Question: Spending $1.6 million on an electronic system just to keep track of how many gallons of fuel and oil are pumped into every machine in a fleet seems like management overkill. What's the payoff?
Answer: "A paperless system for recording where our fuel goes and accurately collecting hour information from equipment gives me a good historical database that we can use to estimate costs on future projects," says Mike Monnot, equipment director at Zachry Construction. "I found that with an active, online system that tells me immediately when we get spikes in fuel consumption, we can see when changing conditions start affecting productivity and make sure we have the right equipment on the job."
Before, our data was always a few weeks old. We could never take solid facts to management until it was too late for them to react."
Monnot worked with Morrison-Knudsen for 27 years before coming to head up Zachry's equipment operations in 2000. He first implemented the J4 System for paperless tracking of fuel and lube inventory at M-K, and his experience with similar systems at the East Side Reservoir project illustrates the power of information.
"The Cat Performance Handbook said the most fuel we should expect to burn in the 5230 front shovels we had out there would be 64 gallons per hour, but we hit spikes of over 100 gallons per hour," Monnot says. "I didn't even have to go out to the quarry to know when the drill-and-shoot team was widening their pattern. Fuel consumption would spike, ground-engaging tool costs would go up, and production would fall off. I used that information to help keep the project on schedule."
Monnot convinced Zachry management to invest in the J4 System when he moved to San Antonio. The system starts with a microchip called a unit identifier fixed to the vehicle. The unit identifier is programmed with the machine's equipment number, the types of fluids it requires, and their maximum quantities. The chip is also wired to the engine oil-pressure sensor. When the engine is running, the unit identifier records run time.
When a serviceman arrives to fuel or change oil on the machine, he touches a hand-held reader to the unit identifier, which is mounted to be reached easily from ground level. The reader automatically downloads unit number, time, day, date, and engine run time, as well as the types of fuels and lubes the machine can accept.
The reader is linked wirelessly to a microprocessor on the service truck that can store up to 1,500 transactions. Any time the truck is within a quarter of a mile of the computer in the job trailer, it downloads transaction information via radio frequency. The jobsite computer is linked to Monnot's office through the company intranet.
The plan is to have 1,300 major pieces of Zachry equipment with unit identifiers. There are 750 installed now. Twenty-eight fuel trucks and lube trucks are equipped to use the system, and they're serving 40 projects.
Field service crews quickly grew to love the system because it automatically reconciles the amount of fluids they put on their trucks each day with the gallons pumped on project sites, and it completely eliminates filing fuel tickets and other reports. The information has helped them become more productive and cut maintenance costs.
"It's an excellent time-management tool—I can see exactly how long it takes my people to service any machine," Monnot says. "For example, it has really helped on the High 5 project (the biggest interchange job in Texas history). The site is very congested, and there are places on it that are very hard to get a service truck into. We identified them with the J4 data. Now we anticipate service on machines in those locations and reposition them at the end of the day so it's easier for the service truck to reach."
The system has also helped Monnot prove to project managers that they can get more cost-effective service if they will pay more per hour for both a fuel truck and a lube truck, rather than combination fuel/lube trucks. Zachry had always used combination trucks, but Monnot feels the fleet is maintained better by maintenance people who aren't distracted by high-priority fueling responsibilities. J4 proved it.
"With the system, we showed our project managers how much time we could save for them with separate trucks," Monnot says. "And because our guys are on the job less time, we can split the trucks between jobsites. So they save money, they save time, and we get better maintenance."
Zachry has since added five fuel trucks to the fleet.
One of the first things Monnot discovered when he started getting accurate run-time records is that actual machine hours are about 15 percent less than what operators typically report. So while the initial cost of the system averages about $75,000 per project site, the savings in fuel, lube, filters, and labor consistently recoups that cost in about five months.
An average site has about 34 units on the system. The number of oil changes is reduced by just over 10 percent per month (the projects typically work 50-hour weeks). With less maintenance materials and labor, and less unauthorized fuel use, Monnot says the J4 System saves each project about $14,700 per month.
"The next step is to schedule preventive maintenance and component repairs based on the amount of fuel each machine consumes," Monnot says. "It's a much more accurate way to measure the wear on the oil and on the components. We're still developing the database and getting machines into the system."