Article

Small Fleet Software

For many small fleets, upgrading the shop with maintenance software is a big cost issue.

February 2007, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Jim Beach, Technology Editor - Also by this author

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In some ways, the shop is still the ugly stepbrother in a fleet operation. The accounting and dispatch departments get most of the attention at many companies.

That's certainly the case with computers. While many small fleets have gone to trucking-specific software packages to automate their accounting and dispatching functions, fewer have extended that automation to their maintenance shop.

"We have an enormous number of fleets who contact us that don't have anything in the shop in terms of a software package," says Charles Arsenault, the founder and CEO of Arsenault Associates.

For many fleets, it's a cost issue. Buying maintenance software can represent a significant investment. Ed Cooper, CEO of Squarerigger Software in Silverdale, Wash., says his company rarely has inquiries from fleets of fewer than 100 trucks.

"One of the things that has kept the small fleet owner from having good maintenance software has been that much of the software out there has been designed for large users and cost thousands of dollars," says Wayne McFarland, CEO of LinkIt Software, Santa Clarita, Calif.

"Smaller fleets are more cognizant of price," Cooper agrees, but that should not be the primary reason to take a pass on maintenance software. "A smart fleet manager or business owner will look at the return on his investment rather than on what they are spending. And (this kind of software) is an investment - it's not a consumable product."

Small fleets gain the same benefits as large fleets from fleet maintenance software, even though many small fleet managers are unaware of the many products available.

"Small fleets don't normally belong to groups like the TMC (The Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations)," Arsenault says. "They don't have the opportunity to see what kinds of technologies are out there for them. They don't have a way of finding out what it is they need."

Many small fleets don't recognize the actual number of pieces of equipment they are maintaining in their shop. If they are running 30 or 40 trucks, they may not think they are large enough for a software package.

But their shop is doing work on more than just the trucks, Arsenault says. "They have trailers, maybe refrigeration units, service trucks, dollies and company cars. They actually have more equipment than they perceive."

While all fleets are different, Arsenault and Cooper both say a maintenance software package should do the following:

• Manage fleet assets, including all vehicles, trailers and equipment. The system should record vehicle specifications and other information that assists in planning replacements.

• Automate preventive maintenance and other inspection or services scheduling, such as winterizing.

• Provide instant access to vehicle maintenance histories. Rather than going back through old work orders, technicians can see immediately what services have been performed on a specific vehicle.

• Track parts and labor costs and costs per mile per unit and per component. "This helps the fleet manager make decisions on best operating equipment from a cost standpoint," Arsenault says.

• Track parts inventory levels. "On the parts side, you want to be able to determine what the correct stocking level is for each part," Cooper says "It has to be able to predict in advance what parts will be required based on the PM schedules that are coming due so the fleet manager can make sure those parts are in stock, whether that be filters, lubricant, belts or hoses."

The system should be bar-code ready so technicians can scan parts into their work orders as they use them.

• Manage vehicle warranty information. A large fleet may have a whole department dedicated to managing warranties. For a small fleet, a software package can make that task much easier.

• Track fuel purchases, fuel mileage and other information. Cooper noted that a system should be able to receive data from a fleet's own tanks as well as import data from fuel vendors such as FuelMan, Petrovend or CFN.

• Track purchase orders for outside vendors and link to the company's management software - be that a package such as QuickBooks or a full-featured enterprise system.

• Track vehicle and driver licensing, registration and certification information, expiration dates, etc.

• Maintain reports and files needed for regulatory inspection purposes.

THE PAYBACK

The important thing for a small fleet manager to remember is that his issues are the same as those a large fleet manager faces. Maintenance software packages make managing these issues easier and they save fleets money regardless of size.

"One of the first benefits fleets will see is in their parts inventory," Cooper says. "We've been doing this for 24 years, so we have real good historical evidence.

"What people tell us all the time is that the system pays for itself just in their ability to track their inventory and be able to identify obsolete or slow-moving parts. They system allows them to get as close as possible to a just-in-time ordering system for parts."

Arsenault agrees automating a fleet's parts inventory and ordering function delivers real savings. "You can see a 30 percent reduction in on-hand parts once a fleet begins using a software package."

He says he recently asked a 1,000-truck fleet what they had in parts inventory. "The company president estimated about $250,000 in parts. The fleet manager said it was more like $500,000. When we got out there and inventoried the parts, they had over $1 million on parts inventory, 60 percent of that in obsolete parts.

"Even for a small fleet, instead of stocking $50,000 in parts, if you can cut that in half, that gives you $25,000 more to work with instead of having it just sit there on a shelf. Being able to manage the inventory is an immediate savings that people see."

Maintenance software will also yield savings in terms of technician productivity. "You can analyze how long mechanics take to do particular services," Cooper says. "This allows you to determine who the best mechanic is to do a specific service." Such software also tracks comebacks, and eliminates re-work because the systems have complete vehicle service histories instantly available.

The fuel-tracking and cost-per-mile function in maintenance software allows fleet managers to easily spot problem equipment. "We have what we call the 10 percent rule, where 10 percent of your trucks will be responsible for 40 percent of your costs, 50 percent of your work and 70 percent of your frustration," Arsenault says. Maintenance software allows you to spot these units so when it's time to get new equipment, the fleet manager can sit down with the business owner and make recommendations based on documented vehicle histories.

