From hydrogen-powered double-deckers in Aberdeen to bio-buses powered by food waste in Bristol, First Bus has shown itself more than willing to experiment with new, low-emission vehicle types in recent years.
In October, it will become one of the largest operators of electric buses outside London, with delivery to York of 21 new double-deckers, joining the 12 single-deck electric buses it has operated there since 2014.
These developments are important, because many of the UK cities in which First Bus operates suffer from major pollution problems. Local authorities in these markets are under increasing pressure from the government to produce air-quality control plans and stick to them.
So while diesel-powered internal combustion engines may still be the dominant form of propulsion at First Bus, the mix of vehicles in its 5,500-strong asset portfolio is changing, and that trend will likely continue, says engineering director Ian Warr.
With that in mind, the company - currently part of £7.1 billion transport operator FirstGroup - is currently rolling out Infor Enterprise Asset Management (EAM), with the goals of streamlining maintenance, maximizing time in service for vehicles across the fleet and cutting maintenance costs.
The fact that some of Firstgroup’s US businesses already use Infor EAM was a big factor in its selection by First Bus, says Warr, although SAP might have been considered a more obvious candidate, given that it provides First Bus with its ERP system, he concedes:
We had to argue the case for Infor, understandably, but we just felt that Infor offered an asset management product more tailored for the kinds of assets we need to manage and more closely aligned with our project goals when it comes to maintenance.
Once live, Infor EAM will digitalize asset management and maintenance, keeping a record of all work on vehicles and tracking warranties. The system will also help allocate maintenance and repair jobs to staff with the right skills, for faster resolution of issues. But the changes go way beyond these simple functions, says Warr.
We’ll be moving from a completely legacy, reactive-based maintenance system to a really proactive, reliability-centered maintenance approach. End users in engineering will have all of the information that they require to really understand job types, what parts they’ll need, what maintenance instructions already exist, the history of this vehicle in particular and the asset type in general. In a sense, I see this as bringing us more into line with the rest of the automotive service sector.
For now, First Bus is still in the build phase of its deployment, which is expected to take around 18 months, in two waves. The first focuses specifically on fleet assets and fuel management; the second will focus on maintenance and the roll-out of the software to workshops. Infor partner Sapphire Systems will host the deployment for 2,000-plus users on behalf of First Bus.
Replacing a hotch-potch of legacy systems and paper forms, Infor EAM will also open the doors for new analytical approaches - a really positive development as the asset portfolio becomes more mixed, says Warr.
That’s what we’re really missing today - the big data analysis that can tell you what’s the right first-time fix for a particular problem. The same goes for predicting gaps in our knowledge and skills. When we’ve got all that data in the same place, it will be easier to produce reports and dashboards that can help us identify what issues occur with which vehicle types and where we’ve got shortcomings in terms of being able to fix them fast, and therefore, where we need to increase our skills.
In fact, he adds, the project is as much about better asset management overall as it is about maintenance in particular:
It’s also about how we buy assets, their total cost of ownership, the analysis of the fuel they consume.
All this will no doubt be useful information to future managers and/or owners at First Bus. Despite its investments in new buses and technology, owner FirstGroup announced in May 2019 that it is planning to offload the First Bus business, through a sale or other form of divestment. A similar fate faces its US-based Greyhound bus network.