A low-boy driver hauling for earthmover Ryan, Inc., Janesville, Wis., pulls up to a piece of equipment. With his Nextel phone, he scans a bar code on the machine and manually enters meter readings and other information; the device automatically transmits all the data, including a GPS-coordinated location, to a central computer. From the central computer, Ryan staff and partner companies can access the data through a web interface to analyze statistics, create bills of lading, generate invoices, and initiate other processes without entering any data themselves.
Although this scene may seem futuristic to some heavy-equipment fleet managers, it is played out every day by Ryan due to the leadership of its management group and Greg Kittle, CEM, the company's equipment operation manager and current AEMP president.
For two years, Kittle worked with two in-house staff, a project manager, and technical consultant McFadyen & Associates to create a custom state-of-the-art fleet-management system that went live earlier this year. It is already helping to reduce labor requirements on a grand scale. "Ryan and our partners anticipate eliminating 800 hours of clerical work a year," says Kittle.
What is eliminating clerical work, and providing numerous other benefits, is a custom equipment-asset-management software and hardware initiative that is a big step toward Kittle's goal of fully automated fleet management. Ryan, which has a fleet of approximately 800 heavy and 1,200 light pieces of equipment with a replacement value of $125 million, can save considerable money by adapting proven technology, Kittle says.
"The real goal of the program is to help reduce costs of what we do," he says. "The price for moving a yard of dirt hasn't changed in 20 years, yet all cost inputs have changed tremendously. Labor, equipment, parts and other expenses increase by as much as 10 to 15 percent every year."
The clerical time saving will eventually pay for the software development, yet Kittle says real savings will be derived from better usage of rented equipment and more precise fleet sizing. "The fact that we will be able to better monitor rental units can save $500,000 to $750,000 a year," he says. "More precise fleet sizing can be worth millions of dollars."
At the core of the system is an SQL database accessible through a web interface that can also accept input from properly programmed devices operating through Nextel and Qualcomm telecommunication systems.
Ryan, and its partners, use Internet-compatible Motorola i58 and i88 series phones with GPS chips. McFadyen programs the phones to accept manual entry of the specific data Ryan requires so it can be securely sent to the company's main computer database.
In addition to the phones, which rely on manual entry of all data other than equipment location, all pieces of Ryan's heavy-equipment fleet have Qualcomm GlobalTRACS Equipment Management Solution mounted in their cabs or engine housings to automatically transmit location and engine hour-meter readings. According to Kittle, the rugged units are the size of a PDA and cost is affordable and provides a high return on investment. They are programmed to use traditional cellular-phone technology to automatically transmit data on a nightly basis. If the Nextel connection is not available or is disconnected during transmission, the devices are programmed to store the data and transmit it when a connection is available.
Kittle is not using the Qualcomm units in more equipment partially due to the transmission fee structure. "Qualcomm is working with us to help carriers understand that data transmission is different than voice transmission and they have to redesign pricing plans to enable lower fees for data transmission," says Kittle, who hopes eventually to have independent wireless data transmission solutions available for installation at the factory. "This would help bring down costs dramatically," he says.
Until Kittle is able to use the Qualcomm technology in the entire fleet, he is concentrating it on key equipment. "This technology allows us real-time utilization reporting that helps search for underutilized machines that are geographically closest to the location where they are needed most," he says.
Much of the information that is now available to Ryan is collected and freely used by the company's many strategic partners. But for Ryan to be successful, it needs partners that share its attitudes toward progressive business practices.
While regional manager at Patten, the Chicago-area Caterpillar dealer, Kittle was widely exposed to the Continual Process Improvement philosophy. And although Ryan does not strictly follow this process, it does want partners who are willing to innovate. "I would like to think that our relationship with partners is at a high level," Kittle says. "We're as concerned with their profitability as they are with ours. Our relationships are a competitive advantage."
As part of its relationship-development plan, Ryan allows partners to use its website to host data for other clients. Because Ryan knew it would share the benefits of this initiative, it asked its partners to share the cost of the software development and therefore reduced its out of pocket costs.
Ryan also plans to share its collected data with manufacturers to help them determine performance enhancements. "Manufacturers can use the information to build a better product and improve system prognostics and performance, all of which could improve operation costs," Kittle says.
Kittle is happy with what his technology team has implemented, but he says the company's only about half way there. Still in development is the full automation of in-field processes.
"What we want it to be able to do is fully automate data collection," Kittle says. "An example of that would be fuel and equipment moves," he says, pointing to radio frequency identity (RFID) technology as the means to this end.
His technology-development team is testing the most cost-effective ways to use RFID, Bluetooth wireless data transmission, and other tools to reduce input required.
Kittle is also beginning to work with a computer-modeling program to test processes and see where to improve efficiencies. The program, called Simulate, is used for a variety of studies, including one on cut-and-fill projects. Using GPS location data, engine meters and other information, superintendents can review the efficiency of different hauling systems to determine if it would be best to have some trucks take fill to a different location because too many trucks are backed up at the main location.
When updated with real-time data, the modeling program may be able to prevent bottlenecks and increase efficiencies in the field, Kittle says. And that's what partnering for technological excellence is ultimately all about.