“Trucks must be maintained on a regular basis. It’s not seasonal. It’s not optional. It’s a service that’s needed and cannot be provided from overseas.” –Chris Holman, COO of Advanced Maintenance, Wilimington, NC
Over the last couple of weeks, I got the chance to look at some seriously good hands-on training resources for trucking industry technicians.
My first stop on this somewhat unexpected training tour took place in Greensboro, NC, courtesy of Brian Layman, director of the North American Institute (NAI), which provides a wide variety of training resources to both Mack Trucks and sister company Volvo Trucks North America.
There are 22 instructors scattered among seven facilities within NAI’s network of training centers, including: Salt Lake City, UT; Dallas, TX; Chicago, IL; and Toronto, Canada. The average size of these facilities is about 8,500 square feet, though Layman stressed his team of instructors do on the road to Mack and Volvo dealers as well as customer locations to conduct training sessions.
[Below you can take a walk with Layman as he shows off the “hands on” area of NAI’s Greensboro facility.]
A typical “hands on” class usually includes no more than eight to 10 technicians at a time. For sessions dealing solely with electronics, however, class sizes can jump to encompass 10 or 20 students. “We once sent an instructor team to Nigeria, and he taught a class of 67,” Layman told me. “But they were engrossed by what we had to show them.”
The point of all this, of course, is to help technicians – whether they be wet-behind-the-ears rookies or savvy, weathered veterans – keep updating their knowledge, as trucks continue to change rapidly from one model year to the next.
“The average class lasts two to three days, but for something like an engine overhaul can go four to five days,” Layman explained. “Even as the electronics get more and more complex, there are still physical, mechanical aspects of the truck you can’t ignore. You also need to understand older systems as some customer run their trucks eight, 12, even 15 years.”
That’s why Layman believes the hands-on portion of the training NAI offers is so important, as it conveys a level of knowledge a technician just can’t get from a textbook.
That same philosophy drives other OEMs as well; companies like Cummins Inc., which goes so far as to build entirely self-contained trucks engines – complete with fuel tank, diesel particulate filter (DPF), selective catalytic reduction (SCR) system, and diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank – than can be taken on the road to any dealer or customer location for hands-on training purposes.
[I lucked into Lee Anderson, a service trainer with Cummins Southern Plains, and his 5,550 pound 2010-compliant ISX training engine module below at Rush Enterprises’ 2009 Technician Skills Rodeo. Ah, there’s nothing like the roar of a diesel engine to wake you up in the morning!]
Fred Murphy, service training manager with Cummins, told me that being able to “put hands on the iron” is critical to getting technicians familiar with any changes to engines and the components that surround them.
He added that Cummins will take these training modules (of which they usually build one or two per engine family) on the road to dealer and fleet customer locations (noting that the module is built onto a forklift-ready steel skid pad for easy transport) to help technicians learn to decipher and fix all sorts of potential electronic and mechanical issues.
With so much additional electronics and hardware being added to trucks these days – especially to reduce exhaust pollution – you’d be forgiven for assuming that more and more of maintenance required to keep commercial vehicles in tip-top shape should be handled by wiser hands than your own.
However, that’s not necessarily so – especially if you provide your technicians with the right kind of training so they understand the equipment they’re working on from soup to nuts as the old saying goes.
“You can still do a lot of maintenance yourself. In terms of the normal repairs you’ve seen over the years, nothing has changed much,” Darry Stuart, president of DWS Fleet Management, told me recently. “It’s still mainly about oil changes, tires, lubrication, hoses, etc.”
In fact, maintenance is in some ways a lot easier these days, he said, as components such as transmissions and rear-ends last much longer and don’t break down nearly as much as they once did. “You do see a lot more electronic issues, but often times it’s because you’ve got a problem with the battery – with the power supply, not the electronics themselves,” Stuart added.
He stressed that truck maintenance is, at the end of the day, all about making the right choices. It still boils down to knowing what’s practical to do yourself and when it makes sense to send it to an outside provider – especially if it’s a big repair you don’t have either the time or shop space to accommodate. By extension, being able to make those decisions correctly boils down to the training the technicians working on that equipment has received.
Stuart knows of what he speaks, I might add. A former fleet manager with over 35 years experience taking care of everything from over-the-road tractors to refuse trucks, Stuart’s business now revolves around helping all sorts fleets get their maintenance practices and vehicle specs in order. He’s also the former chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) – and they don’t hand out THAT appointment to anyone who walks through the door with a pulse.
The upshot of all of this maintenance doesn’t have to be impenetrable rocket science, despite all the advances in truck technology in recent years -- as long as you make sure your technicians get the right kind of training, that is.