Not long ago, the bed of one of Grace Pacific's fully loaded super dump trucks took a tumble on the road after a tire came loose. As a result, material spilled across the street. Officials and nearby residents claimed that the driver was reckless, swerving from lane to lane and accelerating above the posted speed limit.
“Obviously those people were lying,” says Lorne Fleming. As the equipment division director for Grace Pacific, a Hawaii-based paving contractor, Fleming is the man who would have been responsible for that mess, so of course he hoped that the accident was not the driver's fault.
It turns out that Fleming was right — they were lying. But save for the account from the driver himself, how did Fleming know?
Grace Pacific's equipment fleet uses Global Positioning System technology, which collects location-based information and combines it with data about engine performance, vehicle up or downtimes, and a myriad of other operating characteristics.
So, when supposed eyewitnesses told Fleming that the driver was at fault, Fleming simply pulled information from the truck's electronic control module, and voila: The data showed that the driver was well within the speed limit; he did not change lanes;and the rpm and throttle position were steady.
“Risk management is one of the big benefactors of a GPS system,” Fleming says. “It doesn't lie, and it doesn't get fooled by misperceptions. It doesn't get misled by the particular emotions of people.”
In the past few years, Grace Pacific's equipment fleet, under the direction of Fleming, has been able to trim costs and maximize efficiency of both its vehicles and operators by as much as 15 percent. Currently, 60 of the company's machines are GPS-equipped, most of them service trucks and backhoe loaders. That figure will grow to 250 in mid-2009 — more than a third of Grace Pacific's total pieces of equipment.
This technology has in part enabled Grace Pacific to remain a vital player in Hawaii's infrastructure development, even in the face of highway funding cuts and the increasing cost of materials.
GPS offers three key functionalities for equipment managers: It provides raw data that show the precise location of the machines, where they have been and where they are going, and whether they are working properly.
“We can tell how many hours a day a truck actually worked, we can look at productivity, and we can make decisions on choice of equipment based on how the equipment that we have now is working,” he says. “The list goes on and on and on.
“But it's only a tool. You as a manager have to start making intelligent decisions based on the information that you're getting.”
So, once a month, Fleming and his team download the parameters and history from the ECM on every truck. By studying this data, he can take action if he finds that a piece of equipment needs immediate repair, which could save the company thousands of dollars. He could also confront an operator if he learns that the operator drives recklessly or is not productive enough.
Lorne Fleming: "GPS doesn't lie."
As part of Grace Pacific's driver management procedures, each truck is set to trigger a notification if an operator speeds above 61 mph. This makes it easy for Fleming, who says several of his mechanics are “lead-foots,” to maintain control over his staff and reprimand them when appropriate. It also helps to keep traffic violation-related costs to a minimum.
On numerous occasions, Fleming found — thanks to GPS and the ECM — that the trucks were burning much less fuel than planned. After looking at the GPS data, he discovered that drivers sat and idled most of the day, which not only violated company policy, but it also went against emissions-regulation efforts to cut idling time to three minutes.
Drivers loaded the trucks at 7 a.m. and then departed for the jobsite. However, the trucks idled there until 1:30 p.m., at which time they were finally unloaded.
“If the truck idles for six of the eight hours in the work day, that means the driver didn't do anything, the truck didn't do anything, and the job didn't get done,” Fleming says. “You can address the inefficiencies of the operation at so many levels.
“The widest point of Hawaii is 70 miles. So it's inconceivable that a truck that's working eight hours is only getting one load a day.”
Fleming says he discussed the issue with his operators and told them: “We've got a truck that we've paid $200,000 for and you're using one load a day, which is 20,000 tons of asphalt. Our revenue on 20,000 tons of asphalt is about $200 per ton. So do the math: We can't afford that truck if you're only going to use it for one load a day.”
As a result of the data provided by the GPS system and the ECMs, Fleming was able to make the decision to sit down with his operations people and get them to understand that they needed to do a better job of scheduling.
Fleming still employs people to physically check each machine regularly. And while fueling the trucks each day, service department staff inspects the tires, bed mirror, lights, bumpers and anything else that contributes to the maintenance and well-being of the truck.
Several departments of the company benefit greatly from this technology, he says, such as asset management, maintenance management, operations management, and the asphalt plants.
“If you've got jobs out there which you've made asphalt for that didn't get done, and the asphalt that they made didn't get delivered, now you've got a bunch of asphalt sitting around that you can't use.”
In addition, Fleming works closely with the company's accounting department and uses management system software called Street Smarts to keep track of operating expenses. Operators are asked to record various data on a daily basis, such as equipment hours, fuel usage, and vehicle deficiencies, which are then input to the management system.
“We think our accounting department provides a great service to us by making sure that we're aware of cost increases that we otherwise might not be aware of,” Fleming says.
“There is nothing that will ever replace the physical element,” Fleming says. “This is, after all, a people business, and our people provide as much input as the expensive GPS system.”
Still, these technologies can help managers keep an eye on their operations from a distance and avoid unanticipated expenses, such as fuel costs from worker procrastination or traffic-violation fees.
Although GPS technology is still expensive, firms cannot afford not to use it, Fleming says. “We are looking at the single greatest advancement of a tool in our industry, probably in our lifetime. It's going to revolutionize our business.”