By Karen Scally
Efficient construction equipment asset management is critical to a contractor’s success.
Yet it is almost always an area that needs improving.
While the adoption of telematics solutions for construction is increasing, the data is meaningless unless it is used to make smarter decisions.
Contractors often lack clear visibility into their costly waste of time and resources, says Natalie Kerschner, equipment asset data analyst for Branch Civil.
“Our equipment data impacts the understanding we have of our unit costs, so that affects how our estimators are able to bid effectively,” Kerschner says. “It really touches all parts of the organization.”
After a careful evaluation of their fleet operations, Branch Civil implemented a novel solution that is providing the big picture to increase their productivity. It’s called the Situational Awareness Room, and it is serving as the command center to keep equipment — and jobs — up and running well.
Kerschner credits the creation of the Situational Awareness Room with automating service assignments, eliminating overtime spent on manual cost tracking, and identifying underutilized equipment to expand profit potential.
Want to get better control of your construction fleet data like Branch Civil did? Here’s how.
Diagnose Your Pain
Branch Civil is a heavy civil/site development contractor based in Roanoke, Virginia, and it is part of the Branch Group, with $391 million in annual revenue. The site work contractor serves Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas, with about 900 on-road and off-road assets in its fleet.
Kerschner, who has been with Branch Civil since 2015, says about five years ago the equipment department embarked on a thorough analysis to determine the source of any inefficiencies.
“We were involving the entire fleet team, asking them what their pain points were,” Kerschner says. “If we could improve anything in their lives, what would they want it to be?”
From managers to mechanics, no topic was off limits.
“Honestly, the first few meetings included a lot of complaining about the systems that were in use,” she says. “But that was a really important part of the process, because there was a lot of pain.”
For starters, they discovered that the mechanics were spending a lot of time after normal shifts on cost tracking.
“Anyone working on equipment had to log every bit of their time, so 15 minutes spent on this item or 15 minutes on that,” she says.
Because the service team is so busy throughout the day working on equipment, technicians would jot their tasks down on a notepad as they performed them. Then, they would spend significant time entering all that same information into their computers.
The problems extended to the department’s data analysis as well.
“When I first started, everything was in clunky reports and a zillion Excel worksheets,” she says. “It would take me a few days to make a really good report. Even then, I wasn’t confident in the reliability of the data, because it was just being pulled from so many sources.”
Kerschner says it took a few months for the team to complete the evaluation of their fleet management processes.
“Once we had that really clearly mapped out, literally with a flowchart showing all of the details, then we found someone to partner with to help us find a solution that worked for us,” she says.
Find the Right Treatment
While there are many construction equipment asset management software platforms available, Branch Civil wanted something that could be customizable for their particular challenges.
Tim Morgan, Branch Civil’s equipment operations manager, had learned about the solution they ultimately selected through his network at the Association of Equipment Management Professionals: Teletrac Navman’s Qtanium Connect.
The asset management software integrates with their other systems in one dashboard, provides GPS location tracking of equipment, and monitors equipment utilization. It is available on desktop and a mobile app.
Kerschner says they then outfitted mechanics with iPads and added QR codes to their equipment. That way, mechanics can scan any asset in the fleet, and the app pulls up all of its data.
Technicians can also enter fuel information and time spent on work orders right into the app, which links to their time cards to eliminate overtime for duplicating entries like before.
Another beneficial feature is that the solution automates equipment service schedules, Kerschner says.
“The program automatically generates work orders and assigns them to specific mechanics when preventive maintenance is due,” she says. “Previously, we had an employee dedicated to doing that — making those work orders and putting them in Windows folders. Now it automatically shows up on their mobile app when they log in, saying these PMs are due. That’s been a big thing.”
Kerschner says that involving the mechanics in the development and testing of the program helped in creating buy-in. The program allows them to focus more on what they are most skilled at — maintenance and repair to improve equipment uptime.
“Some mechanics were less technically savvy than others,” she says. “Now we joke that you can barely pry the app out of their hands because it’s made life so much better.”
Monitor Your Fleet Health
Now that they had an asset management solution, Branch Civil didn’t want to lose sight of the value it could truly bring. They decided that all data and requests should feed into one spot with decisions flowing out of it.
It was Morgan’s idea to make this a distinct location, dubbing it the Situational Awareness Room (SAR).
In 2018, the fleet team converted an old parts room in their Roanoke headquarters into what is essentially a command center. It is designed to make it easy to see what is going on with all of Branch Civil’s equipment at any given moment, with giant screens lining the walls to provide real-time data snapshots.
The SAR is manned by at least an equipment administrator, a logistics representative, and a manager to coordinate operations.
One phone number and email connects field personnel and their equipment requests directly to the SAR. A screen shows these requests feeding into a communications board on Trello, which is a free project and team management platform.
“It’s also linked to all of our OEMs and Qtanium, so fault codes pop up on there, and all requests and issues automatically are populated onto our Trello board,” Kerschner says.
A separate screen tracks the location of all of Branch Civil’s service trucks. That way, if a machine in the field goes down and a call comes into the SAR, a logistics administrator can quickly assess what options are available.
A third screen is dedicated to their data management system where the fleet management team can drill down into the details of any particular situation.
“Everything is just really central,” Kerschner says. “I can’t express how much that’s improved efficiency.”
Branch Civil recently added a SAR to its Virginia Beach location as well.
“It will function exactly like the other one, with all the same information coming into screens that mirror exactly what the other SAR sees,” Kerschner says. “But there’s also a dump truck fleet over there, so they’ll be able to really use it to manage the dump truck fleet efficiently.”
Recover Your Profits
The fleet management team initially estimated that it would take about two years to see a return on investment from the SAR and its new technology. So the actual results were pretty astonishing.
“Honestly, we surpassed our proposed ROI within a few months,” Kerschner says.
Getting the true picture of equipment utilization allowed Branch Civil to take machines off-rent much sooner, resulting in significant savings, she says.
This strategy also produced better documentation, including pictures of equipment taken through the Qtanium app before and after jobs to track when damage occurs.
And those complicated spreadsheets they used to handle?
“A lot of those reports we were doing, we don’t even have to do anymore,” she says. “We can just push a button and have these reports.”
Another benefit is that these solutions are helping Branch Civil more effectively manage their equipment that is accruing “red” work orders, which are unplanned repairs that take a machine out of service. By comparing machine maintenance records, they can flag a piece of equipment for resale if it is breaking down too often.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the data is that it’s allowing Branch Civil to operate with a more flexible fleet.
“These tools enable us to leverage leases and rentals wisely,” Kerschner says. “This is helping us better manage equipment life cycles.”
With two years of data collected, Branch Civil is moving into monitoring trends to shift from preventive to predictive maintenance.
“The more we develop our KPIs, the more predictive we can be, because it’s just looking at the next level of data,” Kerschner says.
She anticipates that the next step will be more accurately estimating when specific machines require certain repairs, such as when the undercarriage needs to be replaced.
Admittedly, it’s taken years of commitment to improving their construction equipment asset management to get this far, Kerschner says.
“We really went from using too much paper to using purely technology,” she says. “And that was a big effort.”
But the ultimate payoff is having a hand in reshaping contractor productivity through digitization.
“I think one of the exciting parts of this is being able to be on the forefront of a lot of the change,” she says. “You really are often just limited by your imagination.”
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