Optimizing Shop Layout for Peak Performance

Shop layout is something that if you brought 10 companies together and asked for their ideal layout you would get 10 different answers.  This is because no two bus companies are the exact same with the same fleet size, makeup or territory.  What will work for a regional school bus fleet that has every vehicle back most nights will not be optimal for a cross-county motorcoach operation that has buses leaving every day of the week.  That said, every shop will have some similar guiding principles – safety, an ergonomic working condition, improved productivity and energy savings.  However, there will be a large degree of variation on how fleets accomplish these objectives.

To start there are two basic configurations for bus fleet – a drive-through shop and a pull-in structure.  Both have their strong points depending on your geographic locale. A drive-though bay tends to be safer through the elimination of the need to back a vehicle either into or out of the work bay.  A drive-though layout also increases ventilation as both bay doors can be opened to allow for a cross-breeze and disburse any heat.  However, in a colder climate a pull-in structure allows for doors to be installed at only one end making heat retention much easier in the winter.  For a pull-in layout, additional forms of mechanical ventilation will be needed to keep temperatures comfortable in the summer months.

The number of bays is also important.  One issue some fleets run into is having the same number of technicians as there are bays.  The National Association of Fleet Administrators recommends a ratio of 1.5 to 2 bays per technician.  This is to remove the need to pull a vehicle out of a bay while a technician is waiting for parts to arrive.  Any unnecessary shunting is a waste of time and an avoidable cost. This also keeps your techs working on vehicles and staying productive by doing the skilled labor you are paying them to for.

The size of the bays is another critical factor.  Obviously, it needs to be long enough to accommodate whatever equipment you will be working on.  What may not be so obvious is the width of each bay.  It needs to be able to accommodate the maneuvering of buses of all sizes, technician work areas and storage for parts and tools.  Finally, keep the height of the shop as high as possible.  Workers will need the space to work on top of buses so things like overhead cranes and fall arrest systems need to have sufficient overhead space for a technician to safely work.  If you build it high enough that the space can be converted into warehouse space, then you have made your building more valuable if you outgrow it and need to repurpose it.

The overall design of your shop should be directed at maximizing technician productivity.  One expert recommends building workbenches between each bay and equipping them with common tools such as grinders and vices, instead of only providing them in centralized locations.  This will reduce the amount of time spent looking for an available workspace or tool.  Additionally, look at having your bays designed for cleanliness.  Have the floor painted and provide cleaning items such as shovels, mops and brooms at each bay and make the technician responsible for keeping them clean.  A clean floor reduces slips and falls, making the facility safer for everyone.  Keeping the floor clean will also reduce any losses caused by vehicles running over tools or parts that have been left sitting on the bay floor.

While we are looking at safety, ensure that there is adequate lighting within the bays.  Begin by allowing for as much natural lighting as possible through either skylights or windows.  Next pick a lighting technology that provides a relatively white light.  High pressure sodium lighting gives off a yellow hue, which can make faded wiring look like the same colour.  There are a lot of modern LED lights that provide a white light and are significantly more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs.  They may cost a little more up front, but they tend to have a lower life-cycle cost.  Painting the walls white will also help to reflect the light and make your shop have a brighter interior.

Another common theme when building or reconfiguring a shop is to plan for the future.  Avoiding the use of load bearing walls will make a future expansion easier to manage.  Also remember to leave enough physical land space to allow for future building.  Putting your wall ten feet from your property line is not going to help you add usable shop floor space in the years ahead.  Having enough space in your electrical panel for future growth is also important.  While you are considering it, ensure that your utility room is large enough to handle things like a larger air compressor, a larger air dryer or just more circuits.  While it will cost more to put that capacity in up front it is generally more expensive to retrofit later.

The last thing to look at is the IT infrastructure that you provide your technicians with.  Are you providing computers for them to put in their work orders in a centralized location or are they closer to the bays?  To properly outfit a computer and a suitable cart or stand you are likely looking at around $2000 per machine.  That might seem like a lot to spend on a computer that is being used to enter in work orders, clocking onto job lines, entering comments and billing out parts.  However, let’s use an internal cost of $1 per minute for your technicians’ time and they spend 10 minutes a day just walking back and forth to a centralized computer that $2000 has a 200-day payback based on lost productivity – less than 1 year of working days! There is starting to be a trend towards outfitting the technicians with a ruggedized tablet that allows access to your shop management software as well as having some of the OEM diagnostic software available.  This will allow the technician to enter jobs, notes and parts in real time as well as pulling ECM data at each service to allow for predictive and proactive maintenance.  Your ROI will not only be based on the avoidance of unproductive time spent walking to a computer but also in the reduced inventory shrink caused by missing to bill all parts out to a job.

Not everyone will be able to do all these ideas – either because of budget or space restrictions.  However, it will be a good exercise to compare your shop with these suggestions and do a payback and ROI for each of them.  It’s possible that some of these items could free up enough time to either reduce headcount or having the ability to redeploy employees to a different shift – perhaps offering an evening or weekend shift to take advantage of when equipment is sitting idle.  You may just find out that a reasonable investment now could result in an improved bottom line going forward.