After decades of being viewed as an unfortunate but unavoidable routine duty, vehicle maintenance has become one of the hottest issues for fleets and anything but routine. There is a long list of reasons for this new perspective on an old chore, led by CSA and the considerable pressures the recession placed on fleets to improve productivity and reduce costs.
“CSA will definitely have an impact on maintenance operations,” says Charles Arsenault, founder & CEO of Arsenault Associates, provider of Dossier Fleet Maintenance Software. “While drivers are the primary focus of CSA, there are some 275 maintenance items included in the regulation, and 202 of those drivers really can't do much about, even though they will be held responsible for them. As a result, we are seeing some pushback from drivers,” he notes. “Going forward, I expect to see auditors doing things like interviewing technicians.”
Arsenault also expects a greater focus on the accuracy of vehicle inspection reports and on timely repair processes.
Dave Walters, solutions engineer for TMW Systems, agrees. “We all understand that the goal of CSA is to improve highway safety, including the safety and quality of the equipment on the road,” he says. “From a maintenance perspective, CSA has really forced fleets to take a hard look at vehicle inspections and at preventive maintenance (PM) cycles in order to help eliminate problems and defects.
“In particular, fleets are looking at frequency, or the number of times a truck is in the shop between PM cycles. That is where you find the problems,” he notes. “[Maintenance professionals] are working to re-engineer and redesign PM cycles to reduce that frequency number.”
Fleets are also looking at the entire vehicle inspection process from the driver's inspection to the remediation of the problem, according to Walters. Fleets are not just concerned with what is turning up in inspection reports, he notes, but at how quickly problems get noticed, reported and repaired.
“In the past, paper inspection reports might sit in the glove box for a few days until the truck got back to the terminal,” he says. “Mobile communications has been a huge help in this regard. Drivers can send inspection data to a management system that automatically opens a repair work order. The process is almost immediate. As repairs are completed, some systems can send a notice back to the driver [and others as necessary] to tell them the repair is done.”
The need to control costs has been another major factor behind the new interest in maintenance. “Maintenance has to have a cost and it should be a proper cost,” observes Arsenault. “A company can spend too little on maintenance or too much.”
Maintenance software systems can make that job much easier and yield better, more actionable results, but not every fleet has such systems in place and those who do often underutilize its capabilities.
“We do a lot of research,” says Arsenault, “and according to our studies, almost 40% of fleets still have no maintenance software system at all. Some of those who do report using a system say they use things like Excel or even Word [to manage maintenance].
“What software does is get you organized and keep you that way,” he notes. “It can provide fleet maintenance managers with detailed cost information and operational histories in a format that makes it possible to achieve more real-time control of their fleet.”
Predictive maintenance, proactive maintenance and condition-based maintenance have become the new lingua franca in the data-driven maintenance world, but they are still largely goals and not realities — at least not yet. “Nobody has really perfected predictive maintenance,” says Walters. “It requires fleets to first have very good data and then collect it in a way that is useful.
Walters says we are seeing the beginning of how rich vehicle data can be used to drive maintenance operations. “The next phase will be to bring in engine fault codes from the ECM and combine those with data from all other onboard sensors and systems and from inspection reports to create vehicle-specific maintenance programs. Our challenge,” he continues, “is to figure out how to filter it all and make it usable on the fleet level.”
“Predictive maintenance and even condition-based maintenance will be a reality some day, but before we can get there we need to have people who can do all the basics really well first,” offers Arsenault. “We also need access to enough of the right information organized in a usable way plus a culture which will allow that to happen. Otherwise, predictive, proactive or condition-based maintenance are just meaningless words.
“What we can already do today is comparative work,” he says. “We can compare the operating costs of various units in order to be able to focus in on the ‘problem children’ in the fleet. We can also organize vehicles into maintenance groups based upon similar specs, utilization and operations data.
“Predictive maintenance will come from having a lot of good historical data,” he adds. “We can already start to predict maintenance needs based on history. For example, if a maintenance manager sees problems with a particular alternator occurring at about 75,000 mi. and they have six more trucks in the fleet with that alternator approaching the 75,000-mi. mark, then they can plan ahead and get the necessary parts so they are ready. Our system can do that today.”
For Walters, the next step toward true predictive maintenance will involve establishing a “life expectancy” for various components, in particular, duty cycles, and then tracking the components against that expectation. “Maintenance managers will be able to ask, ‘Are these components meeting our expectations? Why or why not? Do we need to change our specs?’” he says. “The maintenance system will calculate automatically how well we are doing. That is the power of good data.”
Taking things one step further, Walters envisions building data warehouses from hundreds of fleets in order to see what the operating life and costs should be for specific components in different duty cycles. “That ability, more than anything else, will put a whole new level of pressure on manufacturers,” he reflects. It will also provide a more comprehensive view of costs.
