Schlouch Inc. is claiming the benefits that technology providers promise when they're trying to sell computers for mechanics. The Pennsylvania site-prep contractor started equipping field technicians with laptop computers about four years ago, primarily to deal with electronics on a new series of track loaders.
"There were things you could do with the machines that were a lot easier if you could hook up to them with a laptop—simple things that we had been relying on dealers to do," says Don Bernosky, equipment and mechanic coordinator at Schlouch. "Even if they were under warranty, the call could cost us from $90 to $120 in drive time. We figured for $3,349 in software, we really needed to be able to do some of these things ourselves."
They started with Caterpillar's Electronic Technician software. But field mechanics quickly began applying the computers to a list of tasks that continues to grow today. Schlouch's investment in repair time has dropped all the while.
"Cat came out with the Service Information System (SIS)," Bernosky says. "They put everything they've printed since 1971—parts manuals, service manuals, service bulletins, everything—on disks."
He bought it.
"We work in a 50- to 75-mile radius from the office, which isn't far, but the problem was that we'd have a guy on one side of that area and he'd run to the other side to deal with a breakdown. If it became something really technical, he wouldn't have the service manuals with him."
Bernosky put a set of SIS disks with each laptop, and has subsequently added John Deere's and Case's disk libraries, so that mechanics wouldn't have to log more drive time to get service information they need.
The disks are updated monthly, so any product changes are documented accurately in the service bulletins and parts manuals.
"Any time you get involved in something that you can't figure out or you can tell has been changed over, you just punch in the part number and the system will pull up all the service bulletins related to that part number," Bernosky says. "You just start reading the most recent ones until you find out what's changed."
Electronic parts books cut time from parts orders, too. Schlouch participates in the online parts systems offered by Caterpillar, Komatsu and John Deere. Each mechanic has his own password, so he can order parts from any Internet connection. Very often, it's the break room at the Blandon shop.
"Even when the dealer's parts department is closed, we can still order parts," Bernosky says. "So if you're in there at 7 o'clock in the evening, the system will let you know where the part is. If it's not in stock, there's still time to get hold of somebody and make arrangements for another machine to be on site. If the part is in stock, the mechanic can tear down the component and be ready to install the part when it arrives."
Ordering by computer has eliminated a lot of mistakes.
"Most of the guys took to the system pretty well because it makes it easier for them to look parts up and order them," he says. "The amount of wrong parts we've had shipped because of a bad number written into the order is down 75 percent.
"And most of the systems have a memory in them so you can store parts lists for jobs that you do all the time. For instance, if you change the cutting edges on a 627 pan, you can make a parts list under your password—the cutting edges, bolts, nuts, washers and router bits that you need. Next time you have to do the cutting edges on a 627, you just pull up the list—you don't even have to look up the parts. I do that every day when I order service kits for the machines."
Field technicians make parts lists directly from the electronic parts books. When they have the opportunity to plug into an Internet connection—at the job trailer or Schlouch's shop, for instance—they can log in and place orders online. In more urgent circumstances, they can phone in orders.
Bernosky says the equipment department will likely try its first wireless cards this year, which would allow the mobile computers to access the Internet without physically plugging in. Mechanics will be able to place parts orders electronically and browse parts and service databases on the Internet (some of which are not available on disks) from the field. It also creates the opportunity for remote access to Schlouch's records of machine service histories.
Bernosky is impressed with how mobile computing's applications have accrued in four years and seems certain of continued advancements, but for the technology's most impressive effect, he returns to the original reason Schlouch put computers in field mechanics' hands.
"Diagnostics are a lot faster—I'd say 15 to 20 percent faster on any of the more technical stuff we come up against," he says.
When the laptop's diagnostic capability is combined with fast and accurate parts orders, it makes believers out of project managers.
"Where you really see the laptop's advantage best is when a machine goes down and there are 25 people standing around saying, 'we need it running again in five minutes,'" Bernosky says.
It's not an everyday situation, of course, but with a total of 445 pieces of equipment, the savings have mounted.
Costs have been surprisingly low. The Schlouch equipment department has five Dell laptops, which the company purchases in quantity at about $2,000 each. They've been dependable. Bernosky has not needed to replace or repair one in five years. Training comes from the vendors.
"We've had Cat, Deere and Komatsu people in here," Bernosky says. "They come in and set up in our training room or hook machines up live in the field. And we've sent guys to factory training operations.
"In all, we spend 15 to 20 hours per year per guy on training. Once you get past some basic computer skills, it goes pretty quick." Schlouch has 11 trained technicians.
The equipment department's results, while difficult to attribute directly to any single source, suggest that the laptop investment is a good one.
Schlouch measures equipment-operation performance in part using a ratio of maintenance and repair hours to machine working hours. In 2002, the ratio was .148 repair hours per working hour. In 2003, it dropped to .147 repair hours per hour, and the ratio was .134 in 2004.
"Lots of factors are part of that," Bernosky says. "But a big part of it is the speed of diagnostic work and less time waiting for parts.
"The biggest value of the laptop for our mechanics is the amount of information it puts at their fingertips—the diagnostic ability and service information, and the parts availability," he concludes. "It's the speed and accuracy of that information."