Jim Miske, director of fleet maintenance for LTL carrier A. Duie Pyle, says the adage “knowledge is power” best characterizes the importance of information technology (IT) in today's maintenance shop. “The more information or data that we can mine with respect to the mechanical operation of our equipment, the more power we have to make the right decisions relating to equipment acquisition and maintenance,” he explains.
“Data eliminates the guesswork surrounding what we think may be happening with a unit or group of units with respect to performance and maintenance,” he says. “There is also a flip side to having more information: It requires good discipline in regularly analyzing the information we get.”
It goes without saying that Miske wants IT to give him data on fuel mileage and maintenance and tire cost per mile. “Drilling deeper, however, we want to know what systems on a particular group of trucks might be failing, plus how often they fail and why,” he notes. “But we also want to discover what's working and why. When we have that information, we can devise a [path] to improve maintenance practices, as well as the overall performance and dependability of our equipment.”
At the executive level, maintenance data is playing a larger role in sharpening a fleet's overall strategic direction, says Tom Glaser, president and COO of TL conglomerate Celadon Group. “We use maintenance data to tell us how different components hold up, how one brand of tractor compares to another in terms of repair cost, fuel economy, etc.,” he says. “We also use that data to prove our warranty issues — not just to document dollar losses to manufacturers, but to help them make improvements to equipment.”
For Glaser, data obtained from Celadon's maintenance IT systems forms but one of several critical “gauges” on the “executive dashboard” that he uses to monitor day-to-day company performance. “It's one of those measurements I monitor on a real-time basis, [comparing] each day's [maintenance] activity against the previous day's so we can spot trends — positive or negative — that can affect our operation,” he notes.
Bill Taylor, director of maintenance for refrigerated carrier Prime Inc., says capturing better maintenance data is an extremely important part of monitoring progress. “First, it's paramount in helping us make better equipment spec'ing and purchasing decisions,” he explains. “Second, it gives our technicians more accurate and faster diagnostic capability on the shop floor. Before pulling any wiring or components, we get a detailed snapshot of what the problem is, which allows us to be much more efficient with our maintenance resources.”
The biggest factor influencing the development of maintenance software is how to convert the data into information that can be used to formulate long-term strategy.
“It's about figuring out how much an asset costs to run and if it's the best asset for the application,” says Alex Popov, vp-fleet service for First Fleet Corp. “If you don't know the numbers — vehicle fuel economy or cost of labor and parts, for example — you can't make accurate asset decisions.”
“It's not just about getting live data to make maintenance decisions in real time anymore; it's about analysis of that data, what it can tell us about how our vehicles are holding up,” says Ty Cross, vp-maintenance for Ryder System Inc. According to Cross, maintenance data has always played a key strategic role at Ryder in terms of influencing vehicle and component choices. With the use of IT systems, however, more data can be processed more quickly, leading to much faster reaction times when problems arise.
“Back when we generated 10,000 written PM worksheets, there was no way we could ever analyze them effectively to gain any maintenance insights,” he explains. “Now, with all of that filed electronically, we can see trends quickly and head off negative effects for both the customers and us.”
Engine and brake system performance are only two examples of the kind of component reliability trends that can be spotted quickly if a ready stream of data is analyzed properly, enabling Ryder to alert its suppliers, says Cross. “If we can discover a problem 10 trucks into a 100- or 200-truck order, we can make changes before we receive all the trucks.”
“The ability to understand [component] failure rates and take proactive measures is a critical benefit we derive from maintenance data,” adds Bob Douglas, vp-maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing. “From the time a new truck is delivered, we can look at component reliability through the first PM, first year, and life to date and then funnel that information back to the OEM for corrective measures,” he says. “That eliminates warranty issues and downtime.”
“It becomes a whole circle where you feed maintenance data from the shop back into your vehicle spec'ing and purchasing plans,” notes First Fleet's Popov. “Is it a panacea for maintenance issues? No. In trucking you have different components from different manufacturers in one vehicle, all with different warranties. But data helps you understand the complexity of all the component combinations.”
Perhaps one of the most important attributes of maintenance IT going forward is its ability to allow shops to do more with less, notes Douglas. “Bricks and mortar are expensive and technicians are hard to find, so physically expanding our maintenance facilities in order to do more work isn't the answer,” he says. “The key is to get more from the resources we have. And getting more accurate, detailed, and timely data is the key to that.”
