Keeping equipment on the road and making money should be top priorities for everybody within a trucking company. Too often, however, there's a power struggle between maintenance and operations that creates chaos instead of the two working as a team toward maximum equipment utilization. Or there's pressure to cut corners that can result in short-sighted decisions that cost more in the long run.

"It is critical that shop personnel, from the floor up, recognize that they are not in the maintenance business – they are in the vehicle asset management business," says Darry Stuart of DWS Fleet Management Services and current general chairman of the Technology and Maintenance Council. "And that there is more money saved in uptime or vehicle utilization than there is in saving 50 cents on a brake shoe or 10 cents on a quart of oil."

The first step to maximizing uptime is not equipment at all, but people. "I think one of the keys to our success is our people, and listening to them," says David Foster, vice president of maintenance at Southeastern Freight Lines, Lexington, S.C. At SEFL, technicians are actively involved in determining the company's maintenance practices. Anyone can write up a suggestion for a new or improved procedure or process.

Because of the company's culture, technicians are proactive in finding problems that could lead to potential downtime. For instance, one mechanic pointed out that on one model of trailer, the rear brake chambers were mounted incorrectly and the push rods were rubbing a groove in the chambers. "It was an easy fix; you just had to turn the chamber a little bit," Foster says.

 

"It's not a 'them and us' situation here at all," says Foster of the relationship between operations and maintenance. "Equipment utilization is a big thing here. We meet with the operations folks on a regular basis. They know what our opportunities are, and we understand the challenges they have. And I think everybody here works as a team."

It's vital that technicians get the job done right the first time, says Doug White, director of fleet maintenance at Dunbar Armored in Hunt Valley, Md. "I think you've got to have an audit program in place so the technician knows someone from management is looking to see that we are performing the quality of maintenance that we need," he says. "When we do have downtime, we look at what caused the downtime. Is it something we could have prevented?

"I think it all comes back to one important thing – you've got to pay the right money to hire the right people. If you try to hire cheap, that's what you're going to get. If you hire a $12 an hour guy, you're going to pay to do it two or three times instead of doing it right the first time."

The first step in developing this culture of uptime is recognizing the importance of uptime in the first place, says Bill Fowler, director of maintenance for Con-way Inc., responsible for both the truckload and less-than-truckload fleets. "It's always been important, but with equipment costs escalating, it's more important than ever. We need to get better utilization. The other thing is our customers; they're demanding more and more, as well."

Part of that culture is evident at Con-way, he says, in the company's morning "snapshot" of equipment availability. "We've got a standard that we're aiming for, and if we've got locations that are off of that standard, we go back and look at why." This program has been so successful, he says, that with a new computer system being implemented, they will move from a morning snapshot to rolling downtime statistics that can be measured by the hour, by the day, by the week.

Con-way has used the program to minimize unscheduled work and reduce road call costs. "In the past three years, we've gone from 90,000 miles per road call to over 150,000," Fowler says.

Drivers need to be involved in this culture of uptime, as well. They are often the first to notice if something's amiss. If a driver doesn't feel like he's part of the uptime equation, he may not report something that can result in a breakdown later. He may slough off his pretrip inspection; he may not keep an eye on tire pressure.

"The first key element is the operators," Fowler says. "The pretrip inspections, their communications as far as what they see. Our drivers also do some first-line maintenance – if there's a light bulb out or small things like that, they'll actually take care of it themselves. I can't say enough about how integral they are to our maintenance program."

At Ruan, a dedicated contract carriage provider based in Des Moines, Iowa, driver training on pretrip and post trip inspections is considered part of a "safety first" culture that also improves equipment uptime and driver retention.

"It's really a partnership between the preventive maintenance program and the safety-first culture that prompts drivers to be proactive in taking care of their equipment," says John Westerholm, president of the truck and trailer group.

SPEC'ING FOR UPTIME

When you turn to the equipment side of the uptime equation, it's vital to spec the right equipment for the job, keeping in mind that a cheaper price up front might cost you money in repairs and downtime down the road.

"First of all, what we purchase has a lot to do with our uptime," says Ruan's Westerholm. "There's three things we're looking for – fuel economy; we want to touch the equipment as little as possible; and we want them to last a long time."

