With so many buses, rail rolling stock, non-revenue vehicles, stations, facilities, tracks, signals, switches and more, the amount of work it takes to keep all the assets in working order is a daunting task. Finding ways to cut costs while doing all that seems inconceivable. Using the technology that is available today monitors what you have, alerting you to when you need to repair or replace, it schedules the work that needs to be done, it tracks the labor and parts and it tracks and maintains the total cost of ownership per asset.
Cutting Your Costs
Precisely how do these technologies cut costs? The key areas are preventative maintenance, accurate tracking of maintenance, parts inventory and warranty management.
Everyone knows preventative maintenance is much less expensive than reactive maintenance. Jim Schnepp, vice president, sales and marketing for Maximus Inc., Asset Solutions, says, “If you’ve got a real robust scheduling system and you’re bringing your vehicles on and making sure that everything is checked, oil is replaced, etc., that tends to reduce breakdowns later on in the waning years of the life of that asset.”
First Transit has developed electronic preventative maintenance using DataStream software. First Transit Vice President of Maintenance and Operations Todd Haskins says, “Every quarter, we schedule them a time in their scheduling system to do electronic preventative maintenance.
“We have a series of reports that we have them run and based on the outcome of those reports, it makes them run other reports. What it does is line out all of the issues, whether it be training, fleet, personnel, parts failures, fleet failure, road call issues, anything.” This report includes the cost and it prioritizes it automatically. He emphasizes, “They do that every quarter and it really does help. It has really lowered our cost.”
With good preventative maintenance practices in place, reliability of vehicles is improved and agencies are often able to reduce the size of their fleets. Having the minimum amount of vehicles on hand to perform effectively reduces costs. Marty Osborn, senior director, EAM Industry Marketing of Infor, states, “The reliability is important. In the past, they really were not taking care of it using maintenance management software.
What they ended up doing was having a bigger stock available.” He explains, “They may have had 15-20 percent extra vehicles. If you know that they are going to run, then you might be able to decrease that size to 10 percent. That might be 100 buses in a fleet of 1,000, which is big dollars.”
Technology available reduces the diagnostic time for maintenance. Joe Saporita, product manager for Clever Devices, explains how the automatic vehicle monitoring (AVM) product continuously monitors all the systems on board the bus including engine, transmission, event data recorders, camera systems — a multitude of systems. The software wirelessly uploads information from the bus and it is communicated to maintenance people through email reports. Saporita says, “We deliver a piece of paper that tells you exactly what’s wrong with the bus so all you really have to do is go fix it.” He explains how this process can reduce diagnostic time for the maintenance people by about 75 percent. “It used to be someone had to let them know. Once they’re told, they would have to find the bus. It’s parked in a lot with, say 200 buses. They have to find that bus, get on the bus, they have to hook wires up to some connectors to each system and then figure out what’s wrong with the bus.” The software enables the maintenance staff to fix the issues right away, before it becomes a road call or critical alarm and they need to take the bus out of service.
Accurate tracking of maintenance can alert staff of larger issues. Osborn says, “They may see, ‘I’ve changed these brakes three times in the last three months.’ There may be something else they need to look at.” By documenting what is being done, he emphasizes, agencies can become more efficient in their work and stop repeat offenders. Jean Smith, systems implementer for Ultramain Systems, agrees, “You can track failing parts, look for trends either by component or by fleet.”
Haskins can attest to that. “We found that we were going through huge amounts of batteries. The problem was that we were actually choosing the wrong batteries to go in our vehicles.” He emphasizes, “Something simple like that, we found.”
In another instance, they noticed a consistent heat problem with some tires. “We changed to aluminum wheels and that will save us more than $100,000 a year,” Haskins attests.
Warranty management is a daunting task without the help of a structured program. Schnepp with Maximus mentions, “A lot of times we’ll see folks that don’t have systems, that don’t do a particularly good job with warranty management.” He explains how often times the procurement department will do a great job of negotiating extended warranties, but technicians can miss warranties on the subcomponents. “A lot of times we’ll see folks that don’t have systems, that don’t do a particular good job with warranty management. Making sure, while a technician is working on a work order, the system flags a warrantable item so that item may need to be saved in case the vendor needs to audit it.”
“Make sure that if parts break, the system tracks it fully so that you can get reimbursed for any parts that are failing before their life expectancy,” Smith adds.
Osborn stresses, “Not only are they starting to track their cost but they are taking a lot of the parts and activities that get done and tracking them and actually converting those warranties into dollars. You wouldn’t think of a revenue side to municipality, but that is a big area.”
Parts inventory is often a significant cost-cutting area — optimizing and minimizing the on-hand parts inventory. Having parts on hand for vehicles that an agency does not even own anymore is not only a waste of space, you are sitting on dollars. Software can automatically monitor what is on stock, what it is for, how often you typically require each part, where you can get the part and more. Schnepp explains, “As part of the implementation, we match up all of the parts in the inventory with all of your active vehicles, flush out any parts that you just don’t need anymore.”
Smith stresses the importance of having the optimum parts on hand, “You’re not overstocking parts and you have parts that are sitting on your shelf for too long or that you’re not stocking enough parts and you are having to overnight parts.” Tracking the parts usage allows the agency to possibly sell or dispose of parts that it is no longer using so it can lower its inventory costs.
