The high-tech shop

Even as the first personal computers we're talking the Tandy TRS 80 and Commodore 64 here started elbowing their way onto the desks of progressive fleet managers back in the early 80s, talk came quick and fast about deploying them to streamline maintenance so a paperless shop would become reality. A quarter century later, the PC in all its iterations reigns supreme in workplaces everywhere and a paperless

Even as the first personal computers — we're talking the Tandy TRS 80 and Commodore 64 here — started elbowing their way onto the desks of progressive fleet managers back in the early ‘80s, talk came quick and fast about deploying them to streamline maintenance so a “paperless shop” would become reality.

A quarter century later, the PC in all its iterations reigns supreme in workplaces everywhere and a paperless shop can certainly be had by anyone who wants one.

But the march of progress that's swept high-tech electronics into the truck shop is less about reducing paperwork than it is about capturing an incredibly valuable stream of data and — above all — putting it to work to reduce vehicle maintenance costs and also perhaps to improve a fleet's operation in other ways.

Much like the electronics purchased for a home office or home theater for that matter, there is no one way to outfit a maintenance shop with high technology.

LEARNING CURVE

That can make it rough to get going on the electronic trail, but this wrinkle reflects the wide range of hardware and software available to enable a fleet to get the computerized shop setup that's specific to their needs — and wallets.

Make no mistake, the learning curve for the high-tech shop is steep enough that even experts in this arena are not reluctant to suggest fleet managers who are not outsourcing maintenance consider what outside service providers or consultants may advise, at least to get the ball rolling.

According to Mitchell1, a supplier of vehicle maintenance services and software, results of a recent survey it conducted indicate that “repair information technology” is critical to boosting shop productivity in the face of vehicle technology that's getting more complex and technicians who are getting scarcer.

“A key part of the trucking industry's success in improving the productivity of shop operations will be to use information technology resources to its advantage,” remarks Dave Costantino, Mitchell1's director of heavy-duty market development. “Today's younger technicians are increasingly computer-literate, so the presence of high-tech information resources can be a competitive advantage in the market for qualified and capable help.

“Other challenges to shop productivity include the increasing complexity of vehicle technology, changing the types of skills required by technicians who must service trucks with increasingly advanced electronics systems,” he continues. “In addition, the strictest diesel emissions standards in history are set to take effect in 2007 and 2010 — bringing about even more advanced vehicle systems and causing some fleets to keep trucks longer, adding to long-term maintenance needs.”

And that's just what you get grasping the handle of the holy grail that is the high-tech shop. Fleet managers who get two hands all the way around this will be able to do all sorts of miraculous things with the data that will well up inside their computer systems.

“Cars used to be six to seven years ahead in terms of getting detailed diagnostic information. Now trucks have caught up,” points out Ken McKibben, senior vp-field maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing.

But that only means there's more progress to make. Indeed, McKibben says that in its 700 shops, Penske is dedicated to “going to the next level” with technology.

“Beyond simply diagnosing a problem and then fixing it, we want to go to a level where the diagnostic information is displayed along with the exact tools the technician will need to fix the problem,” he says. “It would be similar to when you buy cabinets from Home Depot — the instructions tell you not only how to put them together and install them but also list the exact tools you will need to get the job done. This would allow us to maximize efficiency in the repair process.”

Penske is already tapping — mining might be a better description — maintenance data via its preventive-maintenance (PM) inspections. “We log into a truck's ECU [engine control module] at every PM for mid-range and Class 8 engines alike — every 30,000 miles or 90 days, whichever PM marker is reached first,” explains Mike Hasinec, vp-maintenance systems & support. “Second, we prioritize the information we get off the ECU in our maintenance [software] system. We want to make sure we don't spend a lot of time diagnosing a problem or focusing on a minor one.”

DRIVER'S SEAT

Yet the truck is not the only source of maintenance data at Penske. “When we say we are prioritizing diagnostic information,” says Hasinec, “it's not all about what we're getting from the truck. We try and feed into our system exactly what the driver is experiencing. For example, if the driver says he's getting an unusual vibration from the vehicle, we ask where it's coming from. If he says it's from the seat, then that helps us narrow the diagnostic profile.”

McKibben says cutting out the time it takes to diagnose the problem is a key benefit of a high-tech shop. “Driving down troubleshooting reduces our labor time on a repair by 10% to 15% and cuts vehicle downtime. We hand-built our computerized maintenance system starting in 1995 to do this for us.”

“We dedicated 173,000 hours worth of training last year to our 5,000 technicians — that's a huge investment but we also get a big return on that,” notes Hasinec.

“By reducing diagnostic time, we increase vehicle uptime,” he continues. “That will be even more critical as we bring on more vehicles with new emissions-related components. We also have fewer technicians, so we need to be more productive. That's another huge benefit from reducing diagnostic time — we can refocus that time elsewhere to meet other maintenance needs.”

But the benefits don't stop at the tech's toolbox. “There's also the historical data we collect as part of this process,” McKibben relates. “Our failure analysis helps us improve the spec'ing of trucks. During the first 120 days of a truck's life with us, we measure every shop visit, looking at defects in three ‘buckets’ if you will: maintenance/labor, pre-delivery, including wiring or air lines rubbing too close to the frame, and design — such things as airbags not set at the right height.

PERFORMANCE CHECKS

“We're also recording fuel economy information, hard braking events, etc,” he continues. “This lets us review performance factors — how the truck's being used, and if it's being used in a way that doesn't deliver the best performance.”

According to Don Porthan, maintenance manager for Paccar Leasing Co. (PacLease), the full-service lessor is embracing the paperless shop concept at its various company-owned facilities.

