Article

Shop-Floor Diagnostics

A particular tractor might have Meritor Wabco brakes, a Caterpillar engine and a multiplexed cab.

February 2006, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by John Bendel, Technology Editor

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Southeastern Freight Lines is eyeballing applications that allow technicians on the shop floor to access software from various vendors through a single computer interface. The products were developed by Noregon Systems, Winston-Salem, N.C., and were designed to save more than just the time to open and close individual vendor software applications.

JPRO Fleet Diagnostics consists of both hardware and software elements. A handheld adapter connects to the truck's interface at one end and to a personal computer at the other. Fleet Diagnostics software runs on the PC and displays fault codes and other data.

Another piece of software, JPRO FleetPortal, organizes applications from specific vendors so they can be accessed through a single user interface.

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"A technician on the shop floor that attached the diagnostic connector to a tractor through the JPRO adapter would be brought to an on-screen page where you can access engine manufacturers, brake manufacturers and multiplexed cabs, for instance," says Jim Boyd, Southeastern's manager of fleet technical services.

Boyd cites an example where a particular tractor may have Meritor Wabco brakes, a Caterpillar engine and a multiplexed cab. "The technician can access each of the ECMs (electronic control modules) for these systems directly from JPRO."

Southeastern's Columbia, S.C., shop is a beta test site for the JPRO system, which has been in use in the Columbia facility for only a brief time. Still, initial reviews were "quite positive," Boyd says. "Our initial feedback is good, but we need to use it longer to make a valid assessment."

A technician can connect to the tractor's databus and by using the JPRO product, the program will display all ECMs located on that particular vehicle, which speeds up the connection and diagnostic process.

Boyd hopes that capability will help keep technicians on the right track as they deal with a wide array of equipment.

Southeastern Freight Lines provides LTL service, primarily in 12 southeastern states and Puerto Rico. The company also serves the rest of the country through partners. Southeastern has a history of adopting new technologies. For example, the company was one of the first to join the Technology and Maintenance Council's FleetPortal in 2004.

Southeastern operates 21 maintenance facilities, with more than 300 professionals maintaining in excess of 10,000 pieces of equipment, including tractors, trailers, liftgates, cars, pickup trucks, forklifts and dollies from a variety of manufacturers.

At the Columbia shop, approximately 45 technicians maintain the 71 power units domiciled at the location, plus a variable number of line-haul power units. These technicians are divided up between the power shop, trailer shop, tire shop and body shop.

"Southeastern is structured so that any vehicle that belongs to Southeastern can end up in any of our shops, and they often do," Boyd says.

At the Columbia shop, the desktop computer is mounted inside a metal roll-around cabinet on the shop floor. "It's very ruggedized," Boyd says. It is equipped with a printer so a technician can print diagnostic procedures, wiring diagrams, parts lists, etc. The connection from the PC to the tractor is made with a 40-foot cable with the diagnostic adapter in line. Once the tractor ignition switch is turned on, the adapter is powered up and the exchange of information begins.

Is it awkward to run that diagnostic cable through the shop?

"The PC is centrally located in the shop so that the bulk of the bays can be reached," Boyd says. "The cord is also long enough so a vehicle can be pulled up outside the shop and we can connect to it."

Southeastern uses maintenance management software of its own design.

"There are plenty of packages out there, but when we did this, we felt it was in our best interests to make it exactly the way we wanted it. We developed our own,"Boyd says.

When it comes to digital diagnostics, he says, "our biggest challenge is to get a mouse, a keyboard and a digital multimeter in the technician's hand and get him proficient with all three. That's true industry wide.

"In general, there is no way you can do without these technologies. These systems can't repair a piece of equipment, but they offer the technician the information that is needed in the repair process."

DIGITAL DIAGNOSTICS: ANOTHER VIEW

Digital diagnostics have changed truck maintenance forever, and certainly for the better, but there may be a downside as well.

"We have gotten so high-tech that we've forgotten how to do the most basic elements of maintaining trucks," says fleet maintenance guru Darry Stuart.

While Stuart regards himself "anti" for the sake of argument, he clearly understands and appreciates technology.

"I absolutely believe in what it will do. I absolutely believe in where we're going," Stuart says. "One of the greatest inventions that ever came along was the electronic engine."

Stuart runs DWS Fleet Management Services, Wrentham, Mass., a unique business service that leverages his 37 years of fleet management experience. Stuart goes to work for a client fleet as an on-the-premises troubleshooter and problem-solver, driving change as if on staff, but for a limited time period.

In this real-world environment, Stuart sees first-hand that diagnostic technologies do have problems – for example, the short life of the components that gather information. "Speed sensors, potentiometers, air flow sensors, all the sensors," he says.

But the larger problem, he says, has less to do with the technology itself than with the way it is used. Stuart cites a client with a fleet based in Tennessee.

"Every time a truck came into the shop, they would hook it up and check for codes. They would check this and they would check that. They would turn the speed up, turn the speed down."

Stuart noticed the fleet had a pile of paper in one corner of the office. There weren't enough filing cabinets for all the paper.

When he asked what the pile was, the manager explained that every time a truck came in, they plugged it in and ran off a report. Over time, the reports stacked up. Nobody did anything with them.

"A technician spent 15 to 20 minutes hooking the truck up, downloading, being curious and blah, blah, blah. They spent more time doing that than they spent fixing trucks."

Curiosity is not limited to the shop floor.

"I know fleets where they bring in the truck. They'll hook up the computer and they'll be checking all these things. I say, 'Why are we doing this? Is there a problem?'"

The manager's response: "No, I'm just curious."

"I view everything at 80 cents a minute," Stuart says. That's what he believes a technician's time costs.

Stuart's conversations with clients about the time spent running routine diagnostics goes something like this:

"You're doing it in your shop, right? Why don't you send it down to the dealer and let the dealer hook it up?"

"Oh, I don't want to pay the dealer to do that," the manager responds.

"Then why are you doing it?" Stuart asks.

There is another, less easily resolved problem with diagnostic technology. Stuart says technicians rely on computer diagnostics to the exclusion of traditional skills – for example, listening to engines for trouble.

"We're using (technology) to diagnose trucks. Today we don't have the mechanical street smarts like we did 20 years ago."

Would Stuart rather do without technology? No.

"Has it helped us with diagnosing the truck? Absolutely, it has. It's been a phenomenal thing."

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