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Technology in the fleet industry is not what people think it is: just because the front end of the building is computerized, and has people skilled in using computer technology, doesn't mean that the back of the building is the same way."

So says Charles Arsenault, and he should know. As president and CEO of fleet maintenance management software company Arsenault Associates, he has found that a great many of America's fleet maintenance shops are still lagging behind in mobile computing technology.

One reason? Perhaps it's because so many fleets rely on so many different types of vehicles. "Trucking only represents about 18 percent of America's fleets," Arsenault points out. "There's everything from A to Z out there. The National Zoo in Washington has 180 pieces of equipment running around. The Botanical Gardens in Longwood, PA, they've got almost 200. Then you consider fire departments, municipalities, governments, schools, waste disposal, newspapers, and you can keep going on and on, and you find that fleets are a lot more than just trucking."

LOST PRODUCTIVITY

Whatever the reasons for fleets not computerizing their maintenance shops, Arsenault knows what it's costing them in lost prodctivity and unnecessary downtime, just as he knows what can be gained by "going mobile."

"The gains in productivity can come from several different directions, depending on the mobile technology being implemented," he explains. "Let's look at the hand-held, wireless PDA on the shop floor. To perform repair order histories, to look up past performance, the technician can peform his or her own data entry, without having to spend a lot of time walking back and forth to the shop office, or to the parts room to see if the parts are available, to get the necessary information they need to perform a particular task, or even to communicate with his manager.

"Now, this seems kind of small, I know, but when you consider the number of trips made by the mechanic to the office and elsewhere to get that information, this can result in thousands of dollars of lost time," he continues. "Then if you consider the number of technicians in the shop using the same technology, the value (of that lost time) rises to tens of thousands of dollars."

HISTORY 101

According to Arsenault, maintenance people are often guilty of not seeing the forest for the trees. It's very easy, he says, to dismiss a $500 repair as a "one-time event" without ever realizing how often that "one-time event" happens.

To his way of thinking, the greatest tool a technician can hold in his or her hand isn't a torque wrench or an electronic multitester; it's the complete repair order of the vehicle that's just come in for service. He calls this 'History 101,' and finds that it can revolutionize the way a typical fleet shop operates.

Let's say, for example, that you institute a new rule on the shop floor: if a procedure will cost more than $250 or put the vehicle down for more than four hours, the technician must check the repair order history before performing the service.

"It's a simple rule," Arsenault says. "But, it drives rework to its knees, and captures more warranty dollars than you can shake a stick at. And without technology, for you to go back through a paper repair order system... not going to happen.

"Repair order history is a fundamental value when it comes to return on investment," he explains. "It's one of the most valuable things a fleet has, if it can access it. Of course, maintenance management software should provide you with instant access to that. Technology allows you to do that without having to go to the shop office; you just search for the system code on your hand-held, and you can see it as you're standing in front of the vehicle."

With this type of mobile computing system in place, technicians can be immediately notified if a service, component or part falls within a warranty period. That means technicians will set aside more parts and you'll get more warranty returns. Oh, and that new part the technician needs? Mobile computing lets the technician look up whether the part is in stock, and if it's not, he or she can order it on the spot from the hand-held.

PARADIGM SHIFT

"When you install advanced software like ours, the first hurdle that you have to get over is the paradigm that you've created over the years," says Dave Walters, technical sales manager for maintenance software company TMW Systems.

Walters tries to paint as complete a picture for the client of how they can take advantage of the capabilities of mobile computing, but a company in transition often needs time to get over those old paradigms. "It's not uncommon to see transitions that fleet shops will go through, where they'll start using the software one way and then they begin to understand the capabilities and they install a workstation and find out that the mechanic could have entered the data just as well as the data entry people. They begin to change and their business begins to evolve, and they begin to use more capabilities of the software," he explains.

According to Walters, his company's software can operate in or out of "real-time." In a real-time environment, a technician logs into the system and the workstation keeps track of the technician's time and builds his or her time card for the day.

Hand-held devices can also function outside of the real-time environment. A case in point is Canada Cartage Diversified LLC, a Toronto, ON-based fleet that arms all its mobile repair men with hand-held devices that use TMW's Transman software. "You'll actually download the repair order for the work you have scheduled for a service truck into the hand-held unit," Walters explains. "Then you'd go out and perform the work, come back and place the hand-held unit in a device that would sync up and exchange data and update the repair order."