It's important to match the vehicle's specs to the application it will be working in, says Ty Cross, vice president of maintenance at Ryder, which offers truck leasing and maintenance services and dedicated contract carriage. "If that is not correct out front, you could have extended out-of-service activity or downtime because the vehicle just can't keep up with the duty cycle or applications it's in."

There are also various features you can spec or add on to trucks that help promote uptime. Little Rock, Ark.-based flatbed carrier Maverick, for instance, uses on-board automatic greasing systems to make sure components stay properly lubricated between PMs. The company is also embracing telematic devices, which send real-time trouble alerts to fleet management through the existing mobile communications and tracking system.

For instance, they are in the process of installing Wabco Integrated Vehicle Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems on 1,200 tractors, which continuously monitor tire pressure and detect over- or under-inflation. Low-pressure alerts are transmitted back to fleet maintenance personnel, who can work with the driver to address the issue before it turns into a roadside breakdown situation. Maverick also recently started using the Insta-Check system, which alerts fleet management of electrical problems such as voltage dropping below a predetermined point.

"If we get that message, we'll send the driver a Qualcomm message asking him exactly what his volt meter's reading to confirm that we have a problem, and we route him into a facility [to get it fixed]," says Brent Hilton, director of maintenance. "It saves you sitting on the side of the road and a service call as well."

Many fleets also have found that keeping a standard spec among vehicles in the fleet pays off in the long run. "The less variation, the less complexity you introduce into the vehicle, the fewer different parts you need to maintain. You have a very straightforward training program," says Ryder's Cross.

While fleets may want a standard spec for their fleet, the idea of a truck maker dictating what that spec will be does not sit well with many. The trend toward "vertical integration" among truck OEMs has thrown a monkey wrench into spec'ing for many fleets.

Con-way's Fowler says the vertical integration trend is "pushing us backwards" in regards to uptime. "The ability for a fleet like Con-way to be more customized, for our specifications to meet our particular needs, is actually shrinking. As a result, some of the things we find value in keeping our equipment up and running are being engineered out and not offered. So that's a concern."

One fleet that is embracing the trend, however, is Joplin, Mo.-based CFI. Vice President of Maintenance Bruce Stockton says "complexity reduction," as OEMs are calling it, can actually improve uptime.

"When you do have an issue, parts and service are much more readily available," he explains. "[The OEM's] parts and service network is really geared toward what the majority of people are buying and using. We've gotten ourselves in a pickle in years past where we thought we had to have a custom-built truck. But every time you change something [from the OEM's standard spec], you run the risk of when there is a problem, that part's not readily available or the training for the service technician is not readily available, and that slows things down."

Stockton also says because of the number of trucks out there with the standard spec, any problems are more likely to be noticed by the manufacturer and ironed out quickly. He recalls when many of the truck makers went from cast-iron hubs to aluminum hubs as standard.

"We were always big fans of the cast-iron hub," he says. "When aluminum hubs first came out, we tried some and they didn't hold up as well." Wheel seal failures with the aluminum hubs had caused the fleet an excessive amount of downtime. So when the industry went standard with aluminum, CFI stayed with cast iron. Sure enough, there was a rash of problems with wheel seal failures with the aluminum hubs. "It took the truck manufacturers about four to six months to figure out a solution to that problem," Stockton says. "Because they had kind of a nationwide problem, not just one fleet having trucks down with wheel seals, they jumped all over that and resolved it pretty quickly."

However, the new procedure manufacturers adopted to address the problem on the aluminum hubs ended up causing wheel seal failures in the iron hubs. "We started having wheel seal failures with the iron hub at a much more alarming rate than they had with aluminum hubs," Stockton recalls. "Because our trucks were a small percentage of the number of trucks they built, they didn't jump on that problem as quickly and didn't solve it as quickly. So I lived with that problem for about 18 months, until I had enough data to prove what the problem was and get them involved."

Stockton was also impressed by the amount of standardization and vertical integration in European trucking equipment during a visit to Germany last year. "You can see why they really truly have made a commitment to uptime. Every truck there has pretty much the same transmissions, engines, brake components. At one of the dinners we had, the question came up from one of my colleagues, 'Why don't we do that in the U.S.?' My answer was, 'because we won't let them.'" If we do let them, Stockton believes, in the long run we'll have better uptime.