GETTING STARTED

If your fleet is running trucking-specific management software for accounting, dispatching and other functions, chances are there are maintenance modules available for your particular system. Stand-alone products are also available, with the pricing most often based on number of vehicles and number of users. Small fleets should realize they don't have to invest in a lot of computer equipment to run maintenance software.

"Let's say you have one primary shop and you run 75 trucks," Arsenault says. "If you have a good-quality PC - which you can buy nowadays for $800 to $1,000 - and a printer, that's plenty of computing power. The information from ours and other packages can be exported to files like Excel or Access, so they can send their information to the front office in digital format instead of paper."

The PC should be on the shop floor so technicians have easy access to schedules, vehicle history, service tasks and other information. The fleet manager also needs access to the computer for reports and management information.

One computer can do the job in the small shop, but many fleets may want to go further and link that computer to the company network. If that's the case, your maintenance software can share information with your accounting/dispatch software.

LinkIt Software's Wayne McFarland says his company targets small trucking fleets with its EZ Maintenance software because they felt there were few options for a "feature-rich," customizable program for small fleets. "What the small fleet should look for is a flat-priced boxed product that includes every module they need to track and control maintenance for any vehicle or piece of equipment they have.

"It should be like buying Microsoft Office," he says. "It should be network-ready and multi-user enabled, right out of the box."

LinkIt also offers a new version of its software over the Internet called EZ Maintenance Web. The product is available in various account sizes for as little as $50 a month plus a small setup fee. All a fleet needs is simple Internet access. Other software providers also offer web-based products where fleet data are maintained on the vendors' servers. Fleets are taking advantage of these web-based programs in greater numbers.

"There is a large percentage going that way," Arsenault says. "These products are called ASPs or on-demand programs. Fleets like them because there is not a huge capital expense in software. Costs can be as low as $150 a month and you can get up and running very quickly."

THE FLEET PERSPECTIVE

While Apex Bulk Commodities, Adelanto, Calif., is not what one would consider a small fleet, their experience with maintenance software is illustrative of what many fleets find.

The company installed an enterprise system from Innovative Computing about nine years ago. Part of the package was a maintenance management module. According to Mike Siebert, director of maintenance, the company has about 900 pieces of equipment running out of five terminals. He uses the system to track PMs, schedule work, generate reports, inventory parts, generate purchase orders and repair orders and track warranties, among other things.

"The big thing with this system is tracking the PMs company-wide in all our terminals," he says. "Any one of our shop managers can go in and immediately see when a piece of equipment was serviced."

Apex's maintenance system has proven its ability to save the company money by tracking costs per mile "on any component on the truck," he says, allowing him to monitor which components might be causing the most trouble. "You can track the history on clutches or alternators and get a feel for when they are going to fail so you can set up a PM program to change them out before they fail. That saves you downtime on the highway."

Another benefit of the system comes into play when the DOT comes in for inspections. "The DOT loves the system. All our information is on computer. Before, they had to go through boxes and boxes of vehicle inspection reports and drivers logs. Now, in an hour they can do what it used to take them eight hours to do."

Siebert agrees that maintenance software is something many smaller and even medium-sized fleets have yet to embrace. "I've talked to other companies that might have 300 pieces of equipment and they haven't caught up yet with the software. They are still trying to track PMs by putting stickers in the windshields of their trucks and keeping records in a book.

"Sometimes people grow so fast, they overlook some of the simple things that could be implemented," he says. "Accounting will get their software, dispatch will get their software, but the shop is usually lowest on the totem pole."

PLANNING FOR GROWTH

Rocha Transportation of Modesto, Calif., runs 42 trucks and plans to begin implementing maintenance management software from Squarerigger this year in preparation for future growth, according to safety manager Sam Cross.

The company has had the software on hand, "but we have not been using it as a maintenance tool yet," Cross says. "We've got McLeod Software for dispatch now, and we want to get the maintenance program up and running as well.

"We're relatively small and the vehicles all come home so we have a pretty good idea when maintenance is due. But as we become a bigger operation, running this software will be absolutely essential. I refer to it as building infrastructure, so if we want to expand, we can - and still maintain control."

The current spreadsheet system has been adequate for Rocha to this point, and the costs associated with implementing software has been another hurdle.

"We're very compliant in terms of keeping the records we need and getting our PMs done when they are required," Cross says. "A lot of it (implementing the software) is that you do it because you have the volume that can pay for it. We're not there yet, volume-wise, but we could be in a year or two, so we want to have it in place."

In addition to helping with maintenance record-keeping and compliance issues, Cross believes maintenance software also helps pinpoint equipment problems and provide the documentation needed to get these problems addressed by the OEM.

Both Siebert and Cross acknowledge the systems alone cannot make a fleet's maintenance functions more efficient and productive.

Much depends upon the quality of the information entered. "The thing in dealing with these software programs is that they are only as good as the information entered, "Cross says. "And somebody has got to load it."

Siebert agrees. While he praises the capabilities of such systems, he cautions it still takes proper management to get the most benefit.

"A lot of people have systems in place but they still don't manage their equipment the way it should be managed."

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