop system to track repair histories, PMs, mechanic productivity and parts usage, as well as manage parts ordering and maintenance scheduling. “We use almost every function of the system except P&L tracking,” says Walsh.

“Our operating expense per unit is different from the financial numbers used by accounting,” he explains. “If the company needs (equipment cost) information, say to evaluate potential new business, we can extract it here (in the shop) and pass it on to them. It's very easy to get information out of this system in any way you need.”

Another Dossier 32 user who is satisfied with a stand-alone system, at least for the present, explains that he wanted two things when his fleet decided to replace its aging maintenance software two years ago. With a regional petroleum distribution fleet of 900 vehicles that range from vans to tractors, the company wanted maintenance software that was “user-friendly and gave us data that we could use to improve maintenance,” says the fleet director, who prefers to remain unidentified.

With the new system “we can do a cost analysis for one truck or for the entire fleet,” he says. “We can get a one-line CPM or drill down into the details if we need to identify a problem. The other systems we looked at restricted the reports available, but this system is flexible and gives us the customized reports we want.”

It's possible that the fleet might move to some form of limited system integration in the future. “We're capturing different kinds of data (in the shop), but it might be useful to at least generate combined reports with other company systems,” says the fleet director.

PAPERWORK VS. REAL WORK

Rural Metro Corp. provides full maintenance and repair services for separate fire, ambulance and administrative vehicle fleets in Mesa, Ariz. With seven departments generating maintenance data, including separate PM, general repair, major repair, refurbishing and body shops, the company's old maintenance software couldn't keep up with tracking the 200 vehicles in its care.

“Repair and PM histories were inaccurate, and coordinators were spending all their time on paperwork,” says John Santori, assistant fleet manager for the company's Mesa, Ariz. shop. “But worst of all, there was no way to break out data from vehicle histories.”

Eighteen months ago, Rural Metro switched to MaintStar, a stand-alone Windows-based system from Bender Engineering Inc. Coordinators still generate work orders when vehicles come in for repairs, but with complete records a click away, they can now route a vehicle to other departments if, for example, the system shows a PM or other work is also due. The coordinators also close out the work orders, entering data into the system from paper records, although technicians now enter time and parts information directly using a shop-floor terminal. In addition, the shop terminal gives technicians access to over two years of repair history for each vehicle.

The system's Window's environment and easy data entry has cut the coordinators' recordkeeping workload in half, according to Santori. “They have time to do the rest of their work, and we also get more accurate records,” he says.

The major advantage, however, is the improved reporting. “It has lots of standard reports, and there's a query module that will let you generate just about any customized report if you have some experience with (Microsoft) Access,” says Santori. “For example, we can find out how much money we've spent on a specific vehicle over a specified period of time, or see how many times a certain part has failed in the entire fleet.”

Different fleets, different operations, different systems, but the same requirements for their maintenance software — easy to get the data in and easy to get it out. Choosing the right maintenance system for your fleet from all the options available isn't easy. Just keep those two criteria in mind, though, and you should be happy with your final choice.

Shop Online

The hottest trend in software these days is the application service provider (ASP), and fleet maintenance software isn't going to be left behind.

In the simplest terms, ASP means the user rents the software, which remains on the developer's computers and is accessed by the fleet over the Internet or a dedicated telephone connection. Advantages for a fleet include no complex software to install or maintain beyond a standard web browser, no expensive high-powered computers to run the software, no expensive data storage devices to protect your data, and monthly service charges instead of large capital expenditures.

While the concept is simple, ASP can be structured in many ways, and no single standard service agreement has yet to evolve. If you're interested in one of the new maintenance ASPs now entering the market, the following pointers are offered by Arsenault Associates Inc., a maintenance software developer that has recently released its own ASP offering called 24/7 Fleet Online (http://truckfleet.com).

  • There are two common types of ASP, dedicated and open system. A dedicated service operates hardware and software at their location that is used solely by one fleet. No other customer uses that system. A dedicated ASP usually requires an up-front payment and long-term service agreement. In an open system ASP, the provider owns the computers, software and communications system. The system is used by multiple customers, although each has its own secure database. Fees are usually month-to-month subscriptions, and set-up fees, if any, are small. The only requirement for the fleet is Internet access and a standard web browser.

  • The subscription agreement should include beginning and ending dates, as well as a termination clause that spells out penalties for early termination. Payment terms should also be detailed. Many open system ASPs require monthly payment in advance.

  • Ask if there are extra fees for startup or extras such as converting old data for use by the new system or user training. Get a commitment on support and help desk services.

  • Understand exactly what type of computer equipment and communications system you must provide.

  • Be sure any agreement specifies that you own the data in the system. It may be wise to include a clause covering service, fees and data ownership if the ASP company is sold.

  • Get a guarantee that the ASP provider will keep all software and hardware current and under support agreements during the term of your subscription. Agree on maximum system downtime and penalties if the ASP exceeds that maximum. Generally 1% downtime is considered acceptable, with exceptions for routine maintenance and acts of God.



“There are no boiler-plate ASP service agreements, so you may want some help negotiating a good agreement,” says Charles Arsenault, the developer's president. “However, limit your attorney's input to items relating to protecting your core business. We've seen legal staffs suffocate otherwise good relationships between customers and ASP service providers by getting involved with technical details.”

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