The end result for Canada Cartage is that the company's mobile repair technicians have reduced their indirect labor time from 40 percent to five percent. What's more, because the mobile techs are now so effective addressing issues in the field, the fleet has seen an 80 percent reduction in small maintenance jobs coming into the shop.

"If you're willing to make the investment in the laptop computers and the small amount of training, it's really the way to go," Walters says. "In a shop environment we would install a kiosk with a computer terminal, and that would serve eight to 12 technicians. We license our software by number of assets, which is the most common way in the fleet world."

CHANGE OF HABIT

Charles Arsenault finds that technicians' work habits change quickly once they go mobile. As soon as they learn how easy it is to incorporate mobile computing into their work flow, they begin to use work order history more, they begin to look up parts inventories more, and they begin to report potential warranties more.

"More than likely, you'll get better quality services, because of being able to look up past performance," he says. "They'll also start to look up whether the unit has a PM due or a work pending issue. And if they have a few extra minutes they'll take care of those issues or problems while they're standing in front of it. So, the habit change goes from reactive to proactive."

Can it really be that easy to step into the 21st Century? Arsenault thinks so. "There is no rocket science in our world," he says. "It's simply information flow and who has access to it."

Go to www.fleetmag.com to learn more about how mobile computing is changing the way Canada Cartage maintains its vehicles.

Fleet Maintenance spoke with Ken Skidgemore, maintenance systems manager for Canada Cartage Diversified LLC, Toronto, ON, about his fleet's use of mobile computing technology. Canada Cartage uses TMW's Transman maintenance management software on a fleet of mobile service trucks.

Fleet Maintenance: How big is your shop, and how many technicians do you employ?
Ken Skidgemore: I have four shops. The first, in Toronto, is 28 bays, the next, in Winnipeg, is eight bays, then we have a six-bay shop in Oshowa and a four-bay shop in Etobicoke. The biggest shop has 63 technicians, and that's a 24/7 operation. The next biggest shop has 29 technicians with a 24/7 operation. The two smaller shops have 11 and 16 technicians, with just a day and afternoon shift.

FM: What is the size and makeup of your fleet?
KS:  In total I've got 3,997 pieces of equipment. That's made up of 33 forklifts, 1,328 tractors, 2,081 trailers, 413 trucks, 129 owner-operator units (we manage their maintenance), and 13 support vehicles, including pickup trucks, trailers and such.

FM: What needs were you facing in your shop that made you consider a mobile computing solution?
KS: Our fleet is what's called a "dedicated fleet." We put equipment into our customers' yards. It's our equipment, but they use it, 24 hours a day. A good example would be Home Depot. Home Depot is a very large customer of ours, and when you go into a Home Depot and you want to build a deck and you get 1,500 pounds of pressure-treated wood, they load it on the back of a flatbed truck and deliver it to your residence; that's our truck. Another scenario is, we have very, very large contracts with food organizations, such as Loblaws, and that is specialized equipment. They use reefers, the trucks are weighted out specifically to haul food, so they're in the (customer's) yards 24/7.

We only cycle them into the shops for their annuals, but the running repairs are done usually at the customer's site. So we have mobile mechanics who have fully-equipped trucks with a parts room on-board, compressors on-board, a welder on-board, and a laptop computer that's tied directly to transmit. We piloted this last year, and it's been so successful because what we noticed was, when the trucks were coming in for their annuals, the cost of the annuals dropped significantly, because the running repairs were being done so effectively by our mobile guys. And we were recording them: catching warranty work, catching chronic repairs. So that's why that program took off with us.

Equipment uptime for our customers is critical. A truck with a light out, in a yard with a load, that light stops that truck from going out on the road and making that customer some money. If we can dispatch our mobile guys quickly, and get them out to clients' yard for little, incidental problems like that, it keeps uptime up for our customers, and they're happy about that.

You know, the driver does a walkaround in the morning and sees, "Okay, I've got a taillight out, so I can't go out on the road, because that's an automatic ticket."  So we can dispatch a mobile guy over there in minutes and have the problem solved.

Our customers are on the same computer system, so they can contact Canada Cartage and request maintenance services. They see our dispatch board, they see which trucks we're dispatching, at any time of day, they see what surge equipment is available ("Surge" meaning extra equipment in case they have a special need... say Canadian Tire Repair might have a big sale on bicycles and they need an extra 50 trailers; well, they can see if we have 50 available with no delay). That's using our dispatch software. The team I work with, they're all SQL programmers, and we've been able to integrate Transman into Freight Logix using our smarts.

