Keeping the railroad running

Mastering SAP

Union Pacific's Bailey rail yard. Photo: iStockphoto.

One of America’s leading transportation companies, Union Pacific Railroad connects 23 states across the western two-thirds of the United States by rail, serving around 10,000 customers. In recent years, Union Pacific has built on its SAP foundation to improve asset utilisation and tracking with a new mobile UI5 Plant Maintenance app, as well as a dashboard providing greater visibility on its preventive maintenance operations. Freya Purnell reports.

Rail transportation is Union Pacific’s bread and butter, but with supply chains mixing multiple modes of transport for an optimal freight solution, intermodal now makes up 20 per cent of Union Pacific’s business – and as such, is critical for its success.

Intermodal enables goods manufactured overseas to be transported in containers via different means of transport, including shipping, rail and road trucking, direct to their final destination.

With more than 100,000 containers and chassis that must be inspected and repaired across the Union Pacific network and customers relying on on-time delivery, the task of plant maintenance is both complex and critical.

Going mobile with maintenance

While Union Pacific’s SAP landscape included Financials, HR and Payroll, and Plant Maintenance, the many millions of dollars in maintenance and repair costs for intermodal equipment was being tracked through an external system.

Union Pacific Railroad senior manager – IT, Laura Pham, who will be presenting at the Mastering SAP event in Melbourne in October, said the company needed better control over the work that was being carried out and the vendors responsible for completing these repairs and maintenance.

Union Pacific embarked on a major project to build an in-house UI5 solution that sits on top of its SAP system, interfacing with Plant Maintenance, Materials Management, Sales and Distribution and Financials and Controlling modules. Union Pacific started with a desktop version of the solution in June 2014, but with very mobile assets and vendors that are themselves working on the move, the next step was a mobile app, which was deployed in 2015.

Vendors are now able to use their own Android devices to run the app, which they use during inspection of intermodal containers and chassis and record any issues in the app, which connects through the SAP Gateway to the company’s back-end ECC system.

Union Pacific’s IT team kept the solution simple by using standard functionality with simple enhancements via Z-tables, user statuses and custom fields. The user experience also needed to be straightforward.

“The app needed to be easy to use – our users shouldn’t even know that there is this thing called SAP under the covers,” said Pham. “We wanted to make it very intuitive like an ATM; nobody needs training on how to use an ATM.”

Through the one application, there are several workflows for different groups that use the applications, such as work order reviews, in which reviewers check inspection and repair orders submitted by contractors; photo reviews, to check photographs taken as containers leave and enter facilities to determine who is responsible for damage; and rebilling of vendors who have damaged containers in transit.

“We did a lot of development in UI5 to make different queues for the different groups that are accessing it,” Pham said.

By enabling contractors to provide photographs of any issues – or a clean bill of health for inspected equipment – immediately and directly via the mobile app, Union Pacific has achieved better tracking of maintenance work, faster turnaround and utilisation of the assets, and improved controls – for example, by including an approval workflow for new vendors.

Adding to the app’s efficiency benefits, its ongoing support requirements are fairly limited – requiring one developer to support the UI5 front-end, and one to maintain ABAP and back-end interfaces.

Preventing equipment failure

Union Pacific’s Operating Department manages a large fleet of machinery and equipment across its network for maintaining its track, locomotives and railcars. Ensuring this equipment is ready when needed is a critical part of keeping operations running smoothly.  Preventive maintenance and the ability to respond quickly with corrective repairs drive equipment reliability and availability which help to ensure customer’s expectations are met in a cost efficient way.

“The biggest cost is not necessarily the people that are standing by, waiting for that piece to be repaired; it’s more that we have closed down that line of track and we can no longer get our business moving,” Pham said. “We’re holding customers’ goods that we’re trying to deliver while we’re doing that. So it’s critical as a business that good preventive maintenance keeps those assets available as long as we can and that we prevent that downtime.”

Previously some of the shops were keeping maintenance information on spreadsheets or non-integrated spreadsheets, but Union Pacific has now been working on getting all its field equipment (apart from its locomotives, which are tracked via a different process) into one coherent system, with preventative maintenance plans in place for all high-value or critical assets.

In order to monitor how well its mechanical teams are using the system, Union Pacific has created a dashboard via SAP Business Intelligence to provide full visibility of the status of preventive orders, highlighting orders that are out of compliance.

“This dashboard is really cool, because it shows how many of the work orders we’re creating are the preventive orders, and how many are unplanned orders, so that we can compare,” said Pham. “Over time, we want to see those unplanned orders as a percentage come down, because you are finding issues during preventive maintenance. It gets at what’s proactive versus what’s reactive.”

The dashboards also allow users to drill down to the shop level, and understand how each shop is performing, as well as see any orders that are well overdue.

“Anybody across the system, including those in the management side, can see if shop A is struggling to get their preventive work done. A lot of times, they know what is going on. But having that visibility helps in that people have accountability when they know everybody can see it,” Pham said.

While she admits it is still early days on the preventive management project, a strong focus on return on investment and tangible cost savings resulting from individual initiatives such as this within its SAP landscape has made it easier to continue to gain funding and continue along its enterprise asset management roadmap.

Laura Pham will be presenting on these projects and demonstrating Union Pacific’s solutions at Mastering SAP, to be held October 23-26 at the Crown Promenade, Melbourne. This year, four communities will come together under one roof – Business Analytics, Customer Engagement, Supply Chain and Enterprise Asset Management. To find out more and to register, visit