The Modern Maintenance Shop

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Efficiency is still Rule #1 for maintenance shops.


Eight years ago I wrote an article on vehicle maintenance facilities for SAM that included design features and equipment worthy of consideration in a shop (“Building a Great Shop,” January 2006). We thought it was time to take another look, and through a slightly different lens.

Of course, some things have changed, and some haven’t. Looking back at what I wrote in 2006, I laughed at my comments that made it sound like working under snowgroomers was like Armageddon. So many shops are more mechanic-friendly now. Then, in early January, I was in an older shop looking at the very conditions I had described in 2006. The mechanic, struggling under a bombardment of snow and mud while laying face-up on a creeper that would not roll through the water because the ice points chewed the concrete surface—sure seemed like work-place Armageddon to me. Where’s that “Dirty Jobs” guy to film a segment?

Also unchanged in eight years are the value of real estate, and the challenges of topography at ski resorts. Whether it be land cost, slope angle, wetlands encroachment or “it’s gotta get wedged in between this and that,” there will always be pressure to keep the footprint as small as possible.

Windham’s shop has great utility, and because of its close proximity to the main base area, it mirrors the base area architecture.
One example. Driven in part by some of the reasons above, Windham Mountain, N.Y., built a new shop on the footprint of the old shop that was attached to the snowmaking pumphouse and lift maintenance. The area’s priorities in rebuilding settled on very basic needs: ceiling height, storage, lighting, and a new concrete floor that sloped to a drain. Those seemingly fundamental items were things they didn’t have before.

As always, the site imposed its own considerations. The combination of adjoining buildings is located right next to the base lodge, and is very visible on approach to drop-off parking and from the slopes as well. To Chip Seamans, GM in his third year at Windham, it was an oxymoron: “We have a beautiful base facility that we keep immaculate, and we’re always stressing to our staff the importance of putting on their best appearance. And then we had these adjacent buildings that contradict that persona.”

So, when the shop at the south end got rebuilt, all the other buildings received a matching facelift. The difference in curb appeal is dramatic. To the area’s credit, it achieved two key goals: functional improvement and a welcome aesthetic.

FUNCTION AND UTILITY


This may sound elementary, but “functional” is an umbrella term for the foremost aim of every maintenance manager at a small to mid-size resort when they are considering a shop redesign. They know their resources are limited, and so is their wish list.

For Middlebury Snow Bowl, which is in the planning stage for a new garage, the list starts with sufficient bay size workspace, lighting, ceiling height, and storage—much the same as Windham. That said, the design and construction elements, along with the mechanical components that define “functional,” vary greatly based on size of the resort.

The issue we want to explore is the correlation between the facility and production efficiency in ski resort vehicle maintenance. Smaller resorts want the basics of “functional,” and larger resorts are going to need more than just fundamentals. In either case, the question is: can the functional elements, scaled to the size of the operation, really improve efficiency and meet the goal of bringing down the cost of operation?

Let’s start with that big question and then throw in a few more variables. How do you bring down the cost of operation in a vehicle maintenance operation where snow groomers are run for a lot of hours at high RPMs under sometimes horrific conditions? Every resort has a fleet with a range of ages. Older equipment is going to present more problems than newer equipment, so there is no avoiding the problem. As we all know, it’s a compressed season, everyone pushing as hard as they can for the 3 or 4 month season. No VMM or mechanic wants to be on defense, always working from behind. With that in mind, the size of the labor force needs to favor more than less.

The best way to combat the cost of this labor team? Having the necessary parts, tools and equipment, in a sufficient workspace that allows each mechanic to do the job in a minimum amount of time.

The paramour to labor is material cost. Keeping the cost of parts down might have the biggest impact on protecting the bottom line. Preventive maintenance (PM) is the best means of countering that cost impact. In plain terms, get to it before it’s broke, and do things to it that reduce the chance that something’s going to break sooner rather than later. Frequent lubrication and inspections are the biggest weapons of PM besides the prescribed factory interval servicing.

