Managing all the facets involved with vehicle maintenance is a bear for any fleet to handle alone, even in the best of times. Add in an economic recession, plummeting freight volumes, aging equipment, plus caps on technician staffing along with repair budgets, and the fleet maintenance chore can rapidly become a nightmare.
That's why OEMs and their dealers are finding ways to offer more support to fleets in the parts and service arena these days — and not necessarily by just taking over their maintenance departments.
“Truck fleets with their own maintenance shops are under increasing pressure to maximize mechanic and technician productivity and minimize parts inventories, particularly in the current challenging economy,” says John Wisdom, director of customer systems for Kenworth Truck Co.'s PremierCare Connect service.
“Gathering and sorting through a myriad of information to achieve those objectives, while still directing day-to-day operations, remains one of the biggest challenges facing fleet maintenance directors and shop supervisors,” he adds. “A good maintenance management program can help. It allows managers to track the time taken by mechanics or technicians to perform tasks, such as preventive maintenance and general repairs. Users can also track parts purchasing and inventory so that their shops don't carry more parts than needed.”
Mifflintown, PA-based Zimmerman Truck Lines is one fleet using PremierCare to better control the hassles involved in tracking parts and service information.
“In the past, it was easy for us to forget to mark down when we took parts out of inventory,” says Shane Zimmerman, the carrier's shop foreman (who is not related to the Zimmerman family owners). “As a result, our quarterly parts inventory would be off from what we're supposed to have on hand compared to what was actually on hand.”
Now, though, by using PremierCare, his team of 12 mechanics scans parts taken from the company's inventory into the computer, and selects one of the fleet's 160 trucks or 350 dry-van and flatbed trailers to receive them. This way, the system tracks the date that the parts are taken from inventory, who took them, and where the parts are going.
“Now our inventory is nearly 100% accurate,” Zimmerman says. “That means we're not ordering parts we don't need and not running out of parts we do need.”
The same needs apply when managing maintenance through an OEM's dealership network, with fleets demanding consistency in service and pricing.
That's been the driving philosophy behind the development of the Internet-based Mack/Volvo MVASIST automated service initiation system. Used by sister OEMs Volvo Trucks North America and Mack Trucks Inc., they plan to make it mandatory technology for their national network of 390 jointly branded dealers by the end of this year.
“There are three major areas of ‘heartburn,’ if you will, for fleets trying to manage maintenance through the dealership network,” explains Dave Albert, Volvo's manager of customer satisfaction marketing. “First, fleets want a consistent service process, with standard repair times. Second, they want the process to include complete fleet and vehicle-specific information, including warranty coverage and agreed-upon parts pricing at the start of the repair. Finally, and this is the key part, more effective and detailed communication between the fleet and dealership is required, beginning with the arrival of the truck and continuing through the repair process.”
Since 2003, Volvo and Mack have been working with Decisiv to incorporate all of those needs into a single system that fleets, dealers and OEMs can all access through the Internet. Pilot tests of MVASIST in select fleets and dealers began back in 2005.
ON THE SAME PAGE
MVASIST works like this: When a customer's truck pulls into a participating dealership for service, the service writer discusses the truck's issues with the driver and performs an initial evaluation, then uses the system to create a comprehensive repair estimate, including related service operations, parts, labor, shop supplies, waste disposal fees and taxes. It also incorporates pricing for fleets that participate in the MV Preferred parts program, says Albert.
An important benefit of MVASIST is that fleets are assured of uniform service procedures and information, regardless of where the truck is serviced in the dealer network, he notes. All of the estimate and service information is provided online for multiple managers at the fleet to review and approve.
“The last two years we've really seen this system get some traction with dealers and fleets alike, largely because of the improvement in communication MVASIST offers,” adds Eric Kananen, who's been acting as project manager the past few years. “The major reason for service issues comes down to the reliance on phones and faxes to share information between fleets and dealers. That often creates major delays and puts misinformation into the service process. That's what this system is designed to prevent.”
Add to that improved efficiencies, and that is where programs like MVASIST bring advantages.
As an online tool, says Albert, MVASIST allows for faster, more accurate service estimates and write-ups when trucks need service. It also offers more detailed information to share between the fleet and dealer, even involving the driver and the OEM as need be. The system allows for photographs, purchase orders, and estimates to be attached as the service process moves along, and even gives fleets the opportunity to preload specific inspection criteria for the dealer to perform every time one of their vehicles is in the shop, says Albert.
It's also been made simple for fleets to get up and running with MVASIST, adds Volvo's Kananen, as they merely need to input their vehicle identification numbers and establish inspection requirements if so desired.
“It's very much a ‘point-and-click’ style of system; it's very intuitive,” he explains. “Another great part to this is that the data never goes away. You can go back and look at estimates up to a year. For many of our pilot fleets, they were able to eliminate whole file cabinets full of papers because all the information they needed got stored online.”
Albert notes that there's a “longer learning curve” for dealers to put MVASIST in place, simply because the system ties into so many different segments of the business — parts, warranty coverage, etc. — and because it requires changes in the service process.
Next Page: Communication Grows
Another big reason behind getting dealers, fleets and OEMs all on the same “virtual” page revolves around the need to better manage extended warranties as well as the far more complex nature of today's equipment, says Jerry Hale, director of service for the four locations owned and operated by Peterbilt dealer Sioux City Truck Sales.
