Maintenance in your back pocket

July 19, 2002
p class=MsoNormal>Dudley Bettice tells a story about visiting a fairly large mining company with multiple quarries and asking one of the managers what kind of system he used for tracking maintenance on the company’s equipment. The manager pulled a worn notebook out of his pocket.

p class=MsoNormal>Dudley Bettice tells a story about visiting a fairly large mining company with multiple quarries and asking one of the managers what kind of system he used for tracking maintenance on the company’s equipment. The manager pulled a worn notebook out of his pocket.

Bettice is the manager for distributor support at Komatsu America International Co., Vernon Hills, Ill., and he has been surprised by the number of larger companies that leave something as important as equipment maintenance to a notebook in someone’s pocket. It is those contractors without a computerized fleet management system that Komatsu is targeting with its web-based Fleet Manager program.

“We’ve been getting an awakening,” Bettice told Roads & Bridges. “In the beginning our thought was we’ll never be able to approach any big user with this and we won’t target big end users. But we’re stumbling on more and more larger end users that don’t have a system.”

A huge benefit of having maintenance records on computer instead of in a notebook is that the fleet manager can produce reports that show the benefits of proper maintenance procedures, such as equipment utilization levels, how many mechanics are needed and how big spare parts stocks should be.

The fleet of equipment might encompass pickup trucks, graders, pavers, conveyors or any other piece of machinery that needs periodic maintenance.

“Decent maintenance software will present reports which the maintenance manager in turn can use in behalf of his department,” Charles Arsenault, president of Arsenault Associates, Atco, N.J., told Roads & Bridges, “to explain why this equipment should be recycled or this equipment should be replaced or we should have this many mechanics versus that many mechanics. In other words, make real management decisions based on facts rather than guesswork.”

Arsenault estimates that there are 230,000 on-road fleets in the U.S. and 79% of them do not use basic fleet management software. This is despite studies showing that every dollar spent in preventive maintenance avoids four dollars in breakdown costs.

Arsenault thinks most fleet managers are behind the technological times because they are usually people who started on the maintenance shop floor and moved up through the ranks learning the tried-and-true methods of the past. Most of these people do not have the knowledge of computers needed to implement a software system or the authority to specify and acquire such a system.

Software packages that are provided by upper management might be tailored to operations such as accounting, which has priorities different from those of the shop floor.

According to Arsenault, “Most companies and organizations, public or private, don’t have a means by which to measure their costs, histories, rework, parts inventory values, fuel consumption, specifications or utilization for a specific application.”

Arsenault said by following documented maintenance schedules and histories a company should be able to go from one scheduled maintenance task to the next without a breakdown and save at least 5% of the company’s operating budget in the first year after installing the maintenance software system.

Fleet management software can identify where the company is wasting money on inventory. A typical company with 100 pieces of equipment might have $50,000 tied up in inventory, according to surveys by Arsenault, and 30% of that inventory might be useless.

Meet me on the web

Arsenault said the primary maintenance tasks tracked by a fleet management system are the specifications of the equipment, schedules of preventive maintenance and permits, histories of tasks performed and parts used, parts inventory, labor, fuel, costs and warranty information.

Arsenault’s software package is called Dossier32, which lets the user keep track of all those primary maintenance tasks and more.

Arsenault Associates acts as an application service provider (ASP) for Dossier32. The users’ information is stored on Arsenault’s web server along with the program software. Users access their information by logging on to the website. The information is protected by security firewalls and available only to authorized users.

The advantages of the ASP arrangement include that the user does not have the expense of buying or installing the initial software or the inevitable software updates. The user always has the latest version of the software and simply pays for its use. The software can be run by any computer with a web browser.

Komatsu also is an ASP for its Fleet Manager program. The program stores maintenance schedules on a computer server administered by Komatsu. Users gain access to their maintenance information through a secure website using a user ID and password. Information access levels can be established by various security levels.

Fleet Manager allows a user to keep track of routine maintenance tasks, such as replenishing fluids and replacing filters, belts and hoses. It has the maintenance schedules for all of Komatsu’s equipment already programmed in. The user can enter information for any other makes and models in the user’s fleet. The user also can create any of his own nonbasic maintenance events—replacing lift cylinders and checking track tension, for instance.

A fleet manager also can manage a small parts inventory in Fleet Manager and create work orders and other reports.

Fleet Manager is currently in beta testing at a few user sites. It will be generally available through Komatsu dealers this fall. The company views it as an added service, not as a source of revenue. In fact, Bettice said in a mid-May interview that the company had not yet set a price for the service.

Dossier32 has been available over the web for about two years. Arsenault has been designing fleet maintenance software for about 23 years.

The paradox of technology

Technology makes equipment maintenance easier but also makes it much more complicated.

Oil change intervals have lengthened considerably because of improvements in engine operating efficiency.

Computers now control almost every vehicle function from fuel injection to braking. Maintenance and repair technicians are called on to know something about computers as well as hydraulic and mechanical systems.

The most sophisticated machines have sensors that not only tell the operator about the operating condition of the machine, but also can send operating condition information back to the maintenance shop, distributor and OEM via the Internet. Komatsu offers Komtrax I, a system that uses the Global Positioning System and satellite communications to report a machine’s location and service meter reading to the Fleet Manager program once a day. Komtrax II, a more advanced system, also can report oil pressures and temperatures and various other sensor readings and error codes.

Using those sensor readings, the maintenance manager or distributor has a chance of determining what the problem is and what parts are needed to fix it and dispatch a repair mechanic—or more likely call the distributor—to get the machine back up and running faster and less expensively.

Of course, such sophistication comes at a price.

“The majority of the time, as we’re seeing it now, the end users are having a more and more difficult time keeping abreast of the technology level of machines,” said Bettice.

At least the contractor’s mechanic stands a chance of diagnosing the problem, with the help of the manufacturer’s guide to error codes.

“Our intention to develop this technology and the purpose for it is indeed to reduce the repair cost,” said Bettice. “In order to reduce the repair cost, our objective is to intercept the warning signs the machine is giving and prevent major failures.

“Does it make it easier to repair the machine? I don’t know that it necessarily makes it easier,” he continued. “It reduces the cost to repair the machine because the machine is communicating its vital signs to you before you go.” By monitoring and analyzing that information, maintenance crews can plan and complete repairs faster, saving money.

As individual companies develop proprietary advances in their machinery, it becomes more difficult for technicians to know the ins and outs of each individual system and keep up with changes in the industry.

Arsenault observed that plugs and points work about the same on any engine, but computer-controlled electronic ignition systems are all different. The good thing is that as long as the electronic system stays tuned, the engine runs longer without maintenance.

With the help of a good owner’s manual, a contractor’s mechanic can diagnose an ailing machine. And with the help of a good maintenance tracking computer program and accurate maintenance histories, the fleet manager should know exactly how to avoid a catastrophic breakdown.

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