Reining in Rising Maintenance Costs


This story appears in the March 13 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Fleet managers are relying more on high-tech shop equipment, technology-savvy technicians, efficient shop practices and flexible preventive maintenance scheduling in efforts to rein in the rising maintenance costs inherent with the complexity of today's trucks.

The challenge is steep. Average motor carrier repair and maintenance costs rose to 15.6 cents per mile in 2015, a 51% increase from 2008, according to the American Transportation Research Institute's 2016 report on carrier costs. ATRI is part of American Trucking Associations.

Much of that cost increase is being attributed to the repair and maintenance of emissions systems, the biggest headache in fleet maintenance today, which was reported in the August 2016 issue of Equipment & Maintenance Update.

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At the heart of the problem are today’s sophisticated onboard electronics and emissions systems and the ability of shop technicians to quickly and accurately diagnose a truck’s ills.

“The whole industry is feeling the pain of diagnostics,” said Gregg Mangione, senior vice president of maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing. He referred to pre-2007 Environmental Protection Agency regulations as an example. “An ’06 model maybe had 350 fault codes. Since then, well over 2,000 have been added.”

Over the past five years, the Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards, or VMRS, a system of identifying component and activity codes maintained by the Technology & Maintenance Council, a division of ATA, has added 6,200 new codes for parts and work processes. These include labor, technology, work accomplished and new terminology for shop work, including 380 codes just for individual parts associated with aftertreatment systems, said Jack Poster, VMRS services manager. “That’s what’s coming at the fleets,” he said.

The interconnectivity of so many onboard systems will increase the likelihood that an ignored, overlooked or missed diagnosis of one system can cripple the truck, said Jason Hedman, JPRO product manager with Noregon Systems, a supplier of diagnostic equipment. “Since the inception of the EPA [regulations], maintenance difficulties have been compounded year after year and the trucks are becoming more complex. Now, every system talks to each other and [a problem with] any one can shut down the entire truck,” Hedman said.

The changes in the equipment have, in turn, forced changes throughout the maintenance shop in PM schedules, shop equipment and efforts to recruit and train technicians.

“A fleet cannot operate and maintain trucks as [it] did 10 years ago,” said Darry Stuart, principal of DWS Fleet Management, a consulting business. “Too many systems and standards have changed since then.”

Penske sees the amount of data available from a truck’s numerous electronic control units as a “treasure trove” of information to help guide technicians in the maintenance processes, Mangione said. The issue is how to “harness the data” from the vehicle, he said.

The fleet started by giving wireless tablets to its shop technicians. Using the tablets, Penske is rolling out a voice-directed PM process that gives the technicians verbal directions.

“Now we’re using the data to lead the technician in the right direction,” Mangione said. “We’re able now to direct a technician through their preventive maintenance process completely voice guided.”

Old Dominion Freight Line, which is based in Thomasville, North Carolina, is another fleet that made a “significant” investment equipping its technicians with laptops, said Tom Newby, vice president of equipment and maintenance.

The company found that its techs were spending a lot of time waiting in line for a shop computer so it issued an iPad to every tech. “That has saved a lot of time,” Newby said.

Old Dominion ranks No. 11 on the Transport Topics list of the Top 100 for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

The less-than-truckload fleet’s 537 technicians also are assigned one hour of training per week, Newby said, adding that Old Dominion is the only LTL carrier with an ASE certification training program.

“If a technician follows through with the training and shows commitment and tests, he’s automatically promoted,” Newby said.

Adding more computing and diagnostic capability in the shop helps, but the industrywide shortage of technicians remains.

While finding technicians is a challenge, getting new technicians up to speed and maintaining technical skills is just as critical, said Steve Lynch, vice president of equipment purchasing and shop operations with Swift Transportation, which is based in Phoenix. “We’re spending a ton of money and time training people.”

Swift, which ranks No. 6 on the for-hire TT100, requires its 1,300 technicians to take one hour of training weekly, whether it’s for the latest update or a refresher on a previous topic, Lynch said.

But the need for tech-savvy technicians can only grow, he said.

“Because of the complexity of today’s diagnostics, eventually we’re going to need something like a maintenance engineer. We’re going to have one group to troubleshoot trucks and another group to repair them,” Lynch said, saying he thinks they’ll have to start by 2019 in order to be ready by 2021 with the new emissions regulations.

Another step fleets can take to get a handle on maintenance costs is to eliminate wasted motions and activities in the shop. Process mapping — identifying the number of steps and motions a technician takes to complete a task — can highlight those inefficiencies.

Swift instituted its program in 2008 and it helped the company plan shop activity better and respond immediately to any equipment change.

“We can adjust quickly to any new equipment,” Lynch said. “In two hours we can have a bulletin out to every facility.”

Old Dominion looked for “blatant inefficiencies” when it reviewed its shop processes, Newby said. The fleet added four-post lifts in all of its shops and moved more parts shelving into the shop so the techs were not spending as much time running back and forth to the parts counter.

Penske mapped technician movements around a rig during preventive maintenance and found that a tech would average 28 trips back and forth from the truck to a central spot, Mangione said. “We found that 60% of that was for information [from a shop computer],” he said. Giving the techs tablets eliminated much of that wasted movement.

Given the complexity of today’s trucks, PM schedules are more flexible than in simpler times. A typical PM is running between two and two and-a-half hours but that time can quickly double or triple with some problems.

Swift allows 2.5 hours for the average truck PM without emissions issues, said Lynch. “Double that time if there is an issue with electronics or emissions.”

At the same time, as systems improve and truck makers push out the recommend service intervals — 400,000 miles now for some DPF changes, for example — maintenance managers are becoming more selective about what they service and when.

“We’re changing how we PM a vehicle,” said Penske’s Mangione. “We adapt the PM to specific vehicle and that gives us greater consistency.”

Using remote diagnostic service, now standard on most models, has helped reduce some shop time, executives said.

“Customer data shows that remote diagnostics reduces average diagnostic time by 70% and average repair time by 22% compared with customer-reported averages prior to the introduction of remote diagnostics,” said John Moore, Volvo’s powertrain product marketing manager. Remote diagnostics has been standard on all Volvo-powered VNM, VNL, VNX, VHD and VAH models since early 2013.

Remote diagnostics has been helpful in determining if a check engine light warrants immediate attention or if the vehicle can continue operating safely to a dealership or one of the company shops for repair, said Brian Gigoux, vice president of equipment and maintenance with Groendyke Transport.

Groendyke, based in Enid, Oklahoma, ranks No. 88 on the for-hire TT100.

Detroit Connect Virtual Technician, standard on all Freightliner and Western Star trucks equipped with Detroit heavy-duty engines, notifies truck owners when their vehicles experience fault events, the severity of the fault and when, where and how to best fix the issue causing the fault so that they can make informed service decisions, said Jennifer Edwards, Freightliner’s manager of marketing communications.

Peterbilt’s SmartLinq tracks a fleet’s connected trucks throughout North America and provides management with several color codes to indicate each truck’s service needs, starting with green (no active diagnostic codes) through red (immediate action required).