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February 20, 2019 9:30 AM, EST

Fleets, Maintenance Shops Eye 24-Hour Service to Enhance Driver Productivity

Atlas Trucking maintenance facility Atlas Trucking's decision to open an expansive maintenance facility with around-the-clock service was driven in part by the ELD mandate. (Atlas Trucking)

Four years ago, Marc Scibilia and his maintenance team at Atlas Trucking were maintaining and repairing trucks outside in the elements. Today, they work out of a 73,000-square-foot commercial shop where they service their own trucks, as well as other fleets’ vehicles, for 24 hours on weekdays and 10 hours on Saturdays.

The expanded maintenance operations and around-the-clock service were driven in large part by the federal electronic logging device mandate and the resulting focus on driver hours-of-service limits, said Jeffrey Bronson, Atlas Trucking’s senior director.

Atlas Trucking maintenance facility

A view inside Atlas Trucking's new 73,000-square-foot service facility. The private fleet services its own trucks as well as other fleets' vehicles. (Atlas Trucking)

By performing its own repairs, the fleet can better control repair and wait times, and going commercial enables it to offset its costs. Repairs can happen quickly while drivers are at home during their off-duty hours, making it a recruiting and retention tool.

“We were constantly looking for ways to keep the wheels rolling so the 11 hours of drive time a driver could have in a 14-hour period was maximized,” Bronson said. Taylor, Mich.-based Atlas Trucking is the private fleet of Eaton Steel Bar Co.

Due to the strong freight market and the ELD mandate, fleets have even more incentive to make repairs quickly and get their trucks back on the road no matter the time of day.

Bob Toews, president of TruckDown, a trucking repair shop locator, said demand is increasing on its network.

“We’ll get probably about 100,000 fleet users a month through the system looking for everything from a wrecker to get a unit out of the ditch to a full-on heavy truck shop where they can get major repairs done, all the way through down to oil changes,” he said.

The ELD mandate is forcing fleets to improve how they manage driving time, Toews said.

TruckDown has seen a more aggressive approach to providing mobile services and having 24-hour capabilities among its 40,000 vendors. Traditional truck stop chains have moved heavily into mobile repair.

At the same time, the complexity of maintenance and repairs has been rising as trucks become increasingly sophisticated with more systems that can break down. And those trends will continue as new technologies hit the road.

“It is really a race to understand and master the new technologies,” Toews said. “They look great in the showroom, but at 2 o’clock in the morning out on the side of the highway, somebody better know how to fix them, and that’s really the bottom line for the industry.”

Amer Avdic, president of Find Truck Service, a national breakdown directory, said the industry has been seeing a shift from in-shop repairs to roadside service.

USA Truck on road

USA Truck relies on an expanding network of repair facilities and a road-assist department to keep its trucks rolling. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

Avdic said newer trucks break down more than older trucks because of all of the sensors and technology. Sometimes the problem isn’t a major repair but is enough to take a truck off the road. With the ELD mandate, drivers are using roadside service when they run out of hours so their fleets aren’t repairing trucks during their on-duty hours.

Jack Legler, technical director at American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, foresees a future in which fleets share more and more of their service capabilities. Equipment is now so technically complex with many mission-critical systems, and the truck doesn’t run if that technology isn’t functional.

“It kind of puts you in this bind as a company,” he said. “You either keep everything running 100% of the time, or you have this facility that’s fully capable that is idle half the time. And where do you find the people?”

Legler sees fleets sharing space and renting space, with smaller fleets finding it advantageous to use services offered by larger ones with more diagnostic capabilities.

He thinks Atlas Trucking may be on to something by serving other fleets.

“They’re on the cusp of an opportunity, let’s put it that way,” Legler said.

USA Truck, based in Van Buren, Ark., doesn’t operate a 24-hour facility. Instead, it relies on a growing network of repair facilities and a road-assist department that never shuts down. That department has mapped out available vendors across the country. It uses telematics to help those vendors understand a problem before they arrive, saving time traveling back and forth for parts.

