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The maintenance data battle

Sept. 13, 2021
The war for ultimate efficiency and uptime is won by shops that know how to leverage their data.

In fleets across North America, there’s a constant war raging against downtime. It’s a formidable foe, for sure, and at times unavoidable, but not one that a solid plan of attack can’t defeat. The overall strategy is knowing your enemy, which can come in the form of something that can be seen or heard, like an underinflated tire or sputtering engine. More often than not, however, it is hiding within complex components that require intel to unearth.

“Today's commercial vehicles are incredibly advanced, and as a result, their systems are very hard to diagnose,” said Len Copeland, marketing manager for Detroit Products at Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), during an Endeavor CV Tech virtual event. “So many failures are not mechanical anymore; they're electrical and sensor failures.”

Those electrical systems add complexity, but at the same time generate the data to monitor their health.

Because of this, data is the best weapon to combat all those equipment issues that can at best reduce performance and increase fuel costs, and at worst, waylay drivers on the side of the highway, waiting for the cavalry, or tow truck, to come to their aid.

“Unplanned downtime is a real killer to our customers,” Copeland said. “And making sure that we maximize uptime or allow them to plan for further downtime is really critical.”

As Tim Bauer, VP of Aftermarket North America at Eaton, put it: fleets are always looking for the “optimum way to manage this vehicle performance and maximize their revenue because it's only making revenue if the wheels are turning.”

The disconnect is that the way to go about gaining those efficiencies to prevent downtime and handle it gracefully when you can’t is more complicated than a modern truck. But it’s a battle well worth fighting.

Know your allies

Telematics providers have seized the opportunity to provide platforms to sort and analyze data and fault codes. This information allows fleets to enact efficiency-boosting changes; however, as Copeland noted, “It's hard to really have a single solution when it comes to connected vehicles.”

DTNA's Detroit brand began connecting fleets with Detroit Diesel engine data to improve maintenance workflows with the launch of integrated remote diagnostics system called Detroit Connect Virtual Technician in 2011.

Abilities to ensure consistent performance and maximum uptime are inherent in powertrains from all the major original equipment manufacturers, and each has their own service management platforms and/or diagnostics solutions: Eaton IntelliConnect, Hino Insight, Mack GuardDog Connect, Navistar International 360, Paccar Solutions (along with Kenworth TruckTech+ and Peterbilt SmartLINQ), and Volvo Remote Diagnostics.

And the list of third-party providers offering maintenance service solutions is too extensive to name. There are nuances among the myriad options out there, such as asset monitoring and leveraging artificial intelligence and data to predict potential failures and alert drivers with enough time to seek repairs.

With the rise of the connected vehicle, many more parts makers have joined in. Air filter maker Donaldson's FilterMinder offers an air pressure sensor connected to a wireless Geotab device to verify proper flow through a truck’s air filter isn’t clogged and reducing fuel efficiency. It also can attach to oil filters to monitor pressure drops, indicating lower fluid levels.

Eaton’s Bauer said all the solutions can create challenges.

“It's hard to really determine capability and what they've done with whom, what the results were,” Bauer said. “It's almost like you're sourcing something for yourself on Amazon and you get six different choices. How do you make a choice?”

To sort out what to do with so many options, and especially when a fleet has all-makes within it, leadership must first identify the fleet's service-related goals, and then meet with trustworthy partners to see if they have the software and hardware tools to meet those goals.

“It's best to really align your goals against what's out there, because there's a lot of trial and error,” Bauer said.

Major benefits

In an attempt to track tire mileage in the early ’90s, maintenance technicians at heavy equipment hauler Rinaudo Enterprises, branded the rubber with mileage life and tracked pressure and tread depth on 3x5 index cards.

“They really weren't checking the pressure or depth, they were just writing something in,” recalled company president Frank Rinaudo. Now, with Dana’s Rhombus tire analytics solution, the fleet of 60 International LTs and 73 specialized trailers (such as lowboys) use digital gauges to check pressure and depth, which gets sent to a dashboard to ensure the tires are good to go.

Rinaudo said along with providing that accountability, Rhombus helps the fleet calculate cost per mile and spec the right tires for each position. Rinaudo estimated the fleet saves about $3,000 per month.

He also said the maintenance alerts enabled by Navistar OnCommand Connect allow the service team to know about a problem before the check engine light comes on, giving the driver time to seek repairs.

Snider Fleet Solutions, one of Michelin’s largest retreading partners in the U.S., is just beginning to use data more. The company recently installed Stemco’s Gate Reader SVT, located at the lot gate, which picks up data from wheel-end sensors to track mileage and preventive maintenance scheduling.

The fleet, which has 1,000 trucks and operates 34 mechanical shops, also employs drive-over monitoring through its partner WheelRight, which in six seconds reads critical tire data and flags issues.

