Fixing Maintenance Productivity

In the maintenance world, productivity improvements are hard to come by. Experienced maintenance technicians can fix the plumbing, paint the walls, tune up the vehicles and mow the grass only so fast.

But productivity gains can come from reducing administrative delays.

At California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), facility managers are using Nextel communications technology in conjunction with a Famis Software maintenance management system to do just that. In the process, they have improved the productivity of their 175 maintenance technicians.

The new system uses a wireless Internet connection to automate the flow of work order information to and from technicians, thus reducing the amount of time technicians spend hanging around the shop filling in time sheets and work order reports or waiting for parts to be pulled.

As a result, the department is taking care of its 87 buildings and 324 acres faster and cheaper.

Judging how much faster and cheaper is more art than science, according to Robert Quirk, director of facility management for CSULB.“We can see that the guys aren’t spending as much time in the yard,” he says.“We can see that the guys aren’t traveling back and forth to the yard as much as they used to. And, we can see that the trucks aren’t in the yard as often.”

Where measurements can be made, the department has also noted improvements. Less downtime and more work time has led to a five percent reduction of overhead costs charged back to academic and other departments. For example, if painting a biology lab used to cost the department $22 per hour, it now costs $20. The assumption is that that productivity increase carries through to the rest of the department’s work.

Technology Choices

The key to these improvements is a ruggedized cell phone with paging, two-way radio and wireless Internet communications capabilities. “It’s vastly cheaper than handheld computers or personal digital assistants (PDAs),” says Randy Walsh, division information systems manager.

PDA prices have dropped to around $300. By comparison, the cell phones cost about $25 each, plus a $35 monthly subscription for phone, paging, radio and Internet access for each technician.

In light of the monthly charges, this technology might appear to be more expensive through time. It isn’t.

With PDAs, technicians must plug into a cradle and wait for the system to download work orders and upload reports on completed jobs. But CSULB’s maintenance department handles 20,000 work orders per year. And, only half of those work orders are scheduled preventive maintenance. The rest are unscheduled service calls — to fix overflowing toilets or broken windows. If the maintenance staff used PDAs, getting service calls to them would require a second device, like a cell phone or radio, which also carries monthly user costs.

Another PDA challenge: technicians would record preventive maintenance work order completions and time on the PDA and service calls on paper. The paper records would eventually have to be keyed into the electronic system. Who’s going to do that?

Quirk and Walsh have found that their all-in-one devices don’t create these kinds of problems.

Linking With the Maintenance Software

Making the cell phone technology communicate with the maintenance system required a software component. The CSULB Famis Software maintenance management system is built on top of Internet-enabled Oracle technology, which includes a Wireless Application Protocol or WAP. Walsh worked with Famis to develop a software link between the maintenance system, Oracle’s WAP and the Nextel cell phones.

More Productive Maintenance Hours

Today, CSULB maintenance technicians start their day by logging into a Website with their cell phones, which call up five preventive maintenance work orders at a time. As work orders are completed, new orders funnel into the device. If a service call comes in, it pops onto the screen. At the same time, the call center may beep the technician or use the device’s radio system to inform the technician. When a call is completed, the technician taps a few keys on the device to close out the work order. Instead of going back to the original preventive maintenance schedule, the technician can search the system for preventive maintenance orders for the building where he or she happens to be and handle those projects first.

Suppose a service call requires special parts not in the technician’s van. The cell phone Web connection can research the inventory database and request that someone at the yard pull the part. By the time the technician drives back to the yard, the part is ready to go.

And maintenance is more productive.