Travel on Michigan highways has increased by more than one-third in the last decade, yet the number of lane-miles to support this traffic has increased just 3 percent. Demands on Michigan's highways have unfortunately moved in the opposite direction of resources: operating revenues have fallen, and staff cuts at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) have been substantial. Today, a budget crisis fueled by shock waves from auto company woes and the sub-prime meltdown has created challenges that are unprecedented for the agency.
Some 27,345 lane-miles comprise the Michigan highway system and are therefore the responsibility of MDOT. Despite limited resources, MDOT has a comprehensive strategy in place for reconstruction, rehabilitation and preventive maintenance for highways and bridges. It is lean and effective. It uses technology where there's a demonstrable payback. And it has proven to be highly cost-efficient.
There are 10 maintenance garages in the southwest region of the state. One of the largest, based in Paw Paw, serves a nine-county area that arguably faces the greatest operational challenges due to months of active winter weather.
Mark Lester is the regional fleet manager for the southwest region. His operation encompasses 12 fully-staffed garages that together maintain a fleet of 120 plow trucks, 60 light and medium-duty dump trucks, graters, backhoes, pickups, and tractors.
Lester has a practical, no-nonsense management style which recognizes that the best ideas often come from the field. In 2000, two drivers at his South Haven garage suggested a technology they believed could automate the cumbersome and sometimes hazardous task of manually retrieving hours and miles from individual equipment. The technology, trade-named Service Tracker, had recently been commercialized by OEM Data Delivery, of Shelton, Conn., a company with a strong track record in jobsite information management for construction companies and other private-sector entities.
"At that time, we had to manually retrieve hours and miles from equipment and put them in an Excel spreadsheet every two weeks, to see if and when services were due. Aside from the hazard of climbing into cabs in the pre-dawn hours, it took time — lots of it. By our calculations, two hours every other week per location, times 26 weeks, at an average total employee cost of $40 per hour," Lester said.
The Service Tracker system, by contrast, accomplishes this task electronically. Data is captured automatically on personal digital assistants (PDAs), which are "beamed" at each piece of equipment in the yard or garage biweekly. Data is encrypted, transmitted to a secure data vault, and made available to management via password-protected web reports. It can also be integrated with any back office system. "So, instead of spreadsheets, I access information online, and I can export it into any other form I want. The process is easier, man-hours are fewer, and there's less error," Lester said.
"Number transpositions are inevitable, no matter how careful people are," he observed. "Service Trackers have reduced the time spent, and the errors, and made both regulatory and operational reporting easier. Plus, we have more options for reports. I can see a 'service due' report on-demand, rather than looking at every piece of equipment." In addition to essential data, OEM Data Delivery offers comprehensive report analysis weekly or monthly, in the form that's most useful to individual clients.
Lester can also run a report showing what services are due in the next 40 hours (or any other hour variant). "This feature allows maintenance groups to plan ahead for the downtime of particular machines, knowing in advance what filters, fluids, etc., will be required for that service," he said. It also allows management to plan, in MDOT's case, for major storms or road maintenance so that service can be accomplished at the most practical time, and excess wear and equipment malfunction can be prevented.
Historical reports — service histories with detailed mechanic notations — can also be generated with the Service Tracker system. These allow owners of fleets such as MDOT to see immediately where the problems are. "One repair on a particular day doesn't tell you much," Lester explained. "Look-back reports flag the equipment units that demand the most maintenance, so good decisions can be made about repair or replacement."
Lester implemented the Service Tracker system all at once, without burdening the state's IT department. Installs — a total of 430 — were done by MDOT service personnel as a part of normally scheduled maintenance. Roll-out was accomplished at all sites within 30 days. "When we discuss this concept with other divisions, we emphasize the very real ergonomic advantage of the system, along with the man-hour savings, at $40 per hour, per employee. The system gave us a fast return on our investment, too. OEM did the training, and returned for a second session to make certain we were getting full benefit from all of the features," Lester said.
To do anything like this with off-the-shelf devices — something that was suggested — "would have been difficult, if not impossible," Lester added.
Selling the idea to Michigan's Department of Information Technology was not easy, either. At least, not at first. "How do you quantify better ergonomics, and fewer errors? You can't, but dollars-and-cents savings in man-hours are easy to understand," Lester said.
"It was certainly counter-intuitive to suggest capital spending at a time when budgets were more strained than they had been in a generation. But in fact, a tool like this, that would make solid economic sense in normal budgetary times, was far more compelling now. The return on investment for this equipment was short — less than a year — and the benefits recur each year."
The Service Tracker configuration currently at MDOT is used exclusively for tracking equipment hours and miles. Systems can also be configured to track crew and subcontractor hours, and the consumption of fuel and other consumables. The latter capability has created a lot of demand recently, according to OEM Data Delivery Director of Business Development Sam Simons. "As the price of crude inches toward $100 per barrel, it has become critically important, for both public and private sector customers, to assure that all fuel is being dispensed appropriately," Simons said.
Another feature of the Service Tracker system that allows management to optimize information is the d-bot. These custom "data robots" monitor incoming data and, based on parameters established by the user, generate e-mail alerts. D-bots are useful for summarizing information such as operator hours, mechanic hours and the vehicles involved, fuel transactions, and fuel dispensed. All equipment enabled with d-bots automatically generates e-mail alerts on services due.
OEM Data Delivery d-bots generate precise, real-time data snapshots and flag suspect data immediately. Suspect data commonly includes equipment that has not been used in more than two weeks, excessive fuel consumption for a specific equipment unit, and equipment missing from inventory.
Managers looking for a system that does not require PDAs can now opt for Service Trackers that use radio transmission. This alternative, trade-named Radio Service Tracker, is a fully automated data collection system based on a gate access.
"The entry gate has an antenna that captures data automatically each day, without human intervention," Simons said. It is regarded as a cost-effective alternative to global positioning systems (GPS) for applications such as municipalities and construction and landfill management, where Service Tracker technology often helps track and manage costs for complex job sites.
Service Trackers have now passed their third anniversary at MDOT with no issues, according to Lester. "Software updates, such as a new program for the PDAs, are made periodically and these arrive via an internet reporting feature," Lester said. Additional cost-saving modules to the OEM Data Delivery system, including fuel tracking and the automating of inspections, are now under consideration.