For the most part, though, Snider still tracks maintenance manually. “The biggest part is having the manpower, getting them the data and then siloing that data and then getting it to a point where you can act on it,” said Brandon Smith, corporate mechanical parts and procurement manager for Snider.

Improving PM scheduling

Typically, that worst-case scenario of a roadside breakdown is mitigated through preventive maintenance, scheduling fluid changes, tire rotations or engine tune-ups based on general manufacturer recommendations, though, with advances in telematics and diagnostics, fleets that are able to gather and analyze real-time equipment data through telematics platforms can better identify when to take action.

This is a major shift from even five years ago when PM work “was a lot more reactive,” said Ben Auslander, head of sales and marketing for Pitstop Connect, one of many telematics platforms developed to improve maintenance efficiencies.

“[Repair facilities] didn't have insight as to what was wrong with the vehicle, other than what was communicated by whomever was bringing that vehicle in or by the fleet manager,” Auslander added. “They were running a lot of scheduled maintenance that wasn't optimized properly.”

For a fleet running on- and off-road equipment, this could create severe issues.

“Off-road-type situations impact the tires and the brakes, alignment and the shocks extraordinarily differently than what the OEM would think is happening to that vehicle,” Auslander said. “By setting up a scheduled maintenance, you might not be really managing the health of those vehicles properly.”

Maintenance solutions such as Pitstop Connect’s have been aided by the maturation of AI to automate the process. “Hypothetically, our algorithms are detecting something is not running appropriately, or is likely to fail on a vehicle,” Auslander explained.

Once that happens, the AI sends notification to a fleet manager’s dashboard or email, so they can act accordingly. The system identifies alerts as critical, major or minor, and fleets can set those values themselves based on their goals. The platform can also take this to the next level and automatically book a service or push the data to the repair center, Auslander said.

“We're at that precipice of being able to really take that sensor data and be able to predict something like a battery failure three to four weeks in advance,” Auslander noted.

Along with factoring in predictions and scheduled PMs, Pitstop’s AI also checks against diagnostic trouble codes, driver inputs, and recall notifications. This allows a dealer or fleet shop to group services, such as a battery swap and oil change, and knock them all out at once.

“Capturing data and then analyzing that data to trigger preventive maintenance, or required maintenance, is becoming more and more popular,” said Kurt Wyman, general manager and VP of sales, North America, for Teletrac Navman. “The bigger trend is to take that data and send it directly to a maintenance system to schedule the correct work and the correct technician.”

Any number of efficiencies can be unlocked by streamlining the scheduling. This may include looking at fuel consumption anomalies to optimize engine performance or using a work truck’s engine idle time to more accurately mark the next oil change interval.

Driver behavior data is already widely used to improve safety and efficiency metrics on the road, such as checking for hard braking or speeding alerts and coaching drivers to avoid those behaviors. Wyman said by using Teletrac Navman’s TN360 platform, a New York-based 24-hour delivery fleet with about 400 trucks uses the driver data “as a carrot, not stick,” rewarding good behavior rather than punishing bad. This has led to “almost zero turnover” at the fleet, Wyman said.

Leveraging that same data can also help a shop manage incoming work. Teletrac  Navman's TN360 uses artificial intelligence to prioritize jobs such as timing belt replacements and brake service that are nearing or past their due date, and list other jobs, such as an oil change, that might not be due, though can be completed at the same time to optimize that planned downtime. This more strategic approach to planned maintenance also helps manage shop technicians.

In general, data overload can be an unintended consequence, as Wyman pointed out: “You can pull hundreds of fault codes from a tractor-trailer. And nobody wants to see all that, so what our maintenance system allows you to configure your maintenance dashboard to see only the events or alerts that you want to see.”

This could include VMRS codes related to fluid levels, powertrain, tire pressure or oil pressure, he said. That’s just to get one truck or one shop to optimal readiness. The benefit is that data is fairly easy to share within a company, allowing larger companies to scale insights and reap more benefits.

Sharing intel

“The bigger fleets are really starting to want more and more of the data that we collect from every vehicle, so that, in essence, they can do that broader analysis,” explained Lee Lackey, product manager for Noregon’s NextStep Repair. “Instead of just analyzing one truck, they want to analyze the entire fleet.”

Lackey, who has been in the industry 35 years and helped author the SAE J1708 and J1587 fault code protocol standard, explained with Noregon’s TripVision, a fleet manager can be more proactive by homing in on four or five fault code categories across a fleet, such as ones that may impact fuel efficiency when diesel costs are really high.

One caveat is that with mounting complexity in the software and addition of more ECUs, “ghost faults” can appear. “That’s because the software has malfunctiond and it's creating a fault when there really isn't a problem. "It's a bug,” Lackey said. “That's why everybody's so excited about doing the over-the-air updates, because they are going to lead to fewer problems for their customers.”

Fleets can also combine data from across an entire pool of units to gain further insights and even predict future problems using AI.