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

Once you've spec'd the right equipment, of course, you have to keep it on the road with a comprehensive preventive maintenance program. That program needs to be a living thing that takes into account improvements in vehicle technology, changes in lubrication requirements, trends in your own operations, etc.

"If a certain trend or problem arises, you want to make sure that your PM program reflects certain inspections to make sure you stay ahead of problems and are not always trying to catch up and fix them after the fact, so that's more of a predictive approach to maintenance," says Ryder's Cross. "Also, as technology changes, this requires new tooling and training. We have to tie all of the information we get from the OEMs and our oil and fuel companies and make sure we're getting the maximum yield, and that's an ongoing, living process.

"You can't just set your PM schedule and take a look at it in 10 years. You have to always stay abreast of changes."

Computer software can help with this effort. These programs make it easier than ever to keep detailed records of the maintenance performed on your trucks. But it's not enough to just have that information. You need to regularly analyze it and use it to improve your maintenance program, whether it's fine-tuning PM intervals, discovering a problem with a particular component, or identifying a problem technician.

Ruan developed its own maintenance tracking program, called Maximo, nearly 10 years ago. "It records everything we do to the truck," Westerholm says. "If we put a stem on a tire, it tells us we've done it. It directs our PM scheduling. It sets our performance standards for our components, so as we review how well a brake lining works, we know which one to buy and which one not to buy."

Con-way's Fowler emphasizes the importance of not just collecting information, but acting on it. "The detail that you get and the timeless of the data you get and reacting to it are very important."

For example, Fowler points to last winter's transition to ultra low sulfur diesel fuel. When the number of road calls spiked in early February, the company's data was able to help it quickly identify the culprit – fuel filters clogged because the ULSD had acted as a solvent and cleaned off contaminants on the surfaces of the fuel system components. "We had to quickly adapt our maintenance program to start replacing filters more often," he says.

Stuart notes, however, that it's important not to let all those numbers replace good old hands-on maintenance. "What happens is, a regional guy or a shop manager or a VP visits a facility periodically and he never drives the yard, he never looks at the equipment. He goes straight from his rental car to the office, whips out a computerized report or a P&L, and never sees what's really going on in his world."

BALANCING ACT

There is a high-wire rope you must walk between uptime and maintenance costs. For instance, says Dunbar's White, "There's a certain amount of downtime that's going to happen, unless you turn into parts changers. That works well [in preventing downtime] – for the first quarter, until you blow your budget."

But there are some things, he says, that should be changed out at the first sight of trouble. White's particular pet peeve is fan belts. "In my opinion, there's never any excuse for a broken fan belt. Our PM intervals are short enough that [signs of impending failure] were there and the technician didn't see it. We've told our people, if there's any question about it, replace it. It's only a few dollars, versus the average road call that's going to cost $300 or $400."

The same thing is true when managing parts inventory. On one side, too much inventory can be a bank-breaker, an invitation to theft, and a nightmare to keep track of. On the other hand, if you don't have the part you need when you need it, that's downtime you could have avoided.

"To not stock brake drums and brake shoes because you can buy them down the street and supposedly have them delivered is a crime if you're working hours the parts house is closed," Stuart says.

At Dunbar, White says, "we keep what might be considered an above average amount of parts in inventory, so we're not waiting on a vendor to get us parts that we may otherwise be able to get the vehicle back out of the shop with."

Maverick deals with the potential issue of dealers on the road not having the right parts by keeping certain parts stocked at its own facility. "If the need arises, we can actually put a part on one of our trucks that may be headed in that direction, or overnight it to them," Hilton says.

Ryder has ongoing analysis of parts usage to ensure that routine and non-routine parts are on site when vehicles come in for service. It also has agreements with dealers to expedite parts when necessary. "At the end of the day, if you don't have a part to repair the vehicles and perform your preventive maintenance, you're going to extend your downtime," Cross says.

Then there's the scheduling of PM intervals. While keeping excellent records and analyzing them on an ongoing basis will help in this regard, there's no one right answer. Some fleets believe that extending oil drain intervals helps maximize uptime be stretching out maintenance intervals. At Maverick, they take the opposite approach, changing the oil every 20,000 miles.

