Q&A with Clean Energy Fuels
By Martin Boggess, Vice President of Manufacturing & Field Service at Hitachi Solutions
As manufacturing and service organizations continue to adapt and evolve to ever-changing customer demands, employee needs, and industry developments, exciting opportunities for innovation and differentiation are driving business productivity.
Product as a Service, IoT, AI and machine learning, and predictive maintenance are all ways organizations can transform the way they do business to better compete today.
Take Clean Energy Fuels for example. Leveraging automation, IoT, predictive technology, and a connected platform, the company was able to build a touchless maintenance program that drives inter-operational effectiveness and strategic, insight-driven value to customers.
An Expert Perspective
Recently, I sat down with Bart Frabotta, Group Vice President of Operations and IT at Clean Energy Fuels to discuss how their touchless maintenance program is driving real-world customer value, what the impact has been to the organization, as well as lessons they learned along the way.
I’m excited to share with you some highlights from my interview with Bart:
Q: Hitachi Solutions has had such a good relationship with Clean Energy over the years, and I’m really excited about all the things you are doing. For the people who don’t know Clean Energy, tell us a little bit about what you do.
A: Clean Energy is the largest alternative transportation fuel provider in the U.S. and Canada. We basically focus on renewable natural gas as a fuel; we also do some hydrogen. We focus on the commercial sectors, so we're providing fuel to transit authorities, to refuse companies, and to the over-the-road trucking and trucking sectors of the world. We don't generally focus on the consumer base, because there's not a lot of vehicles to choose from, but we really want to replace some of the diesel and other dirtier fuels with more clean and renewable fuels to help the environment.
Q: Definitely exciting as we see the transition to different energy sources, different fuel sources, and the focus on that from an environmental perspective. It’s also exciting to see the things that you’re doing in the transportation industry and the customers you are working with as well. I know we embarked on this project with you guys over the last several years, really focused around the touchless maintenance program. Can you tell us a little bit about that program and what the key goals were?
A: The touchless maintenance program is focused on automating the entire lifecycle — whether it’s from an IoT alert or a call coming in, or an algorithm through predictive maintenance or artificial intelligence — all the way through to creating a work order in our field service application and assigning it to the proper technician.
Currently there are many touchpoints from a human perspective. What we’re driving towards is being fully automated and, within a target of a 45-second window, going from alert to issue to work order to assignment to the technician, so he can be rolling and get the issue resolved in a timely fashion.
Q: The nature of your business around these un-manned fueling stations is important because there’s not a technician on-site in most cases; it's really about making sure alternative fuel is available to your customers whenever they need it. So it’s about how to bring the response rate into these un-manned stations that are autonomous and running by themselves, and how to communicate with them. It’s a very interesting program and one that enables a big change in your business as well.
A: We have about 560 stations and 160 technicians, so picking the right one and getting them dispatched quickly if we can't remotely fix the issue is key to meeting our service level agreements with our customers.
Q: That leads us into some good points on value and impact. One of the things people look at with these projects is, not only what is the project and how do we do it, but, what are some of the outcomes that we’re trying to make better in our business process. Also, understanding different points of view — who does it impact, and what process does it impact in the organization.
What are you seeing with this program that's helping you grow or change, or change your operational model?
A: It's really scalability and mitigating the risk of having a station down. We have to be five-nines uptime — we don't have another alternative fuel station a block away like the traditional fuel, so uptime is key.
And what we've looked at is how do we expand and grow as we build more of these stations. It's manpower — finding the right technicians is getting more difficult, so we want to utilize the resources we have and be able to scale at a greater rate than we historically have. Using automation is one of the key focuses and strategies for doing that.
Q: When you think about your customer experience, how is this program changing the impact to them?
A: The uptime is key. You get to a station, and that station's got to get fuel in the truck. By having this visibility, and being able to go from alert to repair in a short timeframe — some of these service level agreements are sub 30 minutes — reducing the amount of time that you're getting the right person on the site to fix it, or being able to alert the right technical team from a corporate perspective that can remotely fix an issue, is hugely impacted by this program.
The other factor is, some of the stations are private, so some of our customers hire us to maintain their stations. With the whole touch-free maintenance program, it rolls nicely into a custom app that we are building for our customers where they can log on and get a perspective of any issues at the station through IoT notifications, but also know that we've got a work order open, that we've dispatched a technician.
From a single interface, they have comfort knowing that we're on top of it, that we're managing their stations and they're going to get fuel in the morning to roll out. Because a lot of our people fuel overnight, they wake up in the morning, the driver shows up, and they have to hit the road. Anything that fails during that period will impact the customer experience, and so five-nines uptime is our differentiator. And this system is going to take that to the next level.
Q: I think it's really exciting, too, how you're presenting that to the customer. Not only are you using it to execute service excellence, but you’re actually giving them that hands-on view of the data. Providing that information real-time lets them know how well you're doing and how well you're servicing the station - that's a great way to extend the use of that application. I'm glad that's having a positive experience, impacting your customers.
