When Bill Bliem became vice president of maintenance at NFI five years ago, his first priority was to get maintenance costs under control.
“NFI was working on an antiquated system,” he says. “We needed a system that could tell us what those costs actually were.”
Less than a year later, TMT maintenance software was helping Bliem discover which areas to target for cost reduction. First up: auxiliary power units to cut idling. NFI had invested in diesel-powered APUs, but maintenance costs were eating up the fuel savings.
“We went to battery-powered APUs, dropped a lot of costs and improved our fuel economy and our emissions.”
That was just the beginning of Bliem’s efforts to improve fuel economy and cut costs, and since then he’s been promoted to senior vice president, fleet services.
In just the past 24 months, NFI has seen another increase in mpg and reduced idling to 4.5%, according to Mike Mundy, NFI’s director of fleet services, who nominated Bliem for the award.
A career in trucking was not on the radar when Bliem was growing up. As a teenager, he worked on the commercial fishing docks, working on souped-up cars in his spare time. He studied diesel mechanics in the Navy after high school. Once out, he switched from working on ship engines to medium-duty and eventually Class 8 trucks.
After working for Iveco, Isuzu and GMC dealers, Bliem spent 18 years with Ryder, working his way up from mechanic to director of operations.
In 2009, he was recruited by NFI.
Founded in 1932 as National Hauling, NFI has evolved from a trucking company in a regulated environment into one of the largest privately held supply chain companies in North America. Its comprehensive suite of solutions spans across logistics, warehousing, dedicated fleet operations, intermodal, brokerage and more. It’s still family owned.
“It’s been a fantastic company.” Bliem says. “At NFI, it’s very entrepreneurial.”
NFI CEO Sid Brown explained that entrepreneurial culture to CareerBuilder.com: “We give people a lot of opportunities to try new things to see how they work.”
In that kind of atmosphere, over the years Bliem has adopted specs such as wide-base single tires on nearly 100% of NFI’s 2,000 power units. Airtabs aero devices and Meritor Tire Inflation System by PSI are a few other elements used across NFI’s fleet.
Light weight is a major focus, both for fuel economy and payload. “In my opinion, NFI has the best-spec’d truck for fuel economy and comfort,” Bliem says.
Spec'ing the Right Truck for Fuel Efficiency
Some of those specs include 13-liter engines, 10-speed direct drive transmissions, trailers with composite flooring, wide-base single tires and aluminum wheels. For certain applications where weight is even more important, they use aluminum in axle carriers, air tanks and crossmembers.
“We’re building the lightest equipment we can that’s going to last,” he says. “You can go crazy on weight savings, but that trailer will most likely wear down quickly. At NFI, our equipment is both light and durable. You also get to a point where the cost per pound is too much to even consider.”
Bliem emphasizes that whether you’re talking aerodynamics, light weight or other specs, what works for one fleet may not work for another. One technology that is gaining fans elsewhere that Bliem said did not do well in NFI fleet tests are 6x2 drivetrains.
“We do our own testing on everything and prove out what we use.” In some cases they do SAE-protocol testing. In other cases, as a dedicated operation, they can run test trucks and control trucks on identical routes and compare the results.
“We test for a long time,” Bliem says. “We almost have the attitude that any time somebody approaches us with an idea, that it’s snake oil, and we have to prove to ourselves that it’s not.”
That cautious approach – Bliem says is a perfect example of NFI being “on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge” – also applies to the company’s natural gas adoption.
“We keep expanding our natural gas fleet, cautiously,” he says. “We have 24 right now and are getting ready to add 15 more this summer.” Depending on the part of the country and the infrastructure available, some are compressed natural gas. Others are liquefied natural gas, such as the dedicated fleet of LNG trucks NFI launched in Texas last year.
Although there was demand from customers for NFI to adopt natural gas, Bliem took time to do the homework and wait for the infrastructure to improve. “We did all the research, we did all the ROI [calculations], and we came to a point where we said, ‘We’re ready to do this.’”
Two variables that were making the ROI hard to determine were residual value and maintenance costs, so Bliem decided to do full-service leases on the natural gas trucks.
Tires, Transmissions and Training
The past couple of years, Bliem has also been focusing on saving fuel through full-vehicle alignment, maintaining tire pressure, automated manual transmissions and driver training.
“A lot of people, when they do alignments, they just check the toe-in or the front-end alignment on a tractor,” he says. “We are doing a laser alignment of the front axle to both drive axles, and then the trailer. So we know when our equipment is going down the road, every tire on it is aligned and giving the least rolling resistance. We don’t have any tires going down the road at an angle.”
NFI also realizes there’s only so much fuel that can be saved through specs and maintenance. Drivers are key, and that’s been a major focus the past year.
“We have put on a big push with our drivers on pretrip inspections, and part of that pretrip is checking the air pressure – not kicking the tires or hitting them with a club. We’re implementing clips we mount on the side of the driver’s seat so the air pressure gauge is staring them in the face when they open the door.”
The other part of that equation, he says, is having air available and easily accessible. For NFI locations without a shop, air compressors now make it convenient for drivers to keep tires properly inflated.
The other driver focus has been shifting technique. NFI trained drivers on progressive shifting by focusing more on the power the drivers were losing than on the fuel they were wasting when shifting at over 1,500 rpm.
In addition, new trucks are getting automated manual transmissions, Freightliner’s new DT12 and Volvo’s I-Shift.
“One reaction we’ve received from drivers is, ‘You guys put a bigger horsepower motor in there,’” Bliem says. Drivers are impressed at the difference shifting at all the proper shift points can make in the engine’s performance.
He says he doesn’t allow them to be called automatics – they’re automated manual transmissions. The difference seems to improve driver acceptance.
Whether Bill Bliem is focusing on five-axle alignments or the terminology for transmissions, it’s obvious this is someone who knows that little things matter.
“Bill has built a leading-edge fleet cautiously, with rigorous testing and an open mind,” says Mundy.
Rob Barron, executive vice president, adds, “As new technology and equipment become available, I am confident that Bill will continue to progress NFI’s operational and environmental initiatives.”
Particularly in the quest for ever-improving fuel efficiency, where the low-hanging fruit is long gone, Bliem knows that innovation is in the details. “We’re down to the nitty-gritty now.”