Wheel Power

By Rod Walton, Senior Editor

Innovations Accelerate Fleet Management Future

Success is both a destination and a journey.

Sound likes a money line for motivational speakers, but this is literally the truth for electric utility fleet managers. The job, from morning to night, is getting their company’s vehicles repaired, rotated and rolling down the road to the next dispatch call. They have to be obsessed with safety, environmental, fuel, mechanical, cost and scheduling concerns. A fleet manager’s brain can’t drive 55.

Many of them gathered in June at the annual Electric Utility Fleet Managers Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. Presentations focused on regulatory and legislative updates, Ansi 92.2 standards, best processes, safety, products, technician training, maintenance and other issues. The way forward is accelerating as transportation planners deal with shifts to natural gas-fueled and electric motors, directional aids such as GPS and emergency planning, not to mention leaps in dispatch software and operational metrics.

One of the key presenters at the EUFMC, CMS Energy fleet manager Kyle Jones, talked about “break-through thinking” that pushes advances in mechanic efficiency, cost (per-class unit calculations) and, last but not least, overall vision. In speaking later with POWERGRID International, Jones said that “break-through thinking is stretching yourself to achieve a goal which you can barely see or touch. It is encouraging your team to achieve the miracle.”

What does that kind of victory look like? On the safety front, CMS unit Consumers Energy reduced injuries by close to 90 percent, while capital spending was used to replace costly older vehicles and isolate operational data to identify and reduce under-used models. The team also broke down planned and demand work to make scheduling more efficient.

“Setting the target of planned work each week is based on hours required and working daily with operations to fulfill the needs of the demand work,” Jones said. “Our current target is to complete 70 percent of planned work weekly.”

Karen Garrett, product planning analyst for the Freightliner On-Highway division of Daimler Trucks North America, focuses on making fleet managers aware of the latest ways to avoid the biggest bugaboo of fleets-accidents-and detailing the safety systems of the future. She talked about game changers entering the proverbial information superhighway on-ramp such as active lane assistance, active blind spot assistance and surround view.

These futuristic and automated safety aids already are being utilized in the passenger car market, but the commercial side is waiting for proof that they really meet the demands of the trade.

These types of systems “require a significant amount of validation through many use cases and environments to ensure the components can stand up to the rigorous life-cycle of the truck,” Garrett said. “Many of these systems are also in the process of commercializing-developing up to the heavy duty truck use cases we require all our components meet. These two pieces together are driving our timing to introduce these systems on our trucks.”

A 2015 National Transportation Safety Board report focused on the use of forward collision avoidance systems to prevent and mitigate rear-end crashes (Figure 1). The systems factored into the NTSB report included collision warning systems, dynamic brake support, automated emergency braking and other avoidance technologies.

FIGURE 1: Accidents with automated vs. no automated safety aids
FIGURE 1: Accidents with automated vs. no automated safety aids

According to the NTSB, dangerous impacts fell dramatically with new avoidance systems in place as opposed to not having them. Rear-end collisions fell 71 percent with systems included, while improper lane changes (clearly avoidable with good driving practices) dropped 46 percent per million miles.

Safety is crucial, no doubt. Picking the right truck for the job also is a key decision for fleet buyers. Utilities also must determine if enhancements are worth the cost of upkeep. CMS Energy developed a cost-per-class unit metric to help it push beyond typical benchmarking studies.

“Our fleet team wanted to show the relationship between the overall number of units with the class size vs. the dollars required to maintain,” CMS’ Jones said. He admitted, though, that this metric did not give the whole story.

“This metric provided substantial opportunities to our group identifying cost savings,” he said. “However, what we found was this metric was only an internal measurement (and) it did not provide the view in how we impact the overall operation. We are currently utilizing this metric to ensure we are controlling costs. . . We established the mechanic efficiency index to show how our performance was impacting unit availability.”

It’s not enough to simply buy new bells and whistles. Someone must know how they function. In addition, fleet managers must ensure they have the supply chain ready to roll and the skilled technicians to work with new components.

Meanwhile, some things never change, no matter how much the technology improves. Jones said that good managers must always get back to the basics. They must spend time with the mechanics and field crews to understand what works and what is not running on all cylinders. They must determine how to keep it all running at premium levels, sometimes with lower-octane budgets.

“The most challenging part of fleet is really two-fold: Delivering world-class performance in service of operations and competing for capital dollars while keeping the balance of lifecycle in check-all the while dealing with the annual demands of reducing O&M,” Jones said.

Downtime in the garage cuts down margin as much as any other kind of waste. The health of a fleet is most important when it’s needed in sudden fashion, such as disaster calls and other field repairs. Another key is knowing what assets are positioned where and using technology to make calls quickly and accurately.

Efficient and highly-connected dispatch services can be the bird’s-eye view for repair crews responding to an outage. Gaps in deployment wastes time and money, so things like GPS tracking technology can not only get crews where they need to be, but also allow both dispatchers and fleet managers to know in real-time when one job is done and when it’s time to move on to the next.

“Having the ability to dispatch crews- based on who’s closest to the outage, type of truck or skillset of the crew-makes response times faster and makes the fleet more efficient when they arrive to the outages,” said Ryan Driscoll, marketing director for tracking software firm GPS Insight. “Safety of these crews is also a concern in bad conditions. Giving crews panic buttons they wear on their person allows dispatch to quickly respond to emergency situations on jobsites as well.”

Training is a foundation for all successful fleet deployment and maintenance success. Excellent training, Pacific Gas & Electric’s fleet operations manager Ana Sarver pointed out at the EUFMC event, requires engagement from mechanics, engineering and garage operations leadership.

CMS Energy’s Jones added that his utility has developed a mechanic efficiency index that includes average time for preventative maintenance, demand workload, hours billed, overtime and something called “quality comebacks.” Repair comebacks, of course, cost time and additional money. Organizing these factors into an index was a comprehensive way of making sense of fleet data.

“This index allows us to take the most important actors of a technician’s day and track the progress through a single metric,” he said. “The method of the index focuses on several key performance indicators at once, giving us the ability to quickly identify gaps and determine what adjustments need to be made by each mechanic to achieve the desired results.”

Like a good driver who pays attention to oil pressure, temperature and RPMs, electric utility fleet managers must have several gauges to measure progress. They take stock of factors such as fuel, repairs, dispatch timing and, of course, safety. They drive innovations through planned trials and gain invaluable experience in how their crews respond to unplanned crises.

They can never yield on that journey.

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