Jeff Harris

USA Truck's Harris, chairman of TMC, says his fleet has trained its workers to consider a driver's hours of service when scheduling repairs. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

Jeff Harris, vice president of maintenance, said USA Truck is contacted several times a week by businesses asking to be added to its vendor list. It relies on larger brand names for its repairs. He said the firm must be certain a provider is vendor certified, or the repairs won’t be under warranty.

“We have to vet those,” Harris said. “We score those vendors as well, so you have to be able to keep up with who’s doing a good job, who’s not doing a good job, whether you want to use them again in the future.”

While USA Truck doesn’t currently operate a 24/7 facility, that could change based on customer needs.

The ELD mandate is driving the company’s repair decisions, Harris said. The company has trained employees to consider a driver’s hours of service when deciding how to prioritize repairs.

“When a truck comes into our shop or if a truck goes down over the road, that’s one of the first things that we look at,” he said. “We look at the dispatch status of that driver. Is he under a load? What time does he have to be there?”

USA Truck ranks No. 69 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

Ryder mobile maintenance vehicle

A Ryder mobile maintenance vehicle. Ryder says it operates many 24/7 facilities and has a technician on call at the ones that aren't open 24/7. (Ryder System Inc.)

Ryder, meanwhile, operates numerous 24/7 facilities among its 800 shops, and one of its technicians is always on call at the ones that aren’t open 24/7.

Rick Bell, field maintenance manager, said Ryder’s first choice for repairs would be to dispatch a technician from its closest facility to the breakdown. If that technician cannot do the job, Ryder will locate one nearby who can support. If not, it also has a network of trained service providers.

Bell said the company is always looking to expand its 24/7 network based on customer needs.

But he doesn’t believe the ELD mandate is dictating the changes. Rather, the growing economy means more trucks are on the road and need to be serviced.

Finding trained technicians to make those repairs is always a challenge. Ryder has an internal training department that evolves with the changing technology, and it works with local and national technical schools to recruit new technicians.

At Atlas Trucking, prior to July 2015, technicians did minor repairs outside working out of three renovated ocean containers serving as storage and office facilities in Taylor, Mich. Too many trucks were having to go to a shop.

“For a couple of minor repairs, you could be out that piece of equipment for a week,” Bronson said.

When a member of the ownership team saw what was happening, the company leased a 4,000-square-foot building and built a four-bay shop.

“Within six months, other trucking companies started showing up and other shops started calling because they had overflow, and it just became apparent in this area, there was a large need, and then after 10 o’clock at night around here, you can’t buy a part,” Bronson said.

Then last year, the 73,000-square-foot building became available. After six months of renovations, the facility opened Jan. 1. Fifteen technicians and parts and safety personnel work three shifts, and it has a 10,000-square-foot parts facility. Two service trucks usually travel within a 40-mile radius.

Bronson estimates the entire investment was about $4 million. Scibilia, director of safety and maintenance, calls it a “Garage Mahal.”

Scibilia said the company has good relationships with local dealers, and those relationships will be beneficial for training and overflow. Maintenance facilities should form partnerships just like trucking companies do, he said.

“Right now, as far as our shop goes, we’re in the infancy, but you look five, 10 years down the road, the sky’s the limit with this place,” he said. “I think this is going to be a model by which other companies are going to try to follow.”

Love's tire truck

Love's Travel Stops operates more than 300 facilities with around-the-clock service, including full-service tire work. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

Love’s Travel Stops, meanwhile, operates more than 300 facilities with 24/7 service. While these locations have long offered emergency services, in recent years they have expanded to include full-service tire work, light mechanical work and preventive maintenance, including oil changes.

Eric Daniels, director of shop operations, said the ELD mandate was a big factor in that expansion.

“When the drivers are down, they have time to kill, and having that 24/7 service to be able to take care of them when they need it and when they have time has really driven our business forward,” he said.

Love’s has six mobile training labs to keep technicians up to date.

“Honestly, with trucks and the technology in them, a mechanic is almost becoming an IT person nowadays to be able to service a truck,” Daniels said.