Simplification is another part of it, adds Ryder's Cross. Instead of having technicians laboriously write down or type in repair data, one-touch pull-down screens enable them to quickly log in all the information they need for work orders, while creating a much more uniform data flow for analysis. “We get greater data integrity and maximum use of repair resources,” he adds.
Better diagnostics on the shop floor also means more repairs are made correctly the first time, adds Penske's Douglas. “Eliminating repeat repair work by more accurately pinpointing the trouble the first time really helps you maximize the use of your maintenance resources,” he explains.
“Take that a step further with the increasing use of onboard diagnostic systems,” he says. “The vehicle itself can report a problem via satellite signal, allowing us to route it to a repair location and get parts and labor ready for it ahead of its arrival. If it's serious, [we can] alert the driver to pull over and shut down while we dispatch a road call team.”
Maintenance IT “helps you manage by exception; to focus your attention and resources only on the problems,” says Rick Rosenberg, president of TMT Software. “You set parameters in your data collection so you focus on the yellow and red flags, not the green ones. It's about getting more operational efficiency from your existing resources; that's what makes a big difference to the bottom line.
If there's one constant in maintenance IT today, it's that nothing remains static. According to Pyle's Miske, systems are constantly evolving, from set-in-place computers to laptops to hand-held computers, with ever more detailed software packages to match.
“Currently we use diagnostic computers for heavy trucks, as well as engines and trailer brake systems,” he says. “And we use bar code scanners and printers for receiving parts into our inventory, as well as charging those parts to an electronic repair order system. We also use an IT-backed system to electronically record individual units and gallons of fuel dispersed to these units.”
A BETTER MOUSETRAP
Looking to the future, Miske wants to make it easier for maintenance technicians to scan repair system codes, while limiting the amount of incorrect information that gets into the system. By eliminating incorrect part-number use, “we can improve our inventory control measures and parts usage tracking,” he explains. “That ensures we have adequate parts on hand for our technicians to perform their duties, while maintaining stock levels to reasonable levels.”
Prime's Taylor echoes those needs. He would like to find a simple and fast way for technicians to log in the amount of time it takes to complete a maintenance task, which he says is especially critical when performing warranty repairs.
While some systems can now capture the time needed for each job, “they tend to be complicated,” Taylor notes. Technicians need a simple voice command or on-screen box they can check off to create a time log for each repair, he suggests. “Time logs are required for our warranty repairs; the goal is to develop a way to capture that information quickly.”
Another goal is figuring out how to automate as much of the data collection process as possible, so maximum time and effort can be focused on analyzing data.
“No one is fond of chasing numbers, so part of the effort here is finding out how much the vehicle itself can report maintenance data,” First Fleet's Popov explains. “On one level it's about automating what's happening in the shop — things such as recording parts numbers and labor hours. On another level, it's about the vehicle — tracking fuel economy, idle time, and component reliability,” he says. Then all of the information has to be funnelled into an administrative system for analysis so issues can be spotted.
“[Maintenance] departments today are drowning in data but starving for information,” adds Charles Arsenault, president of software provider Arsenault & Associates. “It's about making the fleet manager and his department more productive. You don't want clerks in the maintenance department; you want technicians. Maintenance IT systems must fulfill that function as well.”
The ability to easily upgrade and change maintenance IT systems is also a much more critical factor today as the trucking industry deals with new components developed to meet emission reduction mandates, says Jeff Bryant, Celadon's director of fleet maintenance.
“There are so many unknowns with the power units coming to us in 2007 and 2010 that the maintenance practices and intervals we're using today are not going to be the same ones we're using in nine months; and they'll probably change again in another year and half,” he says. “Our IT systems need to be flexible enough to incorporate those changes and still give us the data we need.”
“As the 2007 and 2010 emissions requirements become reality, good data is even more critical to achieving good results in this area,” adds Pyle's Miske. “With the proper IT support, we can more accurately and quickly identify failures and thus expedite repairs to vehicles, regardless of new components or service intervals.”
End result: As vehicles become more complex, IT will have an even bigger role in the shop.
“It's easy to visualize the very real necessity to strengthen and enhance the marriage of IT and shop maintenance,” says Miske. “The integration of technology with respect to motor vehicles in recent years is phenomenal. Without the solid support of a good IT department to help us gather and consolidate all of the data streams available, we would be hard pressed to take advantage of and leverage the information. It would remain, in a sense, just out of our reach.”