Thinking about your operations teams and your field service techs, what's the impact to the people out in the field doing the work? What's their response to the application?
A: They've been ecstatic about it. With the IoT platform and full automation and the generation of the work order, that data goes straight from the source — which is the IoT alert — all the way to the work order. So by the time they get to the station, they know what the alarm is, and they know what the three or four recommended solutions can be. So we're eliminating the guessing game, we're eliminating some of the diagnostics that they have to do. They're actually arriving on-site with the information they need to correct the problem quickly, and they have the resources back at corporate who are looking at the system and guiding them through the process. So we're really shortening the time on-site when we are repairing things.
The second thing we're doing is looking at the predictive failure model with the machine learning and the AI, so now we're working towards identifying issues before they actually fail. That will be a game-changer for us because now we can get a technician out there to repair the compressor before it goes down and take the pressure off of them to get it back up. That will be a huge game-changer for us organizationally.
Q: Just think about the technician and the person who’s hovering over them going "I need it up, I need it up," versus knowing you are guaranteeing uptime by doing it in a more proactive fashion. I think it's great that point of view of making the technician's experience better by knowing what they need to fix, being more prepared, and potentially taking care of it before the customer has downtime.
For the company as a whole, you have talked about this being strategic to how you go win business and how you stay competitive, and how you create customer loyalty through this application. I think that's a great reference point of how you're leveraging this across your business and operations.
A: It's an exciting time. Even our headcount redirection, we're not looking to reduce headcount. Quite frankly, we're trying to maximize it. So we've had to pivot some of our traditional call center people into more dispatch/troubleshooters. They've had an opportunity to get trained and pivot into a completely different role because they're not doing the administrative work.
This automation is really going to change their roles and we've already started that transition, it's already happened. Now they're dispatchers/technical support people, and they have all these tools right in front of them that they will be able to use to help solve problems on first call. It's been a great transition so far.
Q: And like you said, driving scale, putting people in more strategic roles, letting automation take care of the mundane activities. I think that's a great example of leveraging technology — a mix of field service technologies, data and AI, and data science — to really drive change in the organization.
You've been at this program for a while, you've went through pilot programs, and you have stations going live across North America. Can you talk to us about lessons learned and your future plans — what are the things that were big lessons that jump out to you?
A: Flexibility and being agile, changing. As we went through it, some of the technologies didn't work the way we anticipated, so being able to adapt to it. Having a good partner is key. Working with vendors directly, Hitachi has been a great partner. They actually have that relationship with our selected vendor Microsoft, and we've broken through some ceilings we thought we reached, and got some resolutions and really refined that whole process.
But you have to be open to pivoting if one direction doesn't go the way you thought. So we've been very agile and very collaborative, and using a partner in the right way. It's been a good experience. Not seamless, not without its pitfalls, but we've adapted and continued to move forward and the progress has been great.
Q: I think you bring up a good point with the partnership. In our case, it's three-way with Clean Energy, Hitachi, and Microsoft, with Microsoft understanding what you're trying to do, and willing to engage and make adjustments and roadmap changes to their products based on learnings from your experience with their products at Clean Energy.
Having that responsiveness from the platform vendor, in this case Microsoft, and our relationship with translating your business issues into their technology issues, and bringing that all together to add value. That's a great learning from a project.
A: It’s been instrumental.
Q: If there are other people embarking on this journey, what advice would you give them in starting a project like this?
A: We did a lot of proofs of concept. We did them in segments and took each piece individually to make sure the smaller components worked, and then we extended them. So we focused on resource optimization, and we talked about connected field service, and then the IoT upstream, and then pieces started to fall into place.
So each individual proof of concept worked, and then we did a smaller one to connect all those components together and make sure it flowed the way it was supposed to flow. And then the only unknown as we moved forward was the scalability of the solution, and that's where the partnership came in. I continue to look at little proofs of concept and strategies around there. And, having a really clearly defined goal for each one is important.
Also, not giving up is important. You might hit some pitfalls, but working with your partner and keeping at it has gotten us through these phases successfully. It's been more seamless than I thought it would be, honestly. As we entered IoT and AI, it was very theoretical from our perspective — and we were pretty new to it. But the journey has been great and I think we've achieved quite a bit in a short timeframe. We're excited to continue to roll this out and take advantage of it.
Q: From our point of view, you had the vision and the idea of where you wanted to be from the beginning. Then working with us on how to break up and build these Lego blocks and test the pieces that we want to validate, and work toward getting to the end result.
Back to your point, willing to fail in some cases or run into challenges and then change direction — you guys have been a great partner in working with us to explore the challenges, and look at different ways of doing things. That has also pushed the technology limits and made sure we are driving to that end goal, and it’s been a great experience working with Clean Energy from that perspective. I hope now you are seeing a lot of results from that hard work.
A: Yes, the entire team is excited. When we started this they thought it was pie-in-the-sky-ish. We didn't know if we were going get there — but we got there! Now everyone is excited and wanting to continue to push forward. It's been an exciting time, a good partnership, and a good outcome at the end of the day.
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