If frequent PM is the answer, and component failure can be reduced through periodic or accelerated lube and inspections, how does the maintenance facility factor into that? Primarily through the number of bays it has. The size of the fleet dictates a certain number of bays. And remember, there are both tracked vehicles and rubber-tire vehicles to plan for. And, as we acknowledged above with older vehicles, there is a likelihood that some machines will occupy the repair space for a longer period of time than others.

Being able to bring in as many pieces of equipment as you can—in short intervals—for an inspection and top-off is both a strategy and a tactic. Okemo, for example, tries to do a quick inspection on every snowcat every day. That’s ambitious, and it takes plenty of bays to do so. The intended payoff is no lost shifts or snowcats to repair or drag off the hill.

Having space to work around a snowcat, with proximity to tools, benches and lube equipment, is the next consideration. Remember, no one can afford a luxurious amount of space, so it’s a matter of right-sizing the bay. If a tire needs removal, do you have room to get rolling shop equipment (i.e., a floor crane if you don’t have an overhead crane) to help lift the track, and room then to climb in and get the tire in and out as fast as possible?

LIFTS


Warning: here comes the apology and full disclosure that I have a product to sell. Including or planning a Lif-Track all-vehicle lift is one means of improving efficiency. A lift (think of any lift in any repair shop, not just my product) is a vehicle maintenance workhorse, and is proven to increase productivity and save man-hours. It creates the opportunity for those fast PMs and inspections at frequent intervals.

That applies even to smaller resorts, which despite having fewer machines, typically have less space and fewer people to work with, but no less work to do. In essence, a lift in a bay can produce the throughput of two bays without a lift. Windham kept to the same footprint but needed to increase throughput. Alpine Valley Resort, Wisc., wanted three bays as well as space for a welding and fabrication area. But the area had a water table/wetlands encroachment issue. For both resorts, including a lift is their strategy to counter bay limitation.

To be absolutely clear, I am not advocating that shops should cut the number of bays and rely on a lift to take up the slack, only that the number of bays is important and that a lift is an additional beneficial asset when it comes to answering the question, “what makes a shop efficient and how can an efficient shop lower the cost of operation?”

CRANES


Those who have attended my classes at regional shows have been subjected to many a PowerPoint slide showing cranes. It’s on everyone’s wish list, but not always a reality in a smaller operation. At the very least, in large and marginal operations, an overhead crane should be planned for during the design phase of the building. This means engineering the structure and designing in the necessary height considerations. The cost to do so up front is inconsequential compared to trying to add one 10 years later without pre-calculating the loads on the structure or building in the needed space.

There is a lot of research and consideration to be done when designing in a crane. Extreme diligence is required because it affects every other element in the shop. You might say that any maintenance building is a lot easier to build if it doesn’t involve an overhead crane. The envelope and path for overhead doors as well as mechanical ducts and pipelines can create a nightmare of interference. As another example, if you have a crane moving across the garage, you can’t drop lubrication lines, electric lines etc., through that space. So locating and mounting exhaust lines and ducts becomes an added challenge.

In large shops like those at Sun Valley and Snowbasin, they need lubrication and electric in close proximity to the bays. In those cases they ran all the lines under the floor to stations out on the shop floor. If it’s pre- engineered the only obstacle to adding a crane later is financial and budget-based, not a structural, mechanical or space issue.

For smaller shops where work-arounds are the typical m.o. (i.e., using the front end loader to lift off the tiller and place it somewhere else to be worked on), know that you have other options, such as a jib crane that can swing over 2 or more bays depending on how they are arranged, or a monorail with a hoist, or even a chain-fall. What’s not different in those cases is the planning required.

STORAGE


Storage is always an issue in shops. I’ve never been in one yet that doesn’t have every available bit of floor space spoken for. A mezzanine is one of the best solutions to managing the footprint and still providing the space needed. Parts room, office, and general storage can all be located one level up. Bruce Firestone at Alpine Valley, despite the size restrictions mentioned earlier, did a great job on the interior to maximize the utility of the space. While Bruce didn’t have the budget for stucco and stone, he still remained true to the European alpine theme in the adjacent base area lodge and hotel with an aesthetic pole barn. Function matters, yes, but so does architecture.

