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Unlocking the virtual shop

March 7, 2016
VMRS codes provide a gateway to problem solving and more uptime

Maybe it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but consider the flip side: That old dog might be able to teach you a thing or two. That could be the case with the Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards (VMRS) system developed and introduced in 1970 by the American Trucking Assns.’ (ATA) Technology and Maintenance Council and updated ever since.

You’d think a system unveiled during the Nixon Administration that’s been around as consumers adopted microwave ovens, cell phones, compact discs and the Internet would be understood through and through by now. But Jack Poster, VMRS services manager for the council, contends that’s not even close.

“VMRS is the least understood—and most misunderstood—thing out in the maintenance shop. I get calls all the time, ‘What’s this ‘V-S-M-R’?” he says, jumbling the acronym’s letters. “It may be behind the scenes of what fleets are doing, but it’s very misunderstood.”

Why is that? Michael Riemer, vice president of product and channel marketing at maintenance technology solutions provider Decisiv, suggests the confusion and lack of fleet uptake of VMRS came about because the need to communicate and collaborate—and the methods to do so—just weren’t there as they are now.

In terms of fleets using VMRS, the most important question is this: Why should I? Those who Fleet Owner spoke with said that for fleets looking to know more about maintenance and uptime, VMRS might surprise them.

If you want to understand the system and how advanced users put it to work saving money and tightening up maintenance operations—even creating a sort of “virtual shop” bringing together disparate contract maintenance costs almost like they were in-house—you’ll need to know what VMRS is and what it’s intended to do.

ATA puts it this way: VMRS “provides a vital communication link between maintenance personnel, computers and management.” It’s a basic maintenance communications structure designed to connect fleets, OEMs, suppliers, computers, and those who spec, operate and maintain equipment.

Simple to Sophisticated

The system can be used on a rudimentary level or on more sophisticated levels, and theories differ on what’s most advantageous