The most important tool for fleet managers is a fleet information management system (FIMS) software package. A FIMS is a database application capable of storing and manipulating millions of individual data elements. For fleets that own their vehicles, especially if they also operate maintenance garages and refueling sites, acquiring a commercially available FIMS package is probably essential. This package may operate on a fleet’s own servers or on an application service provider’s (ASP) servers and be accessed over the Internet. Organizations wishing to closely integrate the FIMS into other business applications may opt to acquire a multi-discipline software package or develop a custom FIMS software application or module. Needs Assessment
The first step in the selection process is a detailed needs assessment. The first step in the needs assessment is to decide if an FIMS is really needed to keep track of your fleet and help you make better decisions about managing it. If you run a maintenance facility, a multi-functional FIMS is almost essential if you hope to be cost-effective and especially if you track resource allocation for charge-back billing. As you conduct a needs assessment, be sure to list everything you expect your new system to do. Additionally, take stock of the physical and organizational environment in which the new system will function to prevent introducing incompatible technology or omitting connecting components to interface with existing systems. Identifying policies and procedures governing the transfer and use of information is essential early in the process. An assessment should include a thorough look at your fleet. You’ll need to provide enough information to potential bidders or internal programmers to ensure that the system is scaled to handle your fleet, while leaving room for expansion. You’ll need to know your fleet vehicle and equipment totals and types. You’ll also need to explain where they are used. Other important aspects include where the fleet is maintained and fueled and if the new system will be used to manage employees and inventories. Take stock of your present system. Do you have a manual or an automated system? The most valuable thing you have now is your fleet information record. You need to decide what data you trust and want to keep, and what data must be converted to the new system to even consider buying it. Some existing hardware and communications systems may be reusable. However, focusing too strongly on reusing old hardware is a serious mistake, preventing the ability to take advantage of new technologies. What you paid for something five years ago is irrelevant. It’s probably obsolete junk now or soon will be. You may want or need a new FIMS to communicate with other existing systems in your organization, for example, fuel system, payroll, accounts payable, and capital asset inventory. The following methodology is a good roadmap for selecting and acquiring an FIMS. Forming a Team
Whether a team approach was used during the needs assessment process, you will almost certainly benefit from it now. Assemble a small evaluation team of five to seven members consisting of key users who can evaluate suitability for their particular needs, advised by a computer expert familiar with your entire organization’s automation direction and led by you, the fleet manager. Key users should include a maintenance supervisor, maintenance technician, parts specialist, finance/payroll specialist, and a fleet customer. Ultimately, you are the primary FIMS user. Ease of use by your staff and fitting well into other organizational systems are important; however, the ultimate purpose of the system is to aid you in properly monitoring and managing the fleet. You can not afford to abdicate a decision this important to a “techie,” even if you can’t turn on a PC. The team should establish goals and objectives to guide decisions and define success, determine an implementation timeline, and estimate a budget. These tasks should be accomplished at the outset of the project and adjusted as needed. {+PAGEBREAK+} Defining Features and Functions
Defining the features required and desired in an FIMS is a matter of matching the needs assessment data to what is available in the market available or possible if custom development is an option. This phase of the process will generally take several months to complete. It is a tedious process, but you and your entire team need to “test drive” available fleet software. Several vendors exhibit at fleet conferences such as NAFA’s Fleet Management Institute (FMI), providing a quick survey of major offerings. The comparison tables that accompany this article offer quick facts on available features to help eliminate those that don’t meet your needs and contact information on others for more information and to arrange on-site demonstrations. As part of the test drive, insist on receiving a full set of documentation and sample output from the FIMS. This will help the team better define what is acceptable before developing the request for proposals (RFP) specifications. Some software vendors offer approval programs allowing a fleet an extended, live-data experience with the software package. You pay only implementation costs, which can be several thousand dollars, until a decision is made to proceed with the procurement or try something else. Software Capabilities
Let’s take a look at the types of tasks fleet software can do. In some cases, these packages are sold in modules so that you can pick and choose which features you want. Tables 1-7 list the features of commonly used FIMS programs. Asset Tracking (Table 1)
  • Vehicle assignments.
  • Attachment/component associations.
  • Depreciation.
  • Replacement cycle. All software packages allow maintaining vehicle and equipment information. They vary greatly in the detail you must keep. The more information you have on tap, the more flexibility you have in combining and retrieving it. The downside is that someone must input and maintain all this detail in a computer Having the wrong information online is worse than not having it at all. Labor Collection (Table 2)
  • Performance measurement.