"We know that our oil will run longer than that," says Hilton. "We could probably run 30,000 or 40,000 if we wanted to. But we want to see our trucks sooner than that, so we can go over that piece of equipment, keep it greased, make sure things aren't falling apart on our truck. That helps ensure that truck will continue to run down the road and not have a failure."

While detailed maintenance strategies may differ from fleet to fleet, the important thing is to get everyone involved, from the president of the company to the newbie driver, from the accounting department to the shop floor, from IT to dispatch. A culture of uptime will help you keep your balance on that tightrope.

DEALERS: YOUR PARTNER IN UPTIME

Dealers are well aware that there are often issues of downtime involved in getting work done at the dealership, and they are constantly looking for ways to improve. "Dealerships are set up to take customers on a first-come, first-served basis," says Buddie Carroll, CEO of Freightliner of Knoxville in Tennessee. "Making a distinction between the small, short-term jobs and the larger jobs is difficult. To manage the time for the benefit of the customer is a challenge," but it's a challenge dealers are constantly working on, he says.

Some OEMs have addressed the issue with express lube and air-conditioning services through dealerships. But beyond that, trying to put a sort of triage into place that would prioritize jobs is cost-prohibitive for the dealership.

But there are things you can do at your end. First of all, ask your dealer if there's anything you can do to help speed things up.

For instance, see if there are procedures you can put in place to expedite authorization of repairs and payment methods. Such communications can eat up valuable time that could be spent getting the truck back on the road.

"Be careful that a truck doesn't sit at a dealership for five days waiting for scheduling or sit five days because you haven't made a decision to allow them to move forward," says Darry Stuart, owner of DWS Fleet Management Services and current general chairman of the Technology and Maintenance Council. "You spend three or four days trying to get to the appropriate people to fight for warranty [coverage], and in fact you could have made a decision to move forward and deal with it accordingly. So the inherent process of warranty approval or internal approval can severely degrade vehicle utilization. The revenue loss for a truck can be up to $800 and $1,000 a day. If you're not careful, a shop foreman or a service writer at a dealership can be costing the company money in utilization worrying about a $250 or $300 decision waiting for warranty approval."

If you need to get PMs done at dealers on the road, Carroll says, he's found that communication in advance can speed things up a lot. "There's a form for an 'A' PM and a form for a 'B', and [fleets will] give those forms in advance to the dealership where they want to have work done from time to time," he explains. "So the dealer understands when the driver comes in for a PM what they're supposed to do, so there's no phone calls back and forth."

David A. Thompson, president and CEO of Portland, Ore.-based TEC Equipment, urges truck owners to get the dealer involved earlier in the process. The American Truck Dealers Dealer of the Year says when a truck owner waits until the dealer is the measure of last resort, it often means time wasted overall. This can especially be true when dealing with complex electronic systems that may require sophisticated diagnostic tools available at the dealership.

Also, if you have some flexibility in when you bring the truck in, it can mean faster service. "We're incentivizing our fleet users to utilize us in the off hours instead of during our peak times, and trying to give a better service for them," Thompson says.

And don't forget, if you're in an emergency downtime situation with a hot load, many dealers can provide a loaner or a rental truck.

Most importantly, develop a relationship with your dealers.

"In the past, there was a lot of 'us vs. them' involved with dealers and trucking fleets," Thompson says. He believes that's changing. "These businesses need to really be true partnerships going forward. The communication is absolutely paramount between the fleet and the dealerships they've got relationships with."

Brent Hilton, director of maintenance at Arkansas-based flatbed carrier Maverick, says his relationships with the approximately 15 dealers they use on the road is important in getting trucks back on the road quickly.

"We have a dealer network in our traffic lanes that I keep in touch with on a pretty constant basis to build relationships with those folks, and that really helps us get in and out of their door," he says. "We're on the phone with those people mostly every day talking to them about issues that we're having. We have direct contacts with the foremen that work their shifts, as far as their cell phones. We're in constant communication with those individuals on our equipment."

And don't think that building relationships is limited to big fleets with lots of financial clout. Thompson admits "the smaller guys are probably warmer to some of our people's hearts." In fact, he says, at very large fleets, it may actually be a bigger challenge to develop these relationships.

"People deal with people," he says. "I think the biggest thing is early and consistent communication with the dealer in the area you're having a problem, and have local fleet people know the people at the dealership that they do business with. People always do business with people they know better than with people they don't know."

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