David Greenlee walks through his company's new repair shop in Fairbanks, Alaska, like a proud father. Big hydraulic lifts, wireless Internet, radiant heat in the floor and filtered air circulating from above make the 28,000 sq-ft shop a mechanic's paradise. "This is a world-class facility," he says.
But Greenlee, 53, still has one problem that eludes many fleet managers: They have trouble controlling how field operators use, and sometimes abuse, the company's construction machines. "You can give someone all the training in the world but you also need to know what is really happening out there," he says.
Greenlee is partnering with efficiency experts to help him police machines. He is starting to see which operators are violating corporate policy--or even the law.
"The stakes are getting higher and higher all the time," Greenlee says. "You can't afford to fumble the football."
Greenlee is in charge of millions of dollars of vehicles scattered along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the Port of Valdez. His employer, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., operates and maintains TAPS for major oil companies like BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Unocal. In addition to rented and leased equipment, Alyeska runs its own fleet of cars, trucks, boats, snowmobiles, heavy machinery and portable tools worth about $114 million. ''We're a transportation system," Greenlee says.
Some machines shuttle workers to and from pumping stations and maintain access roads that weave across Alaska's remote landscape. Other vehicles stand on guard, by federal law, to assist in cleaning up oil spills. "That equipment is like a fire station," Greenlee says. "It has to be ready to go."
Every dollar Alyeska spends on equipment serves safety or efficiency. Vehicles bear the slogan "Nobody Gets Hurt" in big, white lettering. The work environment is brutal, with dark, winter months in the -60°s. The company prides itself in maintenance, boasting a 96% completion rate for preventive inspections and repairs. Such efficiency helped the company snatch up an annual "Fleet Masters" award presented by the Association of Equipment Management Professionals, at the group's conference last March in Las Vegas.
Several years ago, Alyeska had a different fleet culture. Its three repair shops operated independently, according to Terry Howard, one of Greenlee's efficiency experts. Howard works for ASRC Energy Services PP&C Inc., Anchorage, which Alyeska hired to maintain the pipeline's mobile fleet beginning in 1997. Among the spread-out, decentralized fleet, "there wasn't a lot of resource sharing," Howard says.
Inefficiencies apparently led to bigger problems. In August 2000, dump truck driver Jerry Barnes, 51, lost control of his vehicle on a Valdez access road. After rolling the truck 50 ft down a rocky embankment, Barnes, a 14-year Alyeska employee, was rushed to a local hospital, dead on arrival.
After an investigation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the consortium $35,000 on five counts, including lack of training. The fine later was dropped to $28,000, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor.
Greenlee, a 29-year Alyeska employee, declines to comment on the accident. But company press releases say the truck had faulty brakes and the operator violated a policy "limiting traffic ... to vehicles rated less than one ton" on the access road. "This was a tragic accident that could have been prevented," said Dan Hisey, chief operating officer, in an October 2000 statement. The accident is the company's last OSHA-recorded fatality.
Improving fleet efficiency already was an objective before the tragedy, according to Alyeska spokesman Curtis Thomas. However, Alyeska commissioned an expert panel to make recommendations. At the top of the list was the need to keep up-to-date maintenance records.
A New Era
In 2001, Greenlee formed a special steering committee to muscle up the maintenance program. Among other things, it recommended leveraging information technology. Not knowing where to start, the pipeline's fleet manager asked a local equipment dealer to suggest options. As Greenlee recalls, "All he said were two words: 'Richard LeFrancois."
LeFrancois, 57, a truck hound with a passion for gadgetry, is a U.S. Army veteran who intercepted teletype messages during the Vietnam War. He later became a truck driver, and in 1981 earned an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Utah. After a stint as a truck salesman, LeFrancois found his calling in geographic information systems. He now is the president of Equipment Maintenance Innovators, a consulting firm near Denver. He was just the kind of efficiency expert Alyeska was looking for.
LeFrancois is helping Greenlee and ASRC's 100-person fleet maintenance team keep a watch on operators by testing 'black boxes' on vehicles. Other fleets have used information technology to track costs and operators, according to Siemens VDO Automotive, a German supplier whose clients include Halliburton Co. and Saudi Arabian Texaco Inc. Alyeska is testing about a dozen of the vendor's FM radio boxes, hoping to increase efficiency of rolling stock along the pipeline.
For example, when Alyeska truck drivers check in at pumping stations, Howard and Greenlee hope the black boxes will "talk" to security systems and limit access to authorized personnel. They also want the devices to "train" operators to drive safely. The boxes can track location in real time, provide accident data and keep maintenance staff current on service schedules. The test is part of a larger, $250-rnillion "strategic reconfiguration" project to extend the useful life of the pipeline. Upgrades to the mobile fleet are "part of that streamlining process in the field," says Thomas (see related story).
In Fairbanks, radio receivers mounted on the shop's roof pick up data on a dozen trucks and store it on a dedicated PC. Information gets pushed to a Web server in South Africa. In the future, the data can populate in Alyeska's maintenance software, the central command for assets across the enterprise. It stores all details about a machine-what it looks like, how much fuel it uses, when it needs an oil change and who is wearing a seat belt.
