March 1, 2008
Ask five fleet managers what the ideal maintenance shop would look like and you'll get five very different answers. What they'll have in common, however,

Ask five fleet managers what the ideal maintenance shop would look like and you'll get five very different answers. What they'll have in common, however, will be safer and more ergonomic working conditions for technicians, improved productivity at lower cost, and more “green” initiatives. But there will be tremendous variation in how fleets accomplish these objectives.

To begin with, the overall structure of a maintenance operation must match the carrier's operation. While TL and LTL carriers can't rely on a centralized shop to take care of units scattered across the country, it's the perfect setup for municipal fleets, with equipment typically clustered within a small area or region.

Palm Beach County, FL, for example, recently completed a massive central shop with 78 bays grouped in three spokes and connected by a central hub that houses parts storage and administrative offices. Everything's rated to withstand 150-mph hurricane-force winds.

Yet that set-up could be anathema to an OTR carrier like West Chester, PA-based A. Duie Pyle. “We cannot operate efficiently with one large centrally located shop,” says James “Jim” Miske, director of fleet maintenance. “Our guarantee of service to our customers requires a well-designed and well-equipped shop in each terminal. With multiple customer service locations throughout the Northeast, we must have the technical support based in each terminal.”

Drive-through shops are favored by many tractor-trailer fleets, while pull-in structures work better for mixed-vehicle operations and fleets based in colder climates. “In the South, we like to use drive-through shop designs; they give us a way to provide extra ventilation to disperse the heat,” says Mike Burger, vp-maintenance for LTL carrier Saia Inc. “Up North, however, they are not practical since you want to retain heat.”

Charles “Chuck” Carew, maintenance coordinator for central Florida at Cemex, a concrete and materials hauler, says: “We use pull-in bays…because we don't have many tractor-trailers in our fleet. We also use high-volume fans to help cool the shop in the summer.”

But most fleets agree that there's no fast or easy way to make their ideal shop become a reality. “It took two years of planning — from initial needs assessment to meetings with shop supervisors, technicians and finally the architects — before the design drawings for our new shop were done and we could send the project out to contractors for bids,” explains Douglas Weichman, director of the fleet management division for Palm Beach County.

“We analyzed every detail, including things such as how many electrical outlets per bay and which way we wanted interior doors to open, because our whole focus was to make the shop as efficient as possible,” he says. “We didn't want technicians wandering around the parking lot looking for the next truck in line for repairs. We didn't want awnings on our shop, as they could be ripped off by hurricanes. We had to analyze everything, from the weather to our productivity goals, to get the shop ideal for us.”


For Darry Stuart, a former fleet manager and past general chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council, creating the ideal shop begins with establishing the physical layout that will best fit a fleet's needs. “It's all about the real estate. You need to make it wide enough and long enough — as a minimum, 25-ft.-wide bays, with extra space between them and plenty of room for storing parts, tools and other materials,” he says. “Fleets get so focused on fitting trucks and tools into their shops that they forget about adding space for vehicle maneuvering, extra storage and technician work areas. Build it high, too, so it can be easily converted into a warehouse in the future. That will make it a more valuable structure.”

Lighting is also very critical. “Get as much natural light as you can through the ceiling — via skylights, for example — and through the doors,” Stuart says. “Paint the walls white to reflect that natural light and help keep the interior brighter.”

Everything in the shop should be directed at maximizing technician productivity. “Think of a technician's time as costing you a dollar a minute,” he says. “Build workbenches between the bay doors — cantilevered off the wall between each bay — and equip them with a vise grip or grinder. That way a technician won't have to waste 20 minutes, thus costing you $20, looking for…tools or work space.”

Stuart also believes the ideal shop must be designed for cleanliness, with a brightly painted floor and shovels, brooms and mops located at each bay. “Keeping the floor clean makes the facility safer by reducing slips and falls.”

“Plans should require that maximum efficiencies be built into the layout and be the driving force of the design,” says Palm Beach County's Weichman. “This will allow the work force to be more productive.” For that reason, fleet managers should make sure their maintenance shops will be able to handle future needs.

“Pay close attention to things like heating, air conditioning and electrical systems. Make sure you have enough electrical panels, circuits and capacity for devices that you may need in the future,” he says.


How many technicians does a fleet's “ideal shop” require? That depends on the fleet, as does the skill sets required. For A. Duie Pyle's Miske, the size and age of the fleet is more important than the size of the shop or shop bays. “This can be a constantly moving target depending on operating conditions and specific retention goals for a vehicle,” he says. Miske points out that since 2004, fleets have been evaluating retention goals more often due to the “required emissions controls and associated costs to purchase and maintain this equipment.”

According Palm Beach County's Weichman, who wrote a section about shop creation criteria in the new Fleet Management Operating Guide put out by the National Assn. of Fleet Administrators, a rule of thumb is 1.5 or 2 bays per technician. “This allows for vehicles waiting for parts once repairs have started and working two vehicles by one technician,” he says. “To have the vehicle removed from a bay if the vehicle is waiting on parts is a waste of time. An efficient shop would have minimum time spent by a technician on vehicle movement rather then working on it.”

For current and future estimates of how many repair bays or technicians are needed, fleets can use either maintenance repair units (MRU) or technicians-per-vehicle ratios, says Weichman. MRUs are more accurate, he points out, because they take into consideration the number of technician-hours a particular type of equipment might need. Basing the estimate purely on the number of vehicles in the fleet will provide a ballpark estimate.