FM: How did you go about finding a mobile computing solution that met your needs?
KS: I work with a couple of really smart telecommunications fellas here, and one of them, Dave Boxer, put me on a Rogers wireless connection. We tried a different scenario first, and we found that when the mechanics went into yards that were in dark zones, out of range of the towers, we were dropping the signal and the mechanics were getting frustrated. Rogers bandwidth is a little stronger, a little broader, and that seemed to clear the problem up. We still had dead zones, but not as many.

The mobile guys use a simple laptop, and the wireless connector is just about as big as your thumb and sticks into the USB port on the side of the laptop. Then we give them VPN access through our network, so it's secure, and then access to Transman, Freight Logix, mail, everything.

FM: How has the system affected the work process on the shop floor?
KS: Before we had the mobile technology, the mobile guys were just wandering around. Now we can actually take a call from a driver who may have broken down on the road, create the repair order and transmit and assign it to a mobile truck, so when he gets to his destination the repair order's already started, with an indication of what's wrong. The mechanic has called in and said "I have a no-start, a flat tire, or whatever," and the repair order has already started for these guys, so they just go to work!

We were getting probably 40 percent of the mechanics' time clocked into indirect labor. Now it might be five percent. These guys are kept pretty busy; they know their next job as soon as they finish the one they're on. We've got the drivers and the customers calling in to our service writers; (they) tell us the unit, where it is, and we'll start the repair order. So all the mobile guy does is just drive to where he's supposed to go and start. Before that he was on indirect, probably sitting at a coffee shop...

We saw an 80 percent reduction in small jobs, and it reduced our shop saturation in our drive-through. Before we had drivers coming with cracked mirrors, drivers coming in with low tire pressure, or whatever, and our mobile guys seem to be catching these at the customers' sites before it becomes a drive-through. And so we can concentrate more on just doing the annuals, the PMS, the bigger jobs, rather than having to stop, take a mechanic off a bigger job and go off and have to fix a light. That seems to be about an 80 percent reduction of the small jobs coming through our drive-through.

We try to run our annuals as long as we can. To bring a truck in for a 10-hour inspection is very costly. So to it early, you're only compounding that cost. But we try to bring our annuals in when they're due. It's out of service for the day; you've got to pop the wheels off, all kinds of inspections have to happen, so we try to maximize the time between our annuals.

FM: How has mobile computing affected your own shop management techniques?
KS: (We're) reacting faster to the customer's needs, and have greater uptime on equipment. PM downtime has been reduced, because by the time it's come in for the PM a lot of the small stuff has been done. On an annual service we were running between six and seven hours on a trailer, and now our annual services on trailers are about four, because all the little stuff's done before it actually comes in. So that's a two-hour, on average, reduction in the amount of downtime for that truck for the major services.

FM: How much training do the technicians need in order to use the mobile computing system?
KS: All our technicians start out in the shop, even if they are a new hire. We mandate an eight-hour orientation in the shop on the computer systems. So if they end up being a mobile mechanic, it's the same computer, it's the same software; the only difference is that they're driving a truck to their work, rather than walking to it. So they're totally versed on the system. The only caveat was learning to understand the log-in from the air card, and once they do it a few times it becomes routine. You have to log into the Rogers network, and then from the Rogers network you have to log into out VPN network; it's a two-step log-in for security reasons.

The Transman software that they're using is the same as if they were standing in the shop. There's absolutely no difference.

FM: Have your technicians' diagnostic skills improved as a result?
KS:  They're more keen when they go to the customers' yards. If they've gone to a customer site for a driver who says he's got a no-start, as they're driving into the yard, they're taking note of the broken light on trailer 123, the low tire on unit 456, and while they're there, fixing the driver and getting him up and running, they'll stop and fix the other things they're caught on the drive in. They're very intuitive that way; they see something on the way in, and they fix it. They can actually open a repair order and start the repair, charge out any parts that they need that are required to fix this minor stuff. A lot of them just catch stuff; they know what to look for now.

FM: What advice would you give to a fleet manager who is considering a mobile computing solution?
KS: Absolutely do it. Make sure your equipment masters are current and clean and match your fleet in every aspect: license plates, color, year, make & model, and most importantly the asset number, because that's the number you're creating a work order for in the system.  Because when you send that mechanic out, if he's looking for unit 456, and really it's 54-456 because of some numbering issue, that's just going to add frustration.

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