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September 11, 2019 2:15 PM, EDT

Fleets Weigh Training, Outsourcing to Handle Time-Consuming Repairs

Technician works on an engine A technician gets ready to work on an engine. (Transervice Logistics)

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Fleet maintenance managers can attest to the adage “time is money,” considering repairs that take a long time also are generally more costly than quick fixes.

As truck components become progressively intricate through digitization and integration, fleets are finding that some already time-consuming maintenance tasks take even longer than they did in the past. Increasingly, managers must choose between investing in more technician tools and training or outsourcing the most time-consuming tasks that involve complex parts.

Automated manual transmissions are among the components that traditionally bear significant repair times. AMTs break infrequently on modern trucks, said Brett Wacker, vice president of maintenance at Dart Transit Co. “We don’t see a lot of failures on them, but when we do, the repair takes a long period of time.”

Techs do maintenance on Transervice trucks

Technicians conduct maintenance on Transervice trucks. (Transervice Logistics)

Earlier this year, the S.5 Fleet Maintenance Management Study Group within American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council completed a fleet survey based on Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards code keys 15 and 33. The survey asked the average time fleets spend on 75 common maintenance tasks. The 54 respondents overwhelmingly listed clutch assembly (9.14 hours) and AMTs (8.19 hours) as the top two longest fixes, followed by exhaust gas recirculation coolers (5.88 hours).

“When you talk about the clutch or AMT, most shops will immediately look at that as a large, lengthy repair. We’re talking 10-plus hours,” said Matt Copot, vice president of maintenance at Transervice Logistics.

A primary issue is that continued technological advancements and intricate component designs necessitate specialized training for technicians, and in some cases, purchasing new tools. The greater maintenance costs following each manufacturer’s AMT upgrades have become too cumbersome for many fleets, so “most folks are using the dealer network to get that done,” said Joe Puff, vice president of truck technology and maintenance at NationaLease. “If you don’t have a high enough failure rate, it doesn’t justify the tens of thousands of dollars in schooling and special tools.”

Like AMTs, clutch repairs are viewed as time consuming because of their intricacy.

“After a while, doing a brake job is almost like second nature. But when you get into clutches and transmissions, there’s a lot more minutiae and precision involved,” said Jack Poster, manager of VMRS services at TMC. “I’m not downplaying other work, but there’s a lot of precision, intricate componentry and moving pieces … with those two items.”

Simply accessing certain parts takes more time than in years past due to the extra elements trucks now house. This is especially true with the clutch. Before, technicians working on clutches in trucks with manual transmissions “could get the transmissions out and clutches in in a matter of six hours,” Transervice’s Copot said.

“Nowadays, with some of the stuff that’s involved in removing things before you even access the clutch … those times in most cases have doubled,” he added.

Technician cleans a diesel particulate filter

A technician prepares to clean a diesel particulate filter. (EcoClean via YouTube)

Technicians previously mainly contended with a clutch linkage on the transmission and a shift tower, Dart Transit’s Wacker said. But now they work around other elements — some of them required by law — including aftertreatment system components such as the diesel particulate filter.

“That’s what’s adding so much time to this,” he said.

On the positive side, modern trucks require fewer clutch repairs due to the prevalence of AMTs, which electronically control the clutch and reduce poor driver performance such as dragging, slipping or releasing too slowly.

In addition to these components calling for specialty care, “You exacerbate [the problem] with good technicians being difficult to find,” Copot said.

The industry’s current technician shortage has left some fleets “high and dry” when seeking seasoned clutch and AMT experts, so they instead rely on outside maintenance services such as through dealers, TMC’s Poster said.

“You want to make sure it’s done correctly because this is a costly repair,” he said.

Relying on outside maintenance services creates its own set of time issues. For example, technicians used to simply test and remove a faulty transmission for repair.

“Today, we don’t have that on AMTs,” Wacker said.

Tech uses diagnostic software

Technicians use diagnostic software to help maintain and repair truck equipment, including automated manual transmissions. (Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems)

Technicians now hook it up to a laptop to receive fault codes, inspect the given fault to determine if the problem part is under warranty, contact the dealer or manufacturer and submit a warranty claim for authorization to pull the transmission.

“When that’s all said and done, that adds about three hours to the repair, maybe longer,” Wacker said. “It depends on what they find and what they want you to do.”

Fleet maintenance managers confirm that EGR coolers also are time consuming to repair. Just as with AMTs, the EGR cooler’s system integration and componentry renders repairs lengthy to diagnose and execute.

A leading challenge with EGR coolers is the tendency for downstream issues with the rest of the aftertreatment system. For example, an EGR coolant leak could contaminate other parts including the DPF and selective catalytic reduction system. Technicians must identify and address issues throughout the entire aftertreatment system to avoid continued faults. Thorough inspections are important because diagnostics checks might not flag trouble with each individual affected part.

“New EGRs create more work than just replacing an EGR would have back in the day of 2003-2006 model years,” Wacker said.

Even though clutches, AMTs and EGRs carry the burden of long repair times, preventive maintenance “keeps issues from arising to begin with,” NationaLease’s Puff said.

Technician checks an engine's oil level

A technician checks the engine's oil level. Conducting preventive maintenance is crucial to try to avoid costly truck repairs. (TT File Photo)

He recommends paying attention to traditional preventive maintenance as well as considerations specific to newer components. For instance, AMTs have a lower oil capacity than manual transmissions, so they’re less forgiving of oil leaks or running the truck with low oil. They’re also less tolerant of moisture, making properly functioning air dryers a fundamental item.

Preventive maintenance is crucial not just for hard parts, but also the telematics and electrical systems connected to them.

“The biggest thing we run into is probably emissions-related — not so much with the DPF and [diesel oxidation catalyst] filters, but with the sensors failing,” Puff said.

Regularly inspecting the condition of wiring and terminals and preventing corrosion also is key. Worn or corroded wires can cause erroneous or improper fault codes to display. Technicians should ensure lines are properly routed and tied up, and connections are greased.

“I’m constantly talking with our OEM partners and asking them to increase our wiring harness and water tightness,” Wacker said. “All of this can be applied to every system component on the truck and trailer. Use that same reasoning power in every one of them.”

Despite the challenges that accompany diagnostics systems and greater truck digitization, they are beneficial because they provide a standard allowing technicians to pinpoint problems and diagnose the root cause, fleets say.

Outsourcing maintenance services and conducting frequent PMs are frequent workarounds for time-consuming repairs. Another tactic is swapping out an entire faulty component for a functioning one to avoid the time and labor associated with disassembling and reassembling the entire unit to treat one small problem.

Ultimately, the workarounds depend on each fleet’s budgetary and staffing tolerances. Devising the right solution, Puff said, comes down to the balance that each fleet must find.