Sometimes, innovation is in the details. Take Terry Clouser's invention to help technicians save time and effort when checking to make sure all the lights on the front of the truck work: a mirror.

Mounted in the front of the service bay where the technician pulls the truck in, the mirror allows the tech to look at the reflection and make sure low beams, high beams, turn signals, etc., are working - before he ever climbs down from the truck.

It's one of those ideas where you say to yourself, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Clouser has approached every aspect as director of maintenance for AAA Cooper with that same attention to detail. He was recruited nearly four years ago by the family-owned Dothan, Ala.-based LTL/dedicated/port carrier after taking an early retirement from UPS, where he worked for 27 years.

He first came in and focused on staffing, parts and tires. He reviewed the company's parts buying and found ways to buy better-quality parts for less, leveraging the company's 41 maintenance locations to get national-account-level discounts. (Others in the 80-terminal network are served by 15 mobile service trucks for items that can't wait until the truck is routed to one of the locations with a shop. New to the fleet is a mobile service trailer complete with air compressor, welder, generator, tires, parts, etc.)

Clouser outsourced the company's tire work to a vendor mounted-wheel tire program, which improves safety. "Handling truck tires is a way to get hurt really easily," he notes. "It's like hanging drywall. You let someone else do it and do it right."

Setting standards

At UPS, Clouser learned about time motion studies. He brought the same techniques to bear at the maintenance operations of the smaller company.

"At UPS it was really structured, with policies and procedures," he says. "Here it was more results-oriented - it didn't matter what order, as long as it was done."

Clouser came in and worked with the ACT maintenance team to develop standard practices and checklists for inspection and maintenance procedures. This not only saved technicians time, it also helped make sure no steps were accidentally skipped if the mechanic were interrupted during the process.

"What happens is, you get called off of the job, how do you remember where you were? If it's the same every time, you'll remember," he says.

There are separate PM procedures/checklists for the different types of equipment - trucks, trailers, dollies, forklifts, yard hostlers, liftgates, etc. (The company has just over 11,000 total pieces of equipment.) There's a tire manual, as well, because, "You might say a tire's worn, I may not," Clouser says. The manual clarifies what's needed to meet DOT requirements.

And the procedures save wear and tear on technician's joints when they can get all their under-chassis work done with a single creeper pass, and avoid climbing in and out of the cab multiple times. Each PM also adheres to the required annual inspection criteria, so they can be assured they're always in compliance in that regard.

With the advent of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's CSA enforcement program, Clouser has added to this already strong maintenance program with training for drivers and technicians about the need for throughout pretrip and post-trip inspections, and has implemented Monday-morning yard checks. After the trucks have been sitting over the weekend, technicians check all the trucks in the yard for problems such as tire inflation, inoperating lights, wheel seal problems or other issues the driver may not have caught. So far, Clouser says, the company is well under all of its peer scores.

AAA Cooper runs the largest fleet of all-Volvo trucks with all-Volvo engines, about 2,000 of them.

Automatic chassis lubrication systems being ordered on all new trucks help make sure equipment stays properly lubed and help avoid messy and dangerous oil drips in the shop. "Before, mechanics would spend hours trying to get something apart" because of lack of lubrication, he says. No more. And automatic tire inflation system are now ordered on all trailers and dollies.

Aerodynamics and emissions

For aerodynamics, Clouser has been evaluating trailer skirts and AirTabs on the back of some tractors and trailers so far are showing promise. For safety, he has been investigating stability control and spoke admiringly of a recent demonstration he attended showcasing collision warning and avoidance technology.

As an all-Volvo fleet, Clouser is sold on the use of selective catalytic reduction technology to meet EPA 2010 emissions standards - but so far he's only testing them for Volvo. Right now ACT is adding capacity to deal with the upturn by buying used trucks. For one thing, he's concerned about the additional weight the new engines will put on the front axle, so he's looking for ways to save on steer axle weight.

"The change to the 2010 emissions, with DEF, different oils, is a large step for a medium-size company," he says. "But I think we're going to have to do it this year. We're learning as much as we can about it while everyone else is working through the hiccups."

Technology in the shop

The company had bought a maintenance software program, FleetFocus by AssetWorks, shortly before Clouser came on board, but was not using it to its full potential. Under Clouser, technicians were brought up to speed and they brought the full power of the software to bear on the maintenance program. FleetFocus tracks all functions related to the maintenance of vehicles and equipment, including processing repair and preventive maintenance PM work orders, capturing operating expenses (e.g., fuel, oil, and licensing), parts and inventories, and offers billing and tracking for vehicle equipment usage.

Technicians use laptops and Volvo diagnostic software. If they run into a roadblock, breakdown/technical advises at the Dothan headquarters can take over the laptop remotely and help determine the problem or change the required settings. At the same time, the technician on the other end has a chance to learn by paying attention to what the tech adviser is doing.

During the recession, the company managed to not only avoid laying off any technicians, but actually grew its maintenance program by opening it up to service trucks owned by other companies and owner-operators. They now offer everything from PMs, annual inspections and oil changes to overhauling engines.

The main customers are truckload carriers without shops in the area, as well as a large number of drayage accounts taking advantages of ACT's port facilities in the Southeast. Under CSA, he says, port owner-operators are far more likely to reject a poorly maintained intermodal chassis, so they've been seeing a lot of that business.

Offering maintenance services to outside customers takes a bit of a change in mindset, Clouser says. "It's not just a fleet truck. We have to do what the customers wants, even though that may not be what we would do." Writing estimates and getting approvals was perhaps the biggest thing to get used to.

The outside maintenance business has been so successful that ACT recently hired another maintenance manager to take over the outside work. While Clouser oversees both, he focuses on the fleet's own equipment. ACT recently added two new shops and has already outgrown them.

Change is tough

Some technicians had mixed emotions about someone coming in and upending how they did things.

"Change is difficult," Clouser admits. "People who do something the same way for 50 years, you have to explain how it's going to benefit them."

Clouser said it's been easier than you might think. "People wanted to learn, they were looking for opportunities to advance and