Effective Fleet Management

By Christina Fisher | September 28, 2010

By the time Vecellio & Grogan (V&G) finishes the 160-acre FedEx cargo hub project at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, NC, which also includes three other related projects – a new 9,000-foot-long runway and taxiway, relocating Bryan Boulevard, and a site for Honda Aircraft Company's world headquarters – its fleet of earthmoving equipment will have excavated and hauled over 15 million cubic yards of dirt to reconfigure the land. All the projects are ahead of schedule and will open as planned in 2009.

To keep on schedule, V&G used a fleet of 12 Cat 777C 90-ton end dumps; eight Cat 740 articulated trucks; eight Cat 631 E scrapers; 14 Cat dozers from the D5N up to the D10 in size; 12 Cat excavators from a 315 up to two 5110s with 10-cubic-yard buckets; and numerous support machines working up to 22 hours a day over four years.

In order to achieve the level of productivity required to move this massive quantity of dirt and stay on schedule, V&G's fleet of equipment must be meticulously maintained for optimum performance. This responsibility falls under Danny Walker, V&G equipment superintendent, who uses Caterpillar's EquipmentManager and Product Link remote tracking and management system on 117 pieces of equipment out of a total fleet of 245 earthmoving machines located on nine projects in four states.

EquipmentManager is a secure, web-based application that uses key indicators from equipment such as hours, location and diagnostic codes. Combined with tools such as mapping, maintenance scheduling and troubleshooting instructions, EquipmentManager quickly sorts through machine data to identify events that require attention and delivers information in a meaningful and actionable manner. Using satellite technology, Product Link is the hardware that enables information flow between onboard systems and EquipmentManager. The remote management system provides machine location and hours, as well as time and geo-fencing capabilities.

Since 2004, Walker has been working closely with Joey Pickett, technology solutions representative with Carolina Cat. Together, they have been customizing the EquipmentManager and Product Link technology to meet V&G's specific needs. This has included tying in Product Link with the J.D. Edwards business platform software that V&G uses. Karen Hoylman, IT Applications manager, and Ana Jakusevich, senior programmer at V&G, managed and developed the software to allow this interface. To date, V&G has purchased and installed over $150,000 worth of Product Link technology on its machines, and Walker is quick to point out that the “benefits outweighed the initial cost of the systems early on, and all new Caterpillar machines have been ordered with Productlink.”

Walker primarily uses Product Link to schedule preventive maintenance, receive fault codes that require immediate action, monitor operators, and monitor hours and fuel consumption for cost basis.

Preventive Maintenance

Although the current generation of Product Link software does not send out an alert when preventive maintenance is due on a machine (the next generation of software will have this capability), V&G has accomplished this by tying it into its J.D. Edwards business platform. Walker points out, though, that the J.D. Edwards business platform is not necessary to make effective use of PL to track maintenance schedules.

By using the system to closely monitor V&G's equipment, Walker is able to schedule maintenance more effectively so it won't impact productivity on the job because of equipment downtime. He's also been able to extend component and engine life, which means he is lowering his fleet's operating costs.

Carolina Cat in Charlotte, NC, has also worked with V&G to develop a complete filter list for every machine in their fleet. Pickett then tied in V&G with Caterpillar's Scheduled Oil Sampling (SOS) program, so that every SOS alert goes directly to Walker's e-mail. When a machine is due for service, Walker can look at the Product Link report, validate the hours, choose the machine from a drop-down menu, see what preventive maintenance level is due, push a button, and the parts for the preventive maintenance service are boxed and delivered to the project. Walker gets notified at 30 hours prior to scheduled service interval through the J.D. Edwards platform. He can often extend the service hours because he is monitoring each machine so closely.

“Right now we are running a (Caterpillar) 777B 22 hours a day with 17,000 hours on its engine that has perfect oil samples,” says Walker.

Early Detection – Immediate Action

Walker has also been able to extend the component and engine life on his machines by receiving fault codes on his BlackBerry. This allows him and his technicians to act immediately on a problem.

Joey Pickett points out that he worked with Walker to determine at what level these fault codes would be received.

“What we did with V&G was to have everything become immediate,” says Pickett. “We put the tool in the customer's hand, and someone with Danny's experience can determine if it's something he needs to act on now or later.”