  • Real-time monitoring.
  • Bar code support.
  • Payroll interface. Your new system can be invaluable in tracking technician performance if you run your own garage. Be sure to incorporate simple and durable input devices such as bar code readers or touch screens/touch pads to minimize the time your staff must spend interacting with the system. Garages are fairly hostile environments for computer equipment, especially keyboards, mice, and disk drives. Labor collection involves tracking employee absences along with productive time for accurate calculation of technician performance. An interface to your payroll system could eliminate recording this information twice. Outsource Tracking (Table 3)
  • Warranty management.
  • Consistent pricing.
  • Repetitive repair history. All fleets get some support from outside providers whether full-range maintenance or specialized work such as engine rebuilding or body repair. A new FIMS system should have a means of alerting you when work is covered by a warranty and when costs deviate from contracted rates. This is one area where “dummy-proof” software can save you some real money. Parts Management (Table 4)
  • Stock levels.
  • Reorder support.
  • Monitor prices.
  • Inventory tracking.
  • Bar code support.
  • Warranty tracking.
  • Accounts payable interface. Inventory management of parts, lubricants, and chemicals is by far the hardest task to perform without a good computer system. An FIMS can help keep inventory investment to a minimum and reduce technician downtime waiting on parts that should have been in stock — optimum management can save money on both fronts. Bar coding can not only make restocking and issuing parts faster and more error-free, it will be a real time saver during inventory checks. Just as with outsourced repairs, tracking and notification of parts warranties can produce significant savings. {+PAGEBREAK+} Maintenance Scheduling (Table 5)
  • Meter triggering.
  • Standard jobs. New software should automate scheduling preventive and predictive maintenance by multiple interval types (e.g., miles/kilometer, hours, fuel consumed, time). Better packages allow scheduling labor, work areas, and reserve parts in pre-picked sets. The “standard jobs” feature allows maintenance supervisors to pre-define labor and parts requirements for repetitive jobs such as brake repairs and tune-ups. The required parts can be printed on pick tickets with part numbers and bin location so that everything is ready when the vehicle is pulled into the repair bay. Fuel Management (Table 6)
  • Fuel use tracking.
  • Exception reporting.
  • Custom interface. Exception reporting features in some software will help catch careless and dishonest operators. Abnormally low mileage for a fill-up may be the result of carelessness (e.g., operators incorrectly entering odometer readings), theft (e.g., filling a gas can for individual use), or a dangerous vehicle defect (e.g., leak in the fuel system). Higher than normal fuel cost per gallon could reflect use of full-service, unnecessary purchase of premium fuel, or may include the price of a Twinkie and a Coke. Some packages have modules to control access to fuel sites. Whether you purchase the fuel controllers with the system, use the ones you have, or use a fleet credit card, uploading data from that collection means to your new system will provide full cost data. Meter readings collected during refueling can trigger scheduled maintenance. Pool Management (Table 7)
  • Vehicle reservations.
  • Billing interface.
  • Pool size optimization. Large vehicle pools run smoother with automated scheduling software, particulary when several employees make reservations and when reservations are made far in advance. Usage reports will help “right-size” the pool. Driver Records
  • Training.
  • Personal use.
  • Crash tracking. Some fleet managers spend as much time keeping track of drivers as they do vehicles. These features may be needed to prompt periodic motor vehicle record checks, commercial driver’s license (CDL) renewals, personal use payment collection tracking, IRS payroll tax deductions, or to support a self-insurance program and aid in subrogation. Business Model Matching
    Some commercially available FIMS software packages are more versatile than others. Those that allow a fleet to perform tasks and functions (e.g., meter tracking, PM scheduling, billing) in multiple ways are more likely to match the way your fleet operates under a given business model. These versatile packages are also typically more complicated to learn and implement. The important issue to resolve during the FIMS specification and evaluation process is how any given package requires you to do business and is that something you are willing to do. A mismatch in philosophy at the fundamental business model level is a recipe for years of frustration and dissatisfaction eventually leading to scrapping the FIMS and starting over. Consider the Lifecycle Cost Up-Front
    The money it takes to acquire a system will be readily apparent in bids returned from a request for proposal (RFP). Be sure you take a lifecycle cost view when selecting a new system. Computers are one of the few things in our society that depreciate faster than vehicles. The expense of sustaining a system often approaches the acquisition cost every three years or sooner, depending on communications services costs. The costs to sustain the system include: system administrator, initial and recurring user training, hardware and software license/maintenance, telecommunication lines fees, and supplies (e.g., paper, print cartridges, backup tapes). Savings from implementing an FIMS may help offset the costs. Be careful what you promise, but you may save considerably if you improve your PM program and save on downtime and engine rebuilds, reduce parts inventory and dead stock, curtail pilferage, and replace aging computers. Considering all these lifecycle costs, there are pros and cons to building your own system FIMS from scratch, buying a commercially available package (with or without modifications), or leasing everything you need. {+PAGEBREAK+}
  • Build:

  • Building your own FIMS can be a long and expensive process. If your organization has a “sunk cost” in programmers and systems engineers already on staff with the necessary time available to develop, field, and support your FIMS, then this may be a viable option. Custom-built fleet applications can certainly be constructed to interact with other applications in the organization. They can also implement the business model faithfully with need for arbitrary compromise.
