The Sum of Its Parts: Inventory Management Systems Increase Garage Efficiencies

Chesapeake Public Schools in Virginia is in the process of moving to a more efficient and accountable parts inventory management system.

David Benson sits at his desk, a Blue Bird calendar hanging on the wall behind him. Above that is a framed illustration of “Peanuts” comic strip characters playing baseball and inscribed with the words, “Teamwork always wins the game—no matter what the score!” Benson then works through another busy day of managing a fleet of 583 buses for the Chesapeake Public Schools in Virginia.

Teamwork is seen everywhere outside of his office—on the shop floor and in the nearby storeroom of spare parts, where exhaust piping, drive belts for Thomas Built Buses, cases of WD-40, brake shoes, and other supplies, are stacked and shelved. With just a few more tools and technology, his team could ratchet-up the capability to maintain, manage and move its fleet forward in the years ahead.

While the Chesapeake Public Schools do not have a distinct parts inventory management system, the current paper-based parts management system, complete with established minimum and maximum levels that are regularly replenished, works. But like many of his contemporaries, Benson sees possible ways to build better efficiency and accountability into his department’s parts management requirements.

School bus parts inventory management systems are now making their way into many districts—as stand-alone systems or a part of larger fleet maintenance systems. These systems feature many benefits for shop forepersons, fleet managers, mechanics, and just about everyone else who is tasked with the maintenance and management of moving the fleet forward.

Benson said Chesapeake is in the process of changing its parts management processes, and it plans to soon implement an inventory management system. “We’re negotiating now,” explained Benson. “Our’s is going to be a little bit different, because we’re going to be with a different vendor for our parts management than the rest of the school division, [which will continue with its existing] asset management.”

Right Part. Right Place. Right Price. Right Time.

Brian McCool is the manager of parts marketing and specialty sales for school bus manufacturer Thomas Built Buses. The OEM provides parts procurement management via the Fleetprocure eCommerce software solution. It automatically feeds orders into the dealer system and verifies pricing with order acknowledgment in a closed-loop order process.

According to McCool, the main challenge in running a lean and efficient parts management system is to get the right part to the right place, at the right price, and at the right time.
“These are the primary factors that drive a positive aftermarket customer experience for our fleets,” he reported.

“Fleet managers typically stock very few parts, and there are few spare buses at fleet locations. So, maintaining uptime is crucial. Managers want to have their suppliers provide the correct part immediately at competitive prices.”

McCool cited the integration of Fleetprocure into a large bus fleet to automate the order, approval and payment steps.

“We have been working with this fleet as our test fleet to make this process available to all of our centralized billing fleets,” he shared, adding that Fleet- procure will simplify the entire ordering procedure and cut costs as a result.

The district will have certain parts linked to a warranty, Benson noted, based on mileage and time, as well as other considerations. “So, we are in the process of getting a fleet management software program that will assist us better with that because we currently don’t have one,” he continued. “But that is something that we’ve needed. And that’s something that the school division is working on getting now.”

Parts inventory management offers many benefits for large and small districts alike. That means that shop forepersons and supervisors may focus on parts brands that best serve them. So, data may be accumulated to help negotiate volume price discounts based on buying commitments.

Trends of bus repair and maintenance may be observed to see the history of parts failure and lifecycle. Paperwork may be reduced to a minimum, if not altogether eliminated.

Plus, a specific bus may be analyzed to review the maintenance history for the last part that was used in that bus. In other words, a parts inventory management system helps drive better continuous monitoring and decisions, which ultimately leads to a return on investment that helps justify the software license fees.

Lean Inventory Management Without the Paperwork

Other school fleets are using parts inventory software solutions with considerable success. Those solutions automate most of the procurement process, thereby making parts management leaner than ever before.

Sumner County Schools in Americus, Georgia, has a total of 65 buses from all three major school bus manufacturers. The district uses Versatrans FleetVision by Tyler Technologies, with an inventory management system that is integral to its functionality.

Mark Harnage, the fleet manager at Sumner County Schools, told School Transportation News that the software is a useful tool that alleviates the burden of manual parts management. Plus, it provides a reasonable inventory level based on history, which helps to avoid the situation of parts not being available when a repair is ready to begin.

“On the fast-moving parts, we can print out purchase reports, depending on the frequency and how many of those particular parts we buy,” Harnage stressed.

This, he added, allows the district to sometimes negotiate a volume discount.

In addition, Harnage said the Versatrans solution provides clear visibility of the total cost of ownership of one brand. That allows parts to be procured based on their individual lifecycles and not simply their price.

For instance, Harnage shared that he could have a replacement part “of a particular brand that does not last as long as another brand, even though it may cost less. The software will help you make a decision to pay a little more and get a better brand for that part.”

Knowing what he’s buying and how many is of great appeal to Randy McCardle, the shop foreman for the Ohio County Board of Education in Wheeling, West Virginia. His fleet of 55 buses that traverse 109 square miles a day uses the software system Fleet Maintenance Pro from Innovative Maintenance Systems.

“It works pretty good for us,” said McCardle. “It’s simple enough that pretty much any of the guys in the shop can use it. It gets the job done.”

McCardle explained that the solution is ideal for setting inventory levels accurately. Staff can drill down to the inventory level of any part and determine, for example, there are only two parts in stock, compared to the normal quantity of six. The software will then alert the garage of the low level, based on usage history.

The inverse can also be true. “If you’ve got a slow-moving part, you can kind of go in there and say, ‘Boy, I haven’t used that for a couple of years. I probably shouldn’t be keeping that one on the shelf anymore.’”

He explained that the district will sell the part, along with other obsolete parts, or return it to the dealer for credit.

McCardle noted that the greatest benefit for Ohio County is the reduction of paperwork when purchasing parts. “There’s no question because I used to do it manually and kept it all on file cards,” McCardle chuckled.

That leads to the continuous administrative burden on districts, which was acknowledged as a significant challenge.

“Fleet maintenance managers’ priorities include repairing what’s broken, keeping technicians productive, and ensuring equipment uptime,” explained Christina Nielsen, director of government accounts at fleet MRO supplier Lawson Products. Lawson supplies fleet maintenance and other software to some of the largest school districts in the U.S.

Nielsen said that happens, “All while facing a well-documented labor shortage of maintenance mechanics and welders. Not having critical products like brakes or wheel hardware on hand means keeping a school bus (or school district cars, vans, heavy- and light-duty equipment) out of service longer, waiting for a replacement part.”

Ed Godwin, the shop supervisor for Chesapeake Public Schools, said a computerized parts inventory will cut down on mountains of paperwork.

Maintain, Manage and Move the Fleet Forward

A robust parts inventory management system helps ensure the right part is available and at the right time, so the buses can be best maintained and kept rolling.

“We’re on a 45-day planned maintenance cycle now,” said Ed Godwin, the shop foreman for Chesapeake Public Schools. “So, when [the bus] comes in here, if it looks like the brakes are down and they’re not going to make it for the next 45 days, then we go ahead and replace them at that point.”

Godwin said that reporting functionality of an inventory management system would provide his fleet manager with purchase data or usage information about any part, which he described as being quite laborious in their current situation.

“It’ll take me a couple of days—and the secretaries and even parts—going through records,” he added. “If they knew exactly what we’re spending for specific parts, then it would be nice.”

Currently, he said the district’s IT department is exploring software solutions to manage many assets within the school system, and not just parts. But bus parts would be incorporated into a new system that would provide them with many benefits, in many ways, especially saving staff time.

“That’d be nice if they do get that,” he concluded.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the February issue of STN.