“Tires are a good example,” Walters says. “A tire may last an amazingly long time, which is a maintenance plus, but cost a fleet operation miles per gallon because it is not fuel-efficient. Good fleets spec fuel-efficient tires knowing that they will not last as long, but more than make up for the shorter life expectancy in fuel savings.”
Thomas Fansler, president of Vusion, is already working on another approach to measuring performance against expectations — in this case for individual truck tractors. “We have developed what we call ‘under-performing vehicle reports,” he says. “They don't directly track maintenance costs at this point, but maintenance is a part of the report, which grades a vehicle's performance in terms of miles per gallon.
“We build comprehensive data models for the performance of truck tractors based upon their make, model, age, engine size and other factors,” he explains. “We also take into account duty-cycle particulars, including things like idle time, the environment and load weight. Based upon all we know about a given truck, we have a pretty good idea of how it should perform as compared to how it is performing. About 83% of the tractors found to be under-performing have service issues, and about 58% of those are major service issues.”
IT'S A BEGINNING
According to Fansler, this type of analysis is really “still in its infancy,” but the potential benefits are undeniable.
Eric Manegold, head of business development for commercial vehicles at Zonar, is likewise enthusiastic about the opportunities technology is providing to improve vehicle uptime, reduce costs and make life easier for drivers. “The thing is, predictive maintenance or condition-based maintenance is not just about getting the fault codes, but about diagnosing the problem [before the truck is in the shop] and about where the truck is in its duty cycle,” he says. “Once you know the cause of a problem, you can decide whether to service the truck right now or service it soon. You can also order parts, schedule maintenance, and provide a better estimate of the time and cost required to do the work.
“What we have already learned from being plugged into so many trucks 24/7 is that the fault codes being broadcast also create some trend lines over time that can be used to adjust the vehicle's diagnostic system,” Manegold adds. “For instance, you could use the data to make corrections so that non-critical problems are reported, but the warning lights don't come on [causing the driver to respond to minor or pending issues as though they were an emergency requiring immediate attention.]”
“Right now, if all you are seeing is vehicle mileage, then you base maintenance schedules on mileage. If you could see more,” he continues, “you could base maintenance schedules on engine hours, or fuel consumed, or some combination of factors [that more accurately reflect each vehicle's real maintenance requirements]. Think about how that could increase uptime, improve shop throughput, and reduce costs.”
Let me count the ways
There are plenty of good reasons behind the new interest in maintenance:
CSA has pushed maintenance into the spotlight by making it not only a matter of safety and productivity for fleets, but a very serious issue when it comes to regulatory compliance — for carriers, drivers and shippers. Plus, everybody can see a fleet's CSA scores now (which are updated monthly rather than annually) any time they choose.
Maintenance costs have risen sharply since 2007, due in large measure to engine emissions regulations and the additional equipment and systems complexity they have added to vehicles. Integrated onboard safety and communications systems, while contributing to productivity and highway safety, are likewise adding to the overall maintenance burden.
Come 2013, both the California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency will have requirements mandating that truck makers begin to phase-in the installation of onboard diagnostic systems (OBDs) to monitor all emissions-related sensors and tell drivers if an emissions control system is not functioning properly. The new systems must trigger a warning light in the dash and provide a fault code to the service technician indicating the root cause of the problem. While automatic remediation is not a part of the requirement (yet), the new regulation ties the shop still more closely to the vehicle while it is on the road.
America's truck fleet has never been older, jumping from an average age per truck of seven years to more than nine years. Older trucks require more maintenance and more of that is apt to be major maintenance, moving costs and downtime in the wrong direction.
The shortage of good diesel technicians is as acute as the driver shortage, especially for technicians who have both solid mechanical experience and also understand integrated electronic vehicle systems and the sophisticated tools and software required to diagnose and repair their problems. This circumstance is raising compliance anxiety and technician wages for fleets — and just when maintenance is under more scrutiny than it has ever been.
To reduce operating costs, more fleets are working to “right-size” the vehicles in their operation to particular duty cycles and routes, resulting in a greater mix of vehicles and components for shops to service and repair, including major items such as engines, transmissions and drivetrains. This requires more parts, more training for technicians, and more complex preventive maintenance schedules.
Carriers are also adding alternative power vehicles to their fleets in record numbers, including liquid- and natural gas-powered vehicles, diesel electric and diesel hydraulic hybrids, propane-fueled trucks, and all-electric vehicles. While these new choices are helping fleets reduce fuel costs and meet emissions requirements, they do represent new challenges for maintenance operations.
Fleets have always cared about the cost of operation, but until recently these were painted in only the broadest of bookkeeping brush strokes — fuel purchase receipts, employee wages, facility costs, equipment, parts and so on. Now, access to extremely detailed data about the cost of operation, right down to an individual truck and its components, is presenting carriers with the opportunity to truly understand their costs and then make spec'ing and operational changes to better manage them. This includes taking a hard look at how maintenance impacts overall cost — yet another reason all eyes are on the shop these days, including those of the operations manager and the accountant.