  • Buy:

  • Buying a commercially available FIMS package is more common than custom building one. These systems range from applications that run on a stand-alone PC to handle a small fleet to those that link multiple sites managing, maintaining, and refueling thousands of vehicles. Modern packages should be based on “object-oriented” technologies and structure. The program elements should be a collection of code blocks rather than a single large, compiled program. The objects will permit re-use in an open architecture so custom applications can be written as needed. This customization option of an off-the-shelf FIMS is a much easier route to interconnect with other applications (e.g., payroll, accounts payable) than building the whole thing from scratch.
  • Lease:

  • A pay-as-you-go FIMS avoids the sticker shock of upfront hardware and software purchases. This is an especially attractive procurement method for organizations upgrading from an in-house system to one supported by an ASP. Fleet or Multi-Discipline Package
    Some organizations that must provide software packages for multiple disciplines turn to large, integrated, enterprise applications (e.g., PeopleSoft) to handle everything under one umbrella. Just like FIMS packages trying to be everything to everybody, these multi-discipline products rarely match up with fleet business models or dedicated fleet software and have inapplicable features, making them more complex to learn and implement. On the plus side, the cost of enterprise applications is shared over several centers, as are the costs of centrally managing them and developing custom interfaces to existing organizational systems. Support Options
    FIMS is a complicated software package. A software maintenance agreement should be included in the acquisition. These agreements normally specify a certain level of free assistance with setup and operating issues. They should also address product upgrades as they become available. Some problems (e.g., post server failure recovery) will fall outside the support agreement. The rates that apply and the criterion for applying them should be specified in the support agreement. Initial and subsequent training needs may also be addressed in a support agreement. Plan enough on-site time for consultants to train the your organization’s user groups. Separate sessions are usually advisable for system administrators (full privileges) and users of each FIMS major module (e.g., maintenance, parts, fuel). Data backups, server software upgrades, and disaster recovery should be rolled into the ASP contract price with guaranteed operational readiness levels. Request for Proposals
    When your FIMS needs are fully defined, the next phase in most organizations is developing an RFP. Your RFP should be detailed and specific to ensure that your valid requirements are met. Specifications allowing multiple software, hardware, and integrator vendors bids will likely result in lower costs. The RFP should describe system performance requirements in terms of what features the system must offer, how much data is to be managed, what end-user equipment is required, where it must be located, minimum response times, systems with which it must interchange data, adherence standards, and other descriptors that clearly outline the final product capablilities. Caution: Do not stifle creativity by fully designing a system at this point. You may unknowingly add cost or hurt performance. Specify how much expansion should be designed in from the beginning so that servers, communications hardware, and cabling can be scaled appropriately. Finally, specify who will ensure proper installation and integration of new and existing components to produce a fully functional completed system. This function can be performed with your own organization serving as the “general contractor” for the software vendor, hardware vendor(s), and communications vendor(s). If you do, beware the finger-pointing ritual that can occur if/when something goes wrong. This system integration function can be worth a premium price. When the RFP is ready, send it forth into the world and follow up with prime candidates to ensure that you obtain several responses. One way to encourage participation and head off confusion is to hold a pre-bid meeting or conference call. Discuss all questions and concerns in detail and make modifications to the RFP in writing if necessary. Provide the changes to all potential suppliers. Review the proposals received and have vendors present their submissions to the evaluation team. Make a selection and collect the specified performance bond to encourage the successful vendor to deliver the promised, fully-operational system within the specified time period. Last comes the project management phase. Installing a computer system of any size can be disruptive to normal operations. Key to smoothing the transition is laying out the schedule for the entire fleet organization and customers so they know what to expect and when. As milestones are hit or the timeline changes, and it probably will, let everyone know. Click here to view Tables