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March 7, 2011 5:30 AM, EST

Picking a Computer Is Tricky for a Carriers’ Mechanics

By Stephen Bennett, Special to Transport Topics

This story appears in the March 7 print edition of Transport Topics.

Choosing computers for mechanics to use in the maintenance shop requires a fleet — be it municipal or over-the-road — to weigh factors ranging from the mundane to the highbrow.

Many maintenance shops are tidier and cleaner today than the grubby stereotype that persists, but the average service bay still can be a hazardous place for computer hardware.

For instance, will a device keep working if it hits the floor or splashes into a pool of liquid? How well does a device keep working when busy mechanics with grease or grit on their hands try to type notes into a work order or scan a part they are going to install?

Then there are “infotech” factors. Many portable devices have embedded operating systems — versions of their original operating systems but with limited capabilities. Fleet maintenance managers need to determine whether an embedded system will meet their department’s needs, or if a full-fledged operating system is required.

In the end, dollars might dictate the selection of hardware, with a fleet maintenance operation choosing lower-cost devices because of budget considerations. The experience of the city fleet of Moline, Ill., may help private carriers find suitable answers for their maintenance operations.

For Moline’s city fleet, implementing a new maintenance management program prompted the purchase of new hardware — followed a year or two later by the purchase of altogether different hardware. The first purchase was desktop PCs. The second time, it was laptop computers with wireless communications capability because portability was a priority.

The laptops, five Panasonic Toughbook 52 models billed as “semi-rugged” by the manufacturer, were purchased “for the technicians to put on their toolboxes,” J.D. Schulte, Moline’s fleet manager, wrote in an e-mail message.

“They are each shared between technicians on day shift and night shift, so we were able to get by with only five instead of one for each technician,” Schulte said.

They now have been in use for two years.

Toughbook models remain in production typically for three years, and components are available for seven years after a model goes out of production, said Andy Wing, executive area sales manager, Panasonic Solutions Co. This availability helps to ensure that a fleet sees a return on its investment and reduces the total cost of ownership, he said.

A fleet can purchase fewer units per year over several years to spread out the investment. The expectation is that the devices will be usable, with replacement components, for an extended time. Toughbook devices typically stay in service for four to five years, Wing said.

The devices feature open architecture, meaning they run standard Windows XP or Windows 7 operating systems rather than embedded, or limited, operating systems.

The CF-52 model that Moline uses is not convertible from a laptop to a tablet, but others, including the CF-19, are.

“A technician can use it in a clamshell mode, where he can type on a keyboard, or like a tablet with a touch screen to run diagnostic programs,” Wing said. On a road test or outside, the tablet mode is likely to be preferable, he added.

Tablet models also lend themselves to use in vehicle inspection or service writing jobs, he said, where someone inspecting vehicles can use them to scan the vehicle identification number, pull the service history electronically and send the data wirelessly to the maintenance management software, which then can produce a work order.

Many mechanics have walked a fleet yard in windy, snowy weather to make notes on trucks that need repairs and maintenance. Trying to scribble notes on paper under those trying conditions makes the job still more challenging.

Using a handheld, wireless device for the task can help a mechanic carry out the task more quickly. When the device is integrated with the fleet’s maintenance software, the notes can be transmitted directly to the computer program to create new work orders or update existing ones, and — no mean consideration — allow the mechanic to come in from the cold sooner.

“It’s helpful in the temperatures and weather we have in Calgary,” said Ian Korman-Clingan, maintenance software manager for Pacific Western Transportation, which is trying out a handheld wireless device to speed vehicle inspections in one of more than 20 fleet yards. (On a Monday in December, the weather in Calgary featured snow showers and a high of 12 degrees Fahrenheit.)

The fleet is trying out an MC75, manufactured by Motorola. The handheld device has a stylus, which can be used to do touch-screen typing — good for cold weather, when wearing gloves.

In more clement weather, data can be keyed in. The device transmits directly to the Cetaris fleet maintenance software that the fleet uses, creating and updating work orders that mechanics then refer to on stationary computers in the shop.

Other handheld units, such as Motorola’s MC55 and MC9500 models, can substitute for a laptop in a maintenance setting, said Mike Maris, senior director for transportation, logistics and distribution in the global industry solutions group. The MC9500, introduced about a year ago, is water-resistant and can be used in maintenance shops “where you have to have a good eight hours of [battery] life without having to put it back in the cradle” to recharge, Maris said.

Sustaining battery power has been a challenge in some portable computing devices. Manufacturers often design their products with “hot swappable” capability, meaning batteries on a device can be replaced without loss of data.

Motorola addressed the power issue in the MC9500 with a “smart” battery. A rechargeable smart battery is equipped with a microchip enabling it to indicate its own state-of-charge and state-of-health. Maris said a user can turn the handheld device over and press a button to check the battery’s charge and health.

“It knows when it has half a charge, and it tells you when it’s fully charged,” Maris said. Beyond that, he said, “it may be fully charged but the health may be poor.”

If that is indicated, Maris said, “you’re not going to get a full shift’s use out of it, so it might be [a good] time to change the battery out.”