“You know the nature of your machines,” adds Danny Walker. “Something will come across everyday because that's just the nature of the machine. If it's beyond the routine occurrence, though, I can call one of my mechanics and have him go out to the machine to take a look and fix it.”

On a daily basis, Walker uses the software to track events and log codes for every machine. The log codes tell him what is wrong on any machine at any location. “I can tell my mechanic to go out and then help him troubleshoot what's wrong; I already know the code. The mechanic is not going in blind. We can then schedule repairs for after work or on the weekend because we know what's going on with the machine.”

The importance of these features, and Walker's extensive experience, cannot be underestimated.

“A year ago, for example, Joey and I received an error code on one of our Cat 5110 excavators – loss of coolant flow,” says Walker. “The engine could have blown apart. We called the foreman and told him to shut down the machine. If we hadn't, we would have been faced with a $120,000 engine rebuild.”

Monitoring Operators

While Product Link is not really an operator training tool, it can be used to determine when corrective action must be taken by monitoring operator activity. This also helps extend equipment life.

“I received a fault code on an IT38H wheel loader that the operator had applied the parking brake while the machine was in motion,” says Walker. “I called the superintendent to go out and talk to the operator. On a 777 in West Virginia, it came across that the operator was overheating the back brakes on a long, steep haul. We were able to tell the operator to go to a lower gear to avoid overheating and losing the brakes. You don't realize how much damage can be done to a machine's engine or powertrain due to operator error.”

Monitoring Hours, Fuel Usage

In addition to monitoring hours for maintenance purposes, V&G also monitors hours for rental billing purposes and to ensure that a piece of equipment is being effectively used.

“One non-Cat machine we've put it on was a 1972 CMI fine grading machine,” says Walker. “We had it leased to another company, and we could see exactly when they ran it and then bill them for operational hours.”

V&G also looks at operational hours to determine if a machine is being fully used on a project. If it's not, it can be moved to another project.

Although the Product Link system does not specifically conserve fuel, it does monitor fuel usage. Walker points out that this is helpful when bidding jobs. “Before we bid a job, we download the fuel consumptions of different machines to see what their gallons-per-hour usage has been. In bidding a project, we estimate how many hours we'll use each machine, and can fine tune the total gallons of fuel needed during the life of the project from Product Link gallon/hour readings.”

Locating, Reselling Equipment

The Product Link software also offers the capability to locate equipment. The system can alert you when a machine operates beyond owner-identified time configurations or when machines move in or out of virtual geographic fences.

V&G was able to recover two pieces of stolen equipment through Product Link. Their computer system gave them the latitude and longitude of the equipment, and V&G was able to locate and retrieve them within one hour after being notified of their disappearance.

When the time comes to replace a piece of equipment, V&G typically sells its used machines and occasionally uses them for trade-ins on new equipment. Because they have kept detailed records, a customer purchasing that piece of used equipment has proof that it's been maintained and repaired properly.

“Even if you don't get a higher dollar value for it, if a customer is choosing between a machine with no maintenance history and yours – the choice is clear,” says Walker.

Predictive Maintenance

By tracking each piece of equipment through an equipment management system such as Product Link, V&G is actually moving towards predictive maintenance. With his experience and expertise, Walker can study the detailed history of the machines in his fleet to determine future part use and schedule maintenance and downtime fairly accurately. This helps with budgeting, especially for big ticket expenditures such as rebuilds and replacement of major machine components. Walker can also determine if a new equipment purchase is needed in the future.

On The Horizon

Danny Walker and Joey Pickett point out that software updates and training never stop, so they keep in constant contact with each other. V&G continues to develop its own software programs to use the data from Product Link to best suit its needs. In addition, V&G is working closely with Carolina Cat and Caterpillar, offering feedback on the new generation of Product Link software.

However, any maintenance software is only an additional tool in a fleet management program. No software can replace an experienced maintenance technician who uses the information provided by the software wisely and effectively.

As Joey Pickett points out, “Vecellio & Grogan really understands what the impact of maintenance and repair really is. It's not just the cost of the repair, it's the safety issue. It's the long-term cost to the machine; it's the value of the machine at the end. From top to bottom they understand. It's a mentality throughout the company.

“Too many companies put these issues last. Vecellio & Grogan puts this first.”