Software Helps HK Bus Firm Automate Maintenance

HONG KONG (02/28/2000) - Every day, people in Hong Kong take more than 10 million trips on public transportation, and 2.9 million of them are taken on buses in the Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) fleet.

The bus industry here has never been renowned for its information technology sophistication, so it's not surprising that KMB's bus maintenance workflow had been largely manual and paper-based for 65 years. Only in late 1998 did KMB launch an internally developed Bus Maintenance Information System (BMS) to manage its fleet of more than 3,800 buses running on more than 380 routes in the territory.

"The Chinese-language client/server workflow application system provides one-stop-shop information on everything that both shop-floor mechanics and management need to know for smooth bus maintenance operations, including bus maintenance records, job scheduling, work attendance, diesel consumption and much more," said Tommy Leung, KMB's information technology manager.

The system recently won the Silver Award in the Application Category of the Hong Kong Computer Society's IT Excellence Awards 1999. The award cited the KMB system's effectiveness in reducing costs and bus failure rates.

On-site observer

Computerworld Hong Kong visited KMB's depot in Kowloon Bay to see first-hand how the Windows NT/Sybase Adaptive Server-based system works.

When a bus experiences a problem and is driven or towed to the depot, the driver reports to reception, where the bus is diagnosed by the duty mechanics and information such as the nature of the problem, bus details and arrival time at the depot are input into the system. The 18 departments responsible for various maintenance work areas are then automatically notified by the system to go into standby for the upcoming job.

"The key to the system is that it had to be extremely user-friendly, because most mechanics were computer illiterate. Most of them are middle-aged, and it's not easy for them to learn something totally new," said Louis Ho, senior assistant service manager who is responsible for running the Kowloon Bay depot.

The way that KMB worked around the problem was to enable the mechanics to input information into the system by selecting fields from the default setting to the furthest extent possible, thereby minimizing mistakes and standardizing information for future analysis.

Much like the procedure followed by a physician with a patient, the various maintenance departments use the system to check the centralized maintenance record of the bus to determine whether there has been a history of the problem. Before KMB implemented the workflow system, this procedure was redundant, because all 18 departments maintained their own paper records on every bus.

In addition, the departments can check the BMS to determine which staff members are available for the job, since a daily attendance record is integrated into the system.

"There are a total of 600 employees for both shifts, and since the depot is so large, at 20,000 square meters, job scheduling was a small headache before," said Ho.

Apart from coordinating repair work, BMS also schedules regular maintenance activities for the 1,300-plus buses in the Kowloon Bay depot, including cleaning, pest control, and a monthly health check.

Green workflow

According to Ho, BMS has enabled the depot to operate much more effectively.

"Not only has communication between the departments and among depots improved, but the overall efficiency of service is enhanced and workflow is more environmentally friendly," he said.

KMB's statistics indicate that the average number of trips made before a bus experiences a mechanical breakdown has risen 14 percent, meaning that bus deployment is more efficient.

Aside from making life more convenient for the mechanics, because all information regarding bus maintenance work is now centralized and easily accessible, the BMS system better equips management to assess the performance of the depot.

"Previously, since information was scattered in different paper records, it was a tedious process whenever we tried to compile analysis reports," said Ho. "For example, it used to take as much as three days to put together a breakdown report. As resources are limited, we could only do a couple of them. Now, we can set up a query whenever necessary."

Although the system was foreign and intimidating to the depot employees in the beginning, they now applaud the convenience it brings to their daily work.

A few months ago, the employees took the initiative to learn the Chang Jie keyboard input method, because they considered the pen-based input system they were using to be too slow.

Leung attributed the popularity of the system to its friendly Chinese user interface, high customization and a "user-training-user" strategy adopted by the company.

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