“We're eliminating paper work orders by positioning desktop computers in our shops for technicians to access,” Porthan explains. “Our new system has been rolled out to four of our six company stores over the last 12 to 14 months and the other two are finishing up [the installation].” He notes that systems PacLease implements in its company shops are made available to franchisees who want to adopt them.

To start an electronic repair order, all a tech at one of the four shops needs to do is enter a vehicle unit number and odometer reading into the computer. “The tech clocks in and out on the computer for each repair. All parts are now bar-coded and the tech “reads” the part with an attached scanner. Parts and labor accurately track to the repaired vehicle.”

Service managers are charged with reviewing the repair orders on screen to verify labor and parts charges as well as to identify warranty claims. “Once the manager's finished,” says Porthan, “he closes that order and the unit file is automatically updated in our system.”

Porthan says the system's primary benefits include reducing labor spent completing work orders by hand as well as relieving some of the administrative load on service managers and shop supervisors. This allows them more time to devote to managing. “Managers can now review all work in time to discuss it with techs by the next shift.

“We also have electronic PM notification in place at all six company shops,” he continues. “This takes the burden of calling customers off of our supervisors; instead they are automatically notified of PMs due by email. The customer can then call or email us back when their truck will be available for servicing.”

PEOPLE FACTOR

Looking ahead a bit, Porthan says one of the next goals will be adding a PC-based electronic purchase order that will cover the entire parts inventory. “We have to take all these steps,” he adds, “because there is a shortage of qualified techs and so we must help our existing techs be as productive as possible. It's simple. If you don't have the people, you can't do the work.”

Porthan says don't overlook the human element in all this either. “When we implement these systems, we'll spend four days at a three-shift shop to present the program to the entire staff in a hands-on fashion. And we have a review period to ensure everyone is up to speed.

“Many techs today are computer-literate to begin with and the paperless approach has been well received,” he adds. “The buy-in from the staff is key. They must understand that the changes benefit the company but also the tech. They can now spend more time than ever doing what they're best at — maintaining trucks.”

Larry Hibler, Ryder's senior manager, maintenance information systems & vehicle diagnostic services, says bringing high-tech into the shop is all about making the most of the information at hand in the data-rich world of today's trucks.

“In our case, we're after information that benefits our customers and that tells us how our trucks are performing,” he states. “We need our techs to gather this information and meaningfully analyze without having to sort through tons of paper.

“The technology that makes that possible, Hibler continues, “can consist of lots of pieces. There's data extracted from the truck via diagnostic tools and other date we gain from the repair process, namely labor and parts costs.”

DATA CHASE

Hibler says this information can be handled by one or more shop PCs but he points out that Ryder has been “chasing the integration of various technologies” to make its version of the high-tech shop as seamless and efficient as possible. “Otherwise you end up with lots of little data sources that do not ‘talk’ to each other.”

He admits Ryder may never get all the way to the point of total data integration — thanks to the endless hardware changes the computer industry is famous for — but says “we are there in that we have developed in-house systems that can speak to each other. We can do all our maintenance work today with virtually no paperwork.

“But we still have a wish list of other features we'd like to have as well,” Hibler continues. “We've been working on website development over the last two to three years to gain real-time info on trucks out on the road. We've installed GPS-based telematics units so now customers can access information online to make better routing decisions etc.” He says you can't get this kind of functionality off the shelf but at the same time you “must be sure the customer sees the value in what you're investing in.”

While Ryder has the resources to write its own software, Hibler says the leasing giant uses off-the-shelf hardware in its maintenance applications. “There are also a lot of good packaged programs out there for maintaining a fleet,” he advises. Going high tech “really comes down to how big the fleet is and how much sophistication [in data management] is sought.”

As Hibler sees it, a central issue for any fleet manager should be “determining up front exactly what you want the system to do,” whether that's computerizing work orders or helping track performance spec by spec.

“Don't sell yourself short on functionality, either,” he adds. “And talk to as many fleet managers as you can to build your own wish list of requirements before shopping for maintenance software. Be sure too that you are not buying technology for its own sake but for what it can do for both your external and internal customers.”

It's all about “intelligent data” contends Alex Popov, vp-fleet services for PHH First Fleet Corp., which provides asset management and financial services to private fleets. Experienced at rolling out various high-tech shop initiatives at fleets such as UPS and Ryder earlier in his career, he now consults with the firm's customers on a value-added basis to “help them pre- and post-sale,” including making the most of their shop operations.

BEGINNING POINT

“Heavy involvement with maintenance data [at fleets] is not as widespread as you'd think,” says Popov. “Most fleets have tried some degree of data capture, maybe down to the VMRS level. The real question is what do they do with that data? Fundamentally, you need to know how much information you need to run your fleet.”

Popov says no matter where you turn for help computerizing the shop, the “beginning point is always the repair order — and how it looks is unique in every company. And keep in mind, fleets get leery of software providers who promise too much from shop systems. You just may want to consider contracting with an independent expert to help you make the transition from managing out of a shoebox.”

Once you're filing data electronically, Popov suggests the next big leap should be to start “harvesting the information at hand — and do it simply. It's easy to get bogged down in data.”

With that in mind, Popov offers these pointers to fleet managers heading into the digital divide:

  • Plan your objective. Know what you want to achieve from computerizing shop operations.

  • Put the technology where the work is. Locate PCs, barcode scanners, handheld diagnostic tools where techs can easily access them.

  • Tie data elements together. Find a new system that will merge with existing accounting etc. systems.

  • Press software vendors. Find out how much a system will actually cost to run in your fleet.

“We are not there yet but the next evolution in high-tech shops will surely be systems that easily ‘speak’ to each other,” he adds.

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