“Once the number of technicians is established, projections can be made concerning support staff and square footage, affecting supervisor's offices, stockroom room size and staff, fiscal personnel space, etc.,” he adds.

“In terms of manpower, the ideal shop would have every technician equally trained and skilled in each area of fleet maintenance, with the exception of major component overhaul and repair,” says Miske. “Fleets extending the age of their equipment to points beyond component warranty life face the need to locate, hire, train and keep technicians with these skills.”

Saia's Burger agrees. His fleet performs most of its own maintenance, including heavy engine work; body repairs are outsourced, enabling the fleet to avoid the hazardous materials rules surrounding the paint process. “It's important to have those skills, though we don't do as much major component work as we used to,” he says.

That's the flip side, says Miske. Not only would these same technicians maintain that higher skill level, they also have the ability to slide over to conduct preventative maintenance and more routine repairs when needed. “That said, the ideal shop recognizes the…importance of a PM check performed by attentive personnel,” Miske says. “The ideal shop would likely devote the largest portion of its labor to PM, which is where dependable equipment originates.”


All maintenance shops now need computer systems to help diagnose and repair trucks. Just how extensive those systems need to be and what type of technology they use varies from one fleet to another.

“We wanted real-time access to information, so we've supplied every technician location with a Panasonic Toughbook laptop equipped with dual-core processors,” says Jeff Bryant, vp-maintenance for TL carrier Celadon Group. “Every decision revolves around the technician staying on the truck, so having this technology at hand boosts their ability to get information quickly.”

Cemex goes a step further, using the same business-grade SAP enterprise resource planning system in its maintenance operation as is used by the corporate office, notes Carew.

“My ideal shop would be completely paperless to the maximum extent [possible], with electronic workstations located strategically in each work area,” says A. Duie Pyle's Miske. “If there are multiple technicians working in each area of the shop, there would be a minimum of two electronic workstations providing access to electronic repair order creation and maintenance, vehicle history and all web-based research tools.”

Miske adds that there would be enough storage space at these workstations to safely house a laptop at each, along with any hand-held diagnostic tools the technician requires for all systems, including ABS, engine and transmission troubleshooting.

Even at the municipal level, more computing power is the ideal for maintenance shops. “We are Wi-Fi throughout the whole compound …allowing technicians to use laptops right at the vehicle to connect to the Internet or our server to get data from various vehicle manufacturers, including service manuals, to make repairs,” says Palm Beach County's Weichman.

At Saia such systems are not used as extensively. “We don't have PCs for every technician; we have enough for them to do the job,” says Burger. “We haven't addressed using Wi-Fi networks, though we're moving in that direction.”

“Computers are here to stay; fleets just need to figure out whether wireless or cable-connected systems work best for their shops,” adds TMC's Stuart. “But you need to control computer use, [making sure] technicians are spending time on the truck and not on data collection. In my view, 90% of problems can be fixed with common sense; you don't need to surf the Internet to fix everything.”


Improving the environmental footprint of maintenance facilities is on everyone's front burner, although the extent to which individual fleets' greening efforts are able to go in this direction can vary considerably depending on budgetary and other constraints.

“We have some shops equipped with waste-oil heaters, burning our own generated waste oil,” says A. Duie Pyle's Miske. “Ideal shops will recycle everything they generate in waste product with certified recyclers, from batteries to tires. It's everyone's responsibility to maintain a clean environment; and with the number of providers, tools and services offered, there's no reason that every maintenance facility is not doing the right thing in this area.”

Even small changes can have a big impact. “Take lighting, for example. You can have all the lights you want, but if the inside of the lamp gets dirty you're getting only half the light, thus wasting half the light bulb's energy,” says Celadon's Bryant. “Designing lights to maximize their reflective capability can save a lot of energy.”

“We try to be green as much as we can, yet cost dictates what we can do,” notes Saia's Burger. “We use waste oil to heat our shops, for example, because there's a cost savings and a green benefit.”

Some fleets, however, are approaching environmental issues on a grand scale, redesigning shops from the ground up to be more green from the get-go, without compromising the work they are expected to do.

The City of Clarita, CA, has built a $32-million maintenance complex that includes a 22,000-sq.-ft. administrative building and a 25,000-sq.-ft. bus-repair facility whose green features save the municipality more than $1 million annually. The shop has seven maintenance bays, an automated bus wash/chassis wash system that recycles wastewater, a diesel fueling station, a compressed natural gas fueling station for public and transit use, and parking for 110 buses and 163 cars.

The building itself is green from the foundation up, built with straw bales, recycled wood, steel, carpeting and tile, while complying with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council.

In fact, this building's design exceeds California's energy-efficiency standards by 40%, according to Kris Markarian, a senior engineer at the transit authority and the project manager for maintenance facility.

“We wanted to show that…you can build a truly green maintenance facility of this size and scope,” she said. “It took one-and-a-half years to design it and two years to build it. The key was to balance things throughout — to show that there would be lower operating costs by going green.”

Other features include an under-floor air system, water-source heat pumps, a courtyard and native plant garden, a concrete parking lot made with 25% fly ash paving material, and efficient use of local, recycled materials. A huge photovoltaic array located on top of the bus-parking pavilion not only offers shade, but also allows the 12-acre facility to sell surplus electricity back to the local utility.

“That [array] saves us $40,000 a year,” says Markarian. “While it can't work for every fleet — we are based in a desert — it's an example of how a transit operator like us can go green but stay within budget at the same time.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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