Highway Contractor: The X Factor
Extreme maintenance practices can help you extend equipment life spans — but be aware you are managing risk.
In today’s economy, we’re all trying to stretch things as far possible. Whether it’s stretching time between oil changes in your car or holding off on buying that new pair of work boots you know you need, we’re pushing the limits.
The construction industry is no exception. Its economic downturn has prompted many contractors to run equipment for more hours than normal. Capital for new machines is scarce so equipment is being kept longer and worked harder. Knowing that the equipment has to last, managers carefully watch oil samples for wear particle signals that mean component failure is approaching. And some equipment managers are even replacing small components, such as water pumps and alternators, before they fail.
“We’re probably adding 20 percent more to the life of our equipment than we would in normal economic times,” says Rex Davis, a vice president at RMCI Inc., Albuquerque, N.M. “Sooner or later we have to make some decisions (about trading in equipment). It doesn’t do any good to have new equipment if you don’t have work for it. Hopefully the economic tide will turn soon.”
Davis replaces small components such as turbochargers and water pumps before failure. “A turbocharger normally runs 5,000 to 7,000 hours, and once you get past that you start looking at it,” Davis says. “We do go by historical failure records on small components. A contractor’s history is a better representation of what the equipment will do than someone else’s suggested failure times.”
Equipment managers need to make a plan for running equipment longer than usual. You watch wear indicators such as oil sample analysis. Outside companies will do vibration analyses that can pinpoint problems or incipient failures. “The plan will call for additional observations of known maintenance items — and some tests for wear indicators you normally would not suspect,” Davis says.
Finding the ‘sweet spot’
Dan Connelly, vice president of equipment services for Oldcastle Materials Inc. in Atlanta, notes that demand for his company’s construction services is down, so equipment is being kept longer. However, he points out, the equipment is not working its usual number of hours. “Operating hours, not calendar days, is the important factor in determining our replacement cycles,” Connelly says. With about 40,000 pieces of rolling stock and eight divisions, Oldcastle is one of the nation’s largest construction contractors.
Connelly says Oldcastle strives to replace most equipment at the “sweet spot” — the optimum point in a machine’s financial life just before its repair costs balloon and major components need replacements. Oldcastle determines its own sweet spot for each category of equipment, based upon historical records and analysis of owning and operating costs.
However, in some categories of equipment, such as 7-cubic-yard wheel loaders, Oldcastle considers going for a second life by replacing major components. Forty-ton and larger rigid-frame haul trucks would also be considered for major component replacements. The company owns about 500 dozers and 800 excavators, but “typically we don’t rebuild them,” Connelly says.
How about replacing small components before failure? Yes, says Connelly. “We certainly attempt to replace components such as starters, alternators, and water pumps before failure,” he says. “We advocate condition-based maintenance.”
The level of service that Oldcastle procures from equipment dealers depends on the relationship of each division with its local equipment dealers, Connelly says. Each division has multiple shops that do preventive maintenance and some repairs.
Oldcastle uses Viewpoint management software, which has an equipment module. That module identifies each piece of equipment by a unique number. Revenues, as well as operating hours and all costs, including oil changes, parts and repairs, are tracked for each piece of equipment. “We take data that is housed in Viewpoint to determine the optimum equipment life cycles,” Connelly says. “We look at each piece of equipment multiple times each year.”
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