King Pine, N.H., is still one of my favorite shops: small, simple and well planned. If you’ve been there to see Bob Hoyt’s operation, you recognize immediately that he is big on maintenance. It’s a small area and he doesn’t need a big shop. But he has his big door for the cats, and two smaller bays for rubber tire and other work, like fabrication and storage. Inside he also made great use of a mezzanine. Next to the shop is the wash building, complete with a water reclamation system. His was one of the first dedicated wash buildings/bays I’ve seen in this industry; since then more have popped up.

The storage mezzanines at Alpine Valley, Wisc. (left) and King Pine, N.H. (right) are efficient uses of space——and efficiency is the key aim of all shops.

Glen Eden Ski & Snowboard Centre, Ontario, didn’t make use of a mezzanine, but simply created ample space between the door and the wall on either end and between the bay doors. This was extremely refreshing, as I’ve seen all too many bays with only one to two feet between the doors, and the same or less between the door and the side wall—thereby eliminating the possibility of storing much of anything next to the bays.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS


Lubrication and fluid distribution is another big factor in making your maintenance shop more productive and efficient. Fluid reels that are available out on the shop floor increase productivity. It’s like having your toolbox right next to where you are working. Remember our definition of efficiency—the availability of parts, tools and equipment in a sufficient workspace that allows you to do the job in a minimum amount of time? Larger operations can benefit by having a fluid room. Smaller shops can operate just as well if they have 55-gallon drums with a compressed air pump and a reel mounted on or above the drum.

Lighting is a necessity. Shops should provide as much natural light as is practical. But new lighting technology is also making a dramatic difference in the ability to see clearly in a shop. The way new lighting can reduce shadows is astounding. Even older shops should make it a priority to update fixtures to save energy and improve working conditions. You are guaranteed a return on both for the investment. Lighting and access are essential for effective and efficient PMs. You can twist the phrase any way you want, but you’ll do more and do it faster when you can get to it and see it!

Yellowstone Club’s floor pitches in both directions to the drain. They also embedded checkered plates in the floor to protect it from the tracks and ice points.
Floor slope and drainage combined with floor protection are also key. If you are building a new shop, it is inconceivable that you would not slope the floor to sufficiently-sized drains to evacuate the volume of water unique to this industry as quickly as possible. No one works well when they are in standing water. Shops are also becoming much more conscious of the value of smooth concrete. Steel plates embedded in the floor will protect the concrete from the ice points on the tracks. One of the best examples of getting drainage and protection done right is the Yellowstone Club.

Exhaust removal is required by many state regulations, and again, it’s becoming much more commonplace in even the smallest shops. Just remember that exhaust systems become a complication if you are including or planning for a crane.

I have saved one important basic for last: heat. No one works well when they are cold. If you have to crawl under a tractor on a creeper, you are operating in the coldest zone in the building. It’s impossible to overstate the benefits of in-floor heat for this industry. Warm feet = happy feet = no reluctance or lapse in concentration to do the work. Combined with ceiling fans to drive the heat down, in-floor radiant heat makes for a drier, more comfortable work environment. It always seems that thermostats can be set lower and mechanics are still able to work in t-shirts. Yes, the price may induce sticker shock, but the energy bill will go down and you’ll get your payback.

A smaller shop may not need a dedicated welding and fabrication space if it has sufficient bays to use one interchangeably and have the equipment in proximity.

I hope it’s clear by now that new walls with insulation and a door wide enough for the cat to fit through, noble goals as these are, do not meet the standard for “functional” in ski resort vehicle maintenance, even in the smallest of operations. Maintenance is a business that is costly to run. It is wise to pursue the maximum return on an investment where the facility creates an environment in which the cost of parts and labor are reduced.

Don’t misunderstand, reducing labor in a production capacity doesn’t mean cutting staff, it’s about increasing throughput! Look back to the definition of efficiency highlighted above, and apply the logic of the basics presented here. No matter the size of your area, these are the most common denominators to consider when balancing expenditure and return.

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