When Alyeska drivers climb into a test truck, they use a special key that lets managers know who is behind the wheel. If a driver accelerates too fast, a loud buzzer sounds until the driver slows down. Like many modern cars, the system also keeps a brief record of vital signs prior to accidents and can even sense a potential rollover and buzz accordingly. Seat belts, brakes and engine controls are all tied into the system. The fleet manager delivers reports about operators to Alyeska project managers, who give the employees a scorecard.
Around the world, other equipment owners are stepping up their own fleet programs, with a focus on similar efficiency tools. One that has become popular is automatic vehicle locators that use black boxes connected to satellite-based global positioning systems or cellular-based phone signals. They still are relatively new to construction, but these efficiency tools have caught on in some corners of the industry. Gary Mullings, the senior director of operations and compliance for the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association in Silver Spring, Md., explains why: "Concrete has a shelf life," he says. Tracking a mixing truck tells producers "how long it has been sitting at a jobsite or a plant," and helps them "identify drivers that may need more training."
This can be a tedious job, as Lefrancois warns. It requires months of study and extra staff that many equipment owners say they cannot afford. And when the information starts pouring in, the challenge is "making use of it," he says.
Plus, a huge technology component is needed to "watch" operators, look at how they treat equipment, and analyze the data. For this to work, fleet managers typically upfit vehicles with little sensors that become the eyes and ears of the corporation. And for all the big costs, the benefits are much bigger, experts say. "We are trying to eliminate abuse and get better use out of the machinery," Howard explains.
During a field test last month, ENR sat in on an Internet conference call with ASRC employees Ron Hall, preventive maintenance specialist, and Dave Gilpin, information technology manager. On the phone line was Jeff Myhre, a driver management support specialist who works for International Road Dynamics Inc., a Siemens dealer in Saskatoon, Canada. Lefrancois also sat in the Fairbanks conference room.
A projector flashed a Web page against the wall. Myhre pulled up an SUV issued to Alyeska's safety staff. He noted that someone had started it up without wearing their seat belt. "We're going to have some embarrassed safety people if this information ever gets out," Hall said. The policy is to put on the belt, then start the machine, he explained. Myhre pulled up the driving "session," which showed only seconds had elapsed between the start-up and the buckle-up. He asked, "Perhaps the buzzer reminded them that they needed to do it up?" "Very well may be," Hall replied.
When ENR asked Hall how it feels to be the fleet police, he said, "Hey, I'm just the messenger." As Alyeska considers adding the devices across its 450-unit trucking fleet, it also is trying out the data loggers on several off-road machines. Called MiniDATs, they are built by Rosier Software-Technik, another German supplier. The boxes are a hard-wired, simpler version of the truck units.
The widespread availability of black box technology is leading this change. It also is the focus of a national debate, as federal regulators consider requiring them on trucks that fall under the Dept. of Transportation's hours of service requirements - the sleep/work schedule for truckers. Industry groups cite privacy and cost issues as reasons to keep black boxes voluntary (ENR 9/20/04 p. 16).
Construction has exceptions to the rule. Short-haul operations are exempt from daily log requirements because of "reduced risk of excessive driving time and resultant driver fatigue," says Robert A. Garbini, NRMCA president. But he thinks black boxes are a useful management tool.
Safety advocates argue that black boxes are an easy way to ensure compliance with federal regulations and corporate policies. "For drivers who choose not to follow the rules, it becomes more difficult with onboard recorders," says Anne T. McCartt, senior research associate for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.
Freight truckers adopted black boxes in the 1980s, and the technology now is migrating off road. "There is a paradigm shift going on in the construction industry," says Joan Waltman, president of Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions, San Diego, another vendor.
Still, some contractors have given up playing Big Brother. Truckers adopted black boxes because of regulation, and construction now has a reason to adopt because of competition, "but the pain threshold has not been there," says Chris Wolfe, a retired Qualcomm executive.
Contractors motivated to boost security are turning to on-board devices. A new $600 control panel on skid-steer loaders limits access. "It's like you are starting the machine with a key, but instead, you punch in a four-digit code," says Philip D. Anello, who sells equipment at Atlas Bobcat Inc., a dealer in Schiller Park, Ill. The panel also shows maintenance alerts in seven languages.
The extra costs can be hard to justify. James E. McCullough, president of Case New Holland Inc.'s North American construction division in Racine, Wis., says users made "big investments" in technology five years ago. "Some took small-tolarge hits," he says. And users are skittish because data can be used in court, says LeFrancois, who advises contractors to have data-protection policies.
Private studies show that tracking operator behavior-as Orwellian as it may sound-reduces costs, saves lives and makes construction a more efficient business. The costs to set up a program can run several thousand dollars per vehicle, plus support fees. But vendors promise returns. One supplier claims that black boxes on 1,000 vehicles can save $2.0 million a year in fuel, maintenance, productivity, mileage and accidents.
Alyeska may be onto something. As Greenlee says, "Our goal is to keep our costs flat. I don't think you can do that without embracing technology." Since retooling the fleet program in 2001, the company has saved $1.6 million in labor costs. A new, company-wide intranet site for equipment assets has made "chargebacks" reclaimed from construction projects more accurate, returning $7.6 million to the fleet budget. And equipment availability has soared to 97%.
ENR • July 18, 2005 enr.com