Each company asserts that even though these may be the most common ways that agencies see savings, the possibilities are endless. The software not only gathers data for maintenance, warranties and parts, it connects this information to other areas of the organization. One example is connecting the fleet maintenance program to dispatch so it knows when vehicles are or are not available. Trapeze CEO Mark Miller says, “It’s really important to match vehicle types to the routes… making it really easy so they don’t have to be rocket scientists.
“I think they need to challenge themselves on connectivity and driving the data from that system into other areas of the organization instead of solving just one problem.” He adds, “You spend a lot of money on these systems.”
Choosing your Technology
As with any technology, there are important things to consider before purchasing a system and that can seem overwhelming. Start with the end in mind; consider what exactly your agency needs, what are you trying to do?
Osborn points out, “One thing you find in the maintenance arena, none of these guys need this system to do their job. They know their job; they know what they need to do. What management needs is to be able to capture and record it easily.
“I think sometimes the public sector needs to think a lot like the private sector in that when you go into a project up front, you clearly identify what are those key business drivers.” He adds, “What are the real reasons why, instead of ‘I need software. Yeah, I want to become more efficient and I want to save some money.’ What are those areas that you think, set those up and start measuring towards those.”
Each agency is unique and has its own needs. Smith says agencies need to get the needed information out of the system to help give the right tools to make the right management decisions for the particular agency. “Whether it is in how many parts you stock, what your inventory levels are, to how often are parts failing, how can I track what parts are failing.”
The infrastructure you have in place is important to consider when looking at this type of software. “The second thing would be your infrastructure for connections,” says Haskins. “If you have slow connections and this system is accessed through the Internet, a slow connection will just make it where it is just almost not useable.” He knows this from experience. “Not all of our locations have real high-speed connections and that has been an issue we have had to go back and address.”
For the automatic vehicle monitoring product by Clever Devices, the bus has to have the technology available. “The technology, in general, is ITS. You need some kind of controller on the bus,” explains Saporita.
Flexibility in the system is an important factor. Haskins says of the DataStream software that they use, “We’ve been able to do a lot of other things with it, other than just maintenance software.
“We’ve just developed a module to manage all of our accidents and injuries with it also because we set the employee as the asset and the event as the accident.”
Of course, ease of use is an important consideration. “Look at the time it actually takes to work through a repair order or a purchase order. If it is taking you 30 minutes to write-up a repair order, it is too much time and the users won’t see a benefit to it.”
Planning deployment early is important. Schnepp sums it up, “The more the transit agency puts into the application, into the deployment of it, the more they are going to get out.” He cites the deployment at MARTA in Atlanta as an example.
MARTA had people dedicated to the deployment for 18 months; put them on the core team of the project working side-by-side with Maximus. “We have a core team of folks that really understand the application and we had a core team on our side as were deploying that really understood MARTA.
“The other end of the spectrum is the folks that don’t have the bandwidth, don’t have the leadership at the top to say ‘yeah, we need to pull people out of their full-time jobs.’
“Even if we do everything, the day we leave, they don’t have the folks on staff that really know the application the way they should,” he explains.
Smith adds that it takes dedication in not only time, but also in flexibility in business practices. “They need to make sure that they are flexible enough that their business practices can change…
“A good software package makes, or forces, an agency to follow the rules, do the right processes.” She adds with a laugh, “Any good software doesn’t let you do shortcuts.”
Expectations for the Future
As with any technology, things are already changing for the future. Many of the systems are browser-based. Those that are not, are in the process of developing that technology. From Maximus’ experience, “That really helps the IT department to roll it out on the shop floors, really get technicians interacting with touch screen kiosks,” Schnepp says.
“By having a Web-based product, it is very easy to have one central server and, as long as you have access through your Intranet or the Internet, now those shops are connected,” adds Osborn. It is easier to deploy, easily maintained and easily accessed.
Wireless technology is becoming more common. With Clever Devices, the AVM wirelessly downloads from the vehicle versus having to walk in the lot, find the bus and hook up a system. Schnepp adds, “MARTA just rolled out every single track walker and track technician and signal technician has a mobile device so they are completely wireless out there on the track.” Any place where they do not have coverage, when they come near an RF connection, it automatically detects it and forwards everything it has been storing.
Osborn says the industry is starting to see more utilization of RFID technology. “A bus comes in; there is an RF tag that has different readings, whether it is the speed or the distance it drove that day. That data is now transmitted automatically to the computer.”
Schnepp explains, “These RFID tags are real cheap now, they are pennies on the dollar. They sit here and emit ‘I’m signal box 456. I was built on this day. Here is a component list of what I have in me.’ Very basic information, but really good information.”
Making this software and technology more accessible to mid- and small-sized systems was also mentioned as an important focus for the future. Miller mentions one solution that has happened in other industries, “There is so much to know and there is so much to learn, having that offered as a service is something that they can subcontract out or outsource. That is hopefully a trend that I think will happen.”
All of the directions the technology is headed, it is towards making it easier to use, more affordable and to provide better information. Miller sums it up, “Our goal is to really make that easier for them and not harder.”