A fleet can customize what data the AI looks at and from there identifies trends and issues. For instance, a fleet can query the system to check how many trucks in a fleet of 1,000 may have transmission issues based on similarities they share with a truck with a known transmission problem.

“The system can start allowing you to do predictive analytics so that you can look at a certain type of vehicle in one part of the country with a certain type of driver, and you could really get out in front of potential problems before they happen,” Wyman explained.

This is in practice at PacLease, Paccar’s full-service leasing company. Willie Reeves, maintenance manager at PacLease, said the company uses Paccar Solutions to check for systemic problems in equipment.

“You can send that data out and make lot of the dealerships aware of what's going on and what to be on the lookout for,” Reeves explained. “It gets them involved, and that way they can take a look at things themselves.”

This paid off when PacLease trucks were receiving low coolant fault codes in mountainous and hilly terrain along the East Coast. The code would eventually trigger a “stop now” alert and derate the engine, forcing the driver to pull over and wait for a repair technician to run roadside diagnostics.

Trucks were only having the problem in this area, so the investigation began into why. It was determined along a certain route during high traffic areas, and that the coolant was “sloshing back” under the sensor, Reeves said.

“It took a little bit longer for that truck to go up the hill and it was a little bit warmer and cycling through a little bit more coolant, so that's what's caused the issue,” he said.

The fix was to ensure those trucks had sufficiently topped off on coolant prior to making those runs.

Have the right tools

Even with the right software tools tailored to a fleet’s mission, ultimate efficiency cannot be unlocked if the technicians are not able to access the data with the proper hardware, such as laptops and diagnostic tools to identify and troubleshoot problems.

“I've been in actual fistfights with people in the shop environment trying to get hands on a computer,” recalled Talon Thomas, a former dealership technician who is now a product management technical engineer at Noregon.

While that is an extreme result from several years ago, he said the more common problem was “people standing around doing nothing because they're waiting on these computers to work.” Thomas also said he’s seen shops start out with enough computers, but then when they break, they are thrown in a corner and never replaced. This can lead to one computer for four technicians, or in other words, three techs pushing brooms while one is doing the work to a truck out the door.

“Computers are absolute necessities to work on the vehicle. There's just no way around it,” Thomas said. “In order for technicians to maintain vehicle uptime and to get the vehicle turnover in the bays, those things have to be there when the tech needs them.

“Nobody thinks that a technician shouldn't have a screwdriver or wrench, but they seem to balk at having a computer,” Thomas added.

With the proliferation of more high-tech components, such as advanced driver assistance systems, ensuring a maintenance bay has enough diagnostics tools, such as Noregon’s JPRO, can be just as crucial.

“On average, JPRO is in use 16 to 18 hours a day, which means that it's not just being used by one person; it's being used by a whole set of techs,” Thomas relayed.

Lackey also noted the JPRO alone accesses 21 ECUs, and the growing complexity has caused fleets to speed up the trade-in process after the warranty is up.

“When they need the [vehicle] fixed, they just want to take it to the dealer. They don't want to have to learn all this stuff,” Lackey said.

To alleviate some of that, Noregon offers virtual JPRO training.

“One of the issues with technicians in general is getting them comfortable with a piece of software,” said Jason Hedman, JPRO product manager and a former technician. “There's a lot of fear around, I'm messing up on a truck, so we gave them an application to go in and play around with all the features.”

Estimating how many troubleshooting devices a shop needs to aim for can also be troublesome, as the target is always moving.

“There's confusion, right?” Bauer said. “Eaton has a tool. Cummins has a tool. Daimler has one— everybody's got a tool. If I'm a technician working on multi-brand trucks, what do I use?”

This goes back to Bauer’s earlier advice on finding the right partners who can help talk that through, as well as looking online for device training. Thomas also advised that smaller fleets that cannot make the proper in-house investments find out what types of diagnostics need to be outsourced, and who can do it.

Checking the data on repair histories and pattern failures can inform a fleet how often an issue arises, which then helps them decide where to source the repair. And if predictive maintenance is being deployed, they should be given enough of a heads up as to not impede on utilization.

Closing thoughts

It’s unlikely many fleets have the people and capital to instantly adopt most of the efficiency-boosting features, though it’s imperative they look into what they can use now. With technicians and some parts hard to come by, and the rising costs of others, such as tires, they can’t afford not to.

“The whole maintenance budget is not growing,” Eaton’s Bauer said, though they will still always have to buy fuel, new tires and wear components, which are growing in cost. “You start making choices and trade-offs that may have unintended consequences to meet a financial metric.”

This could mean buying cheaper alternatives that don’t last as long, requiring buying more of them, which leads to more downtime.  Just as Rinaudo found out, arming yourself with right data will indicate how maintenance decisions will impact total cost of ownership.

Still, it is a big change and one fleets will have to do at their own pace, though the goal should always be to keep moving forward.

“Our industry is built on transition, and most of them are physical product transitions; this one happens to be more around the data,” Bauer concluded.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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