Tools for tracking trucks
Information technology developments that spur productivity are highly valued, including those that have occurred in truck management and maintenance. Noteworthy technology trends include the use of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and application service providers (ASP) to help manage truck maintenance, and the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) systems and local area networks (LAN) to track the status of trucks in a fleet. Each development has led to increased efficiency and productivity, and each has changed the way fleets are managed.
Some days, fleet superintendents must wonder if they are managing maintenance or if maintenance is managing them. Today’s CMMS have the potential to tip the balance of power toward a fleet superintendent, but even CMMS vendors are well aware of the variables of managing fleets and usually do not present their products as panaceas.
Fleet superintendents who have maintenance software tend to use it for the applications most important to them, like consumers who buy personal computers and use only a portion of the software programs that come with them. However, maintenance software can go beyond the basics of preventive maintenance scheduling and perform such duties as tracking claim warranty as well as re-ordering parts.
Maintenance software programs all aim to do the same thing: improve productivity by managing maintenance and repair work with greater efficiency. But they do not all go about it the same way.
As a result, fleet superintendents searching for maintenance management software should begin by looking for a package that is user-friendly. Some suppliers claim that their software can be learned in a matter of hours. If that is the case, they should be willing to let you try it for a couple of hours and find out for yourself. In fact, most suppliers allow maintenance facilities to test their software for much longer than that to determine whether it will fit their needs.
“[You need to] know what you want to get out of it [and] what you expect the software to do,” says Mike Ohlinger, co-owner of Computerized Fleet Analysis (CFA), Addison, Ill. “If all you’re really interested in is keeping track of PMs [preventive maintenance] and making sure PMs are up to date, you can put it in a spreadsheet.” Ohlinger also suggests that fleet superintendents also should decide what other functions they would like the maintenance software to perform, such as monitoring tire wear and tracking vehicle mileage.
There are several ways to search for an appropriate maintenance software program, including asking for recommendations from colleagues in fleet maintenance and from the original equipment manufacturers. CMMS systems also can be found on the Internet.
Renting software is an alternative to purchasing it. ASPs lease fleet management software, which is accessible on the Internet. For a monthly fee, a fleet manager can lease one or more software applications from an ASP that hosts the applications at its data center. The fleet facility only needs an Internet connection and browser to use the applications.
Leased software performs the same tasks as purchased software, and it can include maintenance and administration activities, such as human resources. The main difference is cost — subscribing to an ASP is cheaper than purchasing software.
What is the best way to evaluate whether an ASP is reliable and will be a good fit? Start by creating a checklist to help decide whether a provider’s service would perform the required tasks. Some of the steps to take include:
Review the financial health of the ASP. Ask the provider for its financial statements.
Determine what the provider will do when the system goes down. Whether a hacker causes havoc or a technical problem arises, a fleet superintendent needs to be prepared — and that means making sure that the service provider has a recovery plan.
Spell out the details for making changes to the system. If the process is clearly understood by both sides, it helps to minimize disruptions in the work flow. Ask what it will cost to make changes and how they would be calculated.
Be sure that the contract stipulates service levels. Responsibilities, such as who fixes hardware and how much user training will be provided, must be stated clearly.
Define performance warranties. For example, if the monthly performance warranty is 99.9 percent uptime, determine how that is to be calculated. Stipulate a penalty, such as a discount on the next month’s service, if 99.9 percent uptime is not maintained. Also, determine if upgrades are included in the monthly service fee.
Build an acceptance period into the contract so there is an option to cancel the agreement after 60 or 90 days.
Finally, have the ASP escrow the source code, which is the software program’s computer language. If the ASP were to go out of business, for example, stipulate in the contract that the user can own the source code.
Know where your trucks are
Finally, many municipal fleet managers are using information technology in combination with RFID systems to make it easier to keep tabs on the location of trucks. In addition to its location, a truck’s status — whether it has been equipped with a snow plow, for instance, or whether it is due for maintenance — can be determined quickly and easily by using a LAN integrated with fleet management software. The LAN typically consists of low-powered radio frequency transmitters (tags) placed on fleet vehicles and antennas installed throughout the fleet yard.
The tags are programmed to send signals to the antennas at set intervals according to a fleet’s management needs. Working in concert with the LAN, the fleet management software keeps a record of every vehicle and piece of equipment so that information can be quickly accessed.
Municipal fleet managers should not be intimidated by high-tech terms like ASPs, RFIDs and LANs. Like any of the tools in the toolbox, managers can learn to use them skillfully to improve their fleets.
Stephen Bennett, a freelance writer in New Milford, Conn.