“You need special tools and computer hookups just to read what's going on in today's trucks; that's before you bring the new emissions control technology, such as selective catalytic reduction systems, into the picture,” he explains. “That requires a lot more investment in shop equipment, technician training, etc. Many smaller shops might not be able to afford the costs to maintain specific skill sets in one or two people on staff. That's when they turn to us.”
Dealers are also reconfiguring their own operations to be more “fleet-friendly,” as well, notes Dick Sweebe, president & CEO of the Diamond Companies, which owns a chain of Navistar truck dealerships.
“Customers say they love doing business with us, but it just takes too long to get a truck in and out of our service bays,” he explains. “What we're doing is creating a ‘triage’ process, so we can separate trucks by the kinds of service they require. Simple needs, like oil changes, inspections and the like in one spot, longer-term repairs like engine overhauls in another.”
While such a triage system isn't new, Diamond is trying to take it to a new level by building two separate and distinct maintenance facilities side by side on the same property to handle these divergent maintenance needs. This concept is at the heart of Diamond's recent $6-million expansion and overhaul of its five-acre Memphis, TN, facility.
With the doubling of the original footprint in the parts and service departments, the dealership now has the space to offer Navistar's new “Accelerated Service” process, designed to provide quick diagnostics and reduced repair times on common services.
Accelerated Service offers customers immediate vehicle evaluation by a diagnostic technician, identification of required parts and availability, and communication about the repair required and estimated repair time — all within two hours of a vehicle's arrival at the dealership, says Sweebe.
“We're trying to cycle fleets in and out of our shop faster based on the services they need,” he explains. “When we had the opportunity to buy a second building at our Memphis location, we wanted to try and take this concept up a level — dedicating a building to minor repairs and ‘quick lube’ services, while reserving the other for engine, transmission and rear end work. It's about giving the customer speedier service.”
Brian Chapman, gm of Las Vegas Freightliner-Sterling-Western Star, has established a similar approach called the “Quick Assessment” process for fleet service. From the moment a truck enters the shop, Chapman's dealership tries to determine within a two-hour window whether that truck will be back out on the road that day or be held over for repairs. This allows the fleet to make better operational decisions about the truck's load, such as whether it can sit and await the completion of the repair or whether it needs to be retrieved by another truck.
Chapman's dealership is also using a new email system to maintain faster and more detailed connections with its fleet customers.
Now, instead of the dealer and fleet talking by phone, detailed emails are exchanged containing an analysis of the maintenance issues, repair estimates, even photos. The system also keeps the dealer's personnel on the same page with the fleet as to the status of a repair job.
“Essentially, what we are trying to do is give the fleets an opportunity to make better and faster operational decisions when it comes to managing vehicle repairs outside of their own shop,” he explains. “Updating via email allows for a much more robust data stream between the dealer, OEM and fleet. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words — and having an estimate right there attached to the email puts everything in black and white. Further, it cuts down on phone calls, which cuts down on delays.”
COSTING IT OUT
Kenworth's Wisdom says his company's system is designed to work in similar fashion to MVASIST, tracking work histories on specific units, enabling mechanics to more accurately diagnose issues and avoid costly repeat or unnecessary repairs. The system also tracks warranty periods and recalls, allowing companies to quickly recover reimbursements from manufacturers or suppliers.
At the end of the day, however, fleets want to know how much systems like this will cost them. While there's a fee, Wisdom says the cost of a fleet maintenance management program really depends on a variety of things, including what functions a carrier's shop needs, the number of mechanics and technicians in your maintenance shop, and the number of trucks in your fleet.
“Selecting the right fleet maintenance management program with the right features for your company's operation is key to realizing the system's full potential,” Wisdom points out.
Maintenance software tips
To help fleet managers and shop supervisors get the most out of their maintenance software packages, John Wisdom, director of customer systems for Kenworth Truck Co.'s PremierCare Connect, offers some tips on what those systems should include.
Manages parts inventory accurately. This function reduces on-hand inventory and inventory shrinkage by helping shops maintain an accurate physical inventory.
Manages and tracks the cost of parts. This helps eliminate duplicate orders, track special parts orders, and compare a part's current cost to its cost when last ordered.
Provides an automated parts reorder process. Establishing minimum/maximum settings allows users to maintain a steady supply of parts critical to the company's everyday operations. It also helps users control parts inventory costs.
Analyzes and tracks costs by VMRS codes. The system should come preloaded with the American Trucking Assns. Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards (VMRS) codes to allow for quick comparisons and analysis of part costs by component or repair type, such as brakes, engine or air conditioning.
Provides equipment cost tracking reports. This helps fleet managers investigate cost details of internal repair work orders and analyze 12-month equipment costs. Managers can view work order histories, as well as labor and parts histories.
Capture technician time. This allows fleets to compare actual job times with estimated completion times. Work orders are scanned instead of manually entered into the system, allowing managers to more accurately monitor productivity and address issues that slow shop operations.
Interoperability with accounting software. This eliminates “double entry” into a third-party accounting package. According to a recent study conducted by the Dept. of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield in England, the average error rate for keyboard entry was between 12% and 24%, depending on the typing skill of the person entering the data. This feature can significantly reduce manual input errors.