For about a year now, Clearwater Utilities has been on a fleet efficiency tear.
It all started when Shannan Stephens, asset manager for Clearwater, which is a division of Clear Companies, attended the Association of Equipment Management Professionals Leadership Summit in June 2022 with two specific goals from her supervisor:
“And I was like, we don’t need a consultant,” Stephens says. “I’ll be our consultant.”
Stephens, who has worked for Cypress, Texas-based Clearwater for 10 years, says she’s been slowly taking on more equipment management responsibilities, after starting on the project management side of the business. Because Clearwater Utilities serves as a test case for Clear’s other divisions, which include ClearPave and ClearX, Stephens finds it rewarding to help implement innovative fleet technologies and processes and analyze what works well to carry over elsewhere in the company, as her role has grown.
“I absolutely love watching us move forward and taking that Clearwater model and watching us tweak it and get it to fit [the other divisions],” Stephens says. “We’ve come very close to finding our sweet spots on Clearwater.”
The division, which performs underground utility work mainly in Southeast Texas, operates in some distinct ways. Clearwater has about a half dozen crews, each with its own “mini fleet” of heavy equipment capable of completing an entire project, with about 70 assets total.
This makes each crew directly accountable for their own equipment, allows for more accurate project bidding, and keeps their fleet right-sized, so they don’t have under-utilized equipment or a need for urgent rentals, Stephens says.
The drive to constantly evaluate and improve their fleet efficiency comes from a culture exemplified by the leadership of Clear that carries down from management to the shop, she says, which greatly reduces internal resistance or hesitance to change.
“It starts with the owners of these companies,” Stephens says. “They are incredible to work for, and they stress that they want us to get out there and look for and try new things.”
Over the past year, Clear has adopted three new ways to increase their equipment uptime, allowing them to boost site productivity and devote team members to higher-value tasks.
Here are the steps they took and what they recommend other fleets implement as well:
Increasing uptime starts with mastering the basics, including staying on top of PMs, Stephens says.
“We are all about preventative maintenance right now,” she says. “Being proactive, instead of reactive, is our goal.”
That means capturing and acting on equipment information daily, so Clear shifted away from paper inspections to electronic pre-shift inspections that operators must perform.
“If there are any issues, they report those issues within that pre-shift inspection and our mechanics are notified right away,” Stephens says.
This arms Clearwater’s crews with the information they need to better manage each individual “mini fleet,” which is critical since they run so lean.
“It’s up to us to keep that mini fleet healthy,” Stephens says. “If you know there’s an issue, and you don’t report that there’s an issue, we can’t fix your issue.”
It’s also necessary to help their fleets achieve their maintenance targets.
“Our goal is that ultimate model of 80% scheduled downtime,” Stephens says. “That’s our focus.”
Though Clear’s fleets have been outfitted with telematics for a while, Stephens says they weren’t getting the most out of their data due to the challenges of running a mixed fleet.
“We have different platforms — we have Komatsu, we’ve got Cat, we have Bell, we’ve got John Deere,” she says. “Everyone has their own different systems.”
This was the catalyst that kicked off Clear’s search for software to thread all their fleet data together.
“We brought in a fleet management program, where we pull all of our different telematics systems into one place,” Stephens says.
Clear uses Clue, a platform that works with any make and model of equipment to monitor fleet utilization, location tracking, and diagnostics with tailored insights to better inform operations.
This helps them on both the project management and fleet management sides, Stephen says.
“We can assign our assets to a certain project, geofence it, and then we can track production,” she says.
From there, they can compare how crews are performing, see who’s being more effective, and identify why. They can also monitor idle time and get alerts anytime a machine throws a code.
“They just happen to work phenomenally for us in our model,” Stephens says. “Everything is in the same spot. You don’t have to have five different browsers open trying to figure out what is going on.”
This visibility allows for increased efficiency not only across their fleet but also with managing their team resources, she says.
“Let’s say an operator reported an issue in his pre-shift inspection,” Stephens says. “When that mechanic gets out there to address that issue, he can pull up every other piece of equipment on that job site and see if there have been any codes or if there’s anything that he needs to worry about while he’s there.”
While the electronic pre-shift inspections and the fleet management system both have contributed to keeping their equipment up and running, Stephens says the pandemic revealed there was another component of their fleet that was heavily impacting downtime: parts.
“I think that if there’s anything that we have all learned in the last three years since COVID was how precious parts are and that access to parts,” she says. “When the world shut down, everything shut down, and what was already difficult became almost impossible.”
Long lead times with backordered parts triggered significant lags in productivity, despite the extensive resources Clear’s experienced equipment manager, Jeff Harrington, had built up through the years, Stephens says.
“Our equipment manager is phenomenal — he has this address book in his brain [with] someone for everything,” she says. “For all of his needs, he’s got a guy. But what happens when your guy is under the same constraints as so many other people and can’t come through anymore?”
Even when their dealers and alternative vendors had inventory, Stephens says Harrington constantly spent dozens of calls over a period of hours trying to track down parts for their mixed fleet. They realized they needed a better way if they were going to increase their fleet uptime.
At the same conference where Stephens learned about Clue, she also discovered Gearflow, a platform that simplifies the parts ordering process by providing instant supplier access, centralized communication tools, and real-time reporting on parts transactions throughout the fleet.
With the Gearflow Parts Hub, Clear can consolidate all their parts requests to their local vendors in one place to continue working with the vendors they trust. Plus, they now have the ability to get their parts from their local dealers delivered right to their location with Gearflow Courier powered by Curri, the Uber for construction companies — a feature introduced in March at ConExpo-Con/Agg in Las Vegas.
“[Our dealers] have the option to be set up as preferred vendors, which means that they will always be our first call, if they choose,” Stephens says.
Alternatively, Clear can submit parts requests to the Gearflow Supplier Network, the largest curated network of parts suppliers in North America, if their preferred vendors lack inventory or they want to receive multiple quotes back in as little as minutes.
Within the platform, Clear can also message live with their vendors, with all communication logged on every request and order, and get automated insights into operating costs and productivity across their entire fleet and team.
Now Harrington can spend his valuable time coordinating technicians instead of sourcing parts.
“He’s able to focus his time in other places where it’s needed a lot more than on the phone trying to find a part, which is critical,” Stephens says. “He can get on Gearflow, specify what he needs, hit enter, and then be done. If he doesn’t have to make 10 or 15 phone calls searching for one part, that is a huge time saver. That is time that Jeff can spend either being proactive somewhere else or putting out another fire.”
It’s making a significant difference in their fleet management and operations, she says.
“Gearflow is an easy button,” Stephens says. “We need an easy button. Parts acquisition should not be a nightmare.”
Though the company has done a lot of work to get more efficient and increase uptime over the past year, Stephens says they’re just getting started.
“If we’re not looking to improve, then we’re getting lazy,” she says. “So we’re going to keep moving forward. There’s still so much data now that we’re pulling just from these new processes that we haven’t analyzed. Plus, we really are going to start spending some time breaking down our workflows, just streamlining our processes. As we do that and start looking at the new information we’re getting, we’re going to be able to become more predictive. We want to keep getting better.”
Author info: Karen Scally is an experienced journalist who has covered the construction equipment industry for over a decade. She is currently the director of brand development at Gearflow.