Lubed For Life?

With low-maintenance trucks rolling down America's highways, fleets are revising their maintenance strategies and learning what to check and how often.Advances in component technology. Extended service intervals. Longer warranties. All have combined to give equipment unprecedented levels of reliability.While "lubed for life" is still somewhere down the road, manufacturers are knocking down key milestones

With low-maintenance trucks rolling down America's highways, fleets are revising their maintenance strategies and learning what to check and how often.

Advances in component technology. Extended service intervals. Longer warranties. All have combined to give equipment unprecedented levels of reliability.

While "lubed for life" is still somewhere down the road, manufacturers are knocking down key milestones and moving ever closer to developing components that meet the spirit -- if not the letter -- of this philosophy. In the process, fleets have been able to reduce the levels of maintenance necessary for drivetrain and wheel-end components.

Steve Savola, shop supervisor for Provisioners Express, a refrigerated carrier based in Auburn, Wash., echoes the views of many in explaining why he opted for a reduced- or low-maintenance spec: "All of us want to reduce the amount of maintenance we must perform to achieve more vehicle productivity."

The fleet push for extended lube intervals has driven truck and component manufacturers to "work closely with each other to develop engine, drivetrain, and wheel-end components that are properly engineered and matched for long life," according to Dale Bell, director-advanced engineering technology, Meritor Automotive.

"Suppliers continue to manufacture a variety of new drivetrain and under-chassis components designed to make life simpler for fleet operators and end-users alike," he continues. "These components are rapidly gaining acceptance among fleets that recognize that premium components quickly pay for themselves by reducing maintenance costs and vehicle downtime. Such maintenance-reduction innovations include reduced lubrication requirements."

Aside from fueling the rig, today's fleet owners barely have to lay hands on the unit to achieve unprecedented performance. Or do they?

Look at Sitton Motor Lines. Before spec'ing sealed drivelines, wheel-ends, and transmissions, Stan Edens, vp-maintenance, brought each unit through the shop every 10,000 miles for a grease job, with an oil and filter change included in alternate visits. With the longer-life components he has been able to extend grease intervals to 15,000 miles. To bring uniformity to the operation, he also decreased oil change intervals to the same 15,000 miles from 20,000.

Running an average of 120,000 miles annually, he has been able to shave two service calls out of the rotations, to the tune of $120 per truck. Multiply that out over the fleet of 425 power units and the savings is readily apparent.

Fleets risk being lulled into a false sense of security, however, if they view sealed systems and extended lube intervals as a ticket to sidestepping their safety responsibilities. Savvy fleets are supplementing their regular maintenance schedules with regular inspections to ensure that extended service components live up to their performance expectation.

"Lube-for-life philosophy is a Catch-22 for the truck-fleet maintenance industry," says Jim Cade, director of maintenance-field support services for Ryder System. "On the one hand, I'm saving labor costs by reducing lubes; on the other hand, I have to beef up my periodic inspections. How much do you save?"

"To get to the lubed-for-life philosophy, whenever fleets remove routine maintenance they must replace it with a preventive maintenance program," agrees Rick Muth, general service manager for Roadranger, Eaton Corp. "That means more routine checks to ensure the proper lube level, to identify and correct any leaks, and to incorporate a sampling philosophy to understand trends in lubricant and component performance.

"Zero maintenance does not mean zero PM," he adds. "It doesn't mean no check, no look."

For the time being, Cade is requiring that any time one of Ryder's 180,000 vehicles crosses a fuel island, a visual safety inspection will be performed. This 10-15 minute drill includes a look at low-lube components, as well as belts, tires, lights, etc., and will red flag any potential problems. Longer term, Cade is re-evaluating his normal inspection. He is leaning toward a slimmed down version of the traditional A- level lubrication, turning it into more of a safety inspection in between normal oil drain intervals. He also continues to push manufacturers to develop visual indicators for components to help make the routine inspections more effective.

Provisioners Express uses a fleet of 100 power units and 150 refrigerated trailers to provide truckload and less-than-truckload temperature-controlled service throughout the 11 Western states. About 65 of the units are dedicated to linehaul service and are traded on 5-yr./ 500,000-mi. turns. The remaining units, dedicated to local service are traded on 10-year cycles.

Last year, Savola took delivery of 10 new Freightliner Century Class units, each equipped with extended lube brakes, U-joints, and front axles.

The proof is in the pudding. Savola reports no failures in the first full year of operation. Normally he would have seen at least two U-joint failures over the same period.

Despite opting for the extended service components, Provisioners has supplemented its A-level service with safety inspections every 30 days for linehaul units and every 15 for locals. "You still have to look at them, but you don't have to grease them," says Savola. "We're looking for leaks, looseness, and wear."

The only downside: "When they fail, if they fail, replacement costs will be higher."

Gordon Trucking, Pacific, Wash., reports similar findings. A little more than a year ago, maintenance director Joe Carr incorporated a lube-for-life mentality into his component spec. Today, 100 of the fleet's 528 company-owned tractors are running with extended lubes on S-cams, slack adjusters, drivelines, and steer axle hubs.

"They have exceeded our expectations." In fact, Carr has yet to see any service failures.

Not that he hasn't tried. Carr pushes the units hard. By the time a rig is retired at the end of its four-year duty cycle, it can rack up as many as 640,000 miles Those mileages reflect Gordon's use of teams in 10% of its operations. Trucks dedicated to team runs are pulled after 18 months or 300,000 miles, and reassigned to single-driver operation. "This helps slow down the accumulation of miles," Carr explains. "If you don't watch them, they get away from you quick."

Not only has the over-the-road performance of components exceeded expectations, but Carr has also seen savings in the shop.

Until the extended lube products came online, Carr was cycling all units through the shop every 12,000 miles for a lube job. Oil change intervals were set at 24,000 miles. Carr has replaced the 12,000-mile service interval with a visual inspection of the extended service components.

"Despite the lube-free mentality, we still have lube points on transmissions and cross-shaft bearings," he explains. "Plus, there are other components such as belts, starters, and air fans that you want to take a look at."

The 12,000-mile service interval allows Carr to conduct a thorough inspection of low-lube components:

* U-joints -- check for looseness;

* Inner axle driveshaft;

* S-cam brakes -- make sure all lube fittings are plugged;

* Automatic slack adjusters -- check for dry areas or rusting.

Not only do such visual inspections save time and money, they improve efficiency in the shop. "No longer do you have to worry about busting off grease fittings, or getting to hard-to-reach fittings," Carr says. "Plus, there was no accurate measure of how much grease was adequate." Although he has yet to experience a failure, Carr maintains replacement lubricants on the off-chance he may need them.

Similarly, Rocha Transportation is using the new, low-lube components to help stretch out its maintenance cycles, which are currently set at 5,000 for lubes and 15,000 for oil. According to president Ed Rocha, the addition of no-lube U-joints and brakes will help him stretch each interval by 5,000 miles.

Based in Modesto, Calif., Rocha is a general freight carrier that operates 55 units within a 200-mi. radius. Units average 15,000 mi. a month. With a 5-yr./500,000-mi. trade cycle, Rocha believes he can incorporate low-maintenance technology on new equipment orders. The new, low-lube components are a case in point. Sealed wheel seals and low-lube brakes are next on his shopping list.

Despite looking to stretch service intervals, he wants to inspect the equipment more frequently; Rocha insists on combing over the equipment once a week. "It's during those inspections that you uncover the little odds and ends," he says. "If you don't bring in the units as regularly, those little odds and ends can get by you and become big problems."

Still, with lube intervals cut in half, Rocha says his three technicians are "running out of things to do in the shop."

Getting ready to jump on the lube-free bandwagon is Wm. Dennis Cook Inc., a small fleet consisting of 50 power units and 80 trailers that operates out of Boone, N.C. A team operation, Cook racks up as much as 250,000 miles on power units annually and turns them every 24 months. Trailing units are on 31/2-year turns.

He's taking delivery of 15 new trailers, all spec'd with low-maintenance axles. "Anytime you can eliminate the maintenance, I'm going to go with it," says Dennis Cook, president.

While he anticipates being able to extend the hands-on maintenance intervals, he will maintain the same monthly frequency to inspect the new units.

Cook says he is not willing to expand the spec to other components just yet. "I haven't gotten brave enough to make the switch yet," he explains. "It's hard to break the old habit that grease is good."

But he is quick to note that pressure for just such a change is building. He has been watching several other fleets that have implemented the maintenance-free concept, and will follow suit "when the dust settles." Cook adds, "I haven't heard any negatives about maintenance-free components and I'm sure we'll start spec'ing them soon."

But he recognizes that it won't solve all his maintenance problems. Like other fleets, he will have to grapple with establishing the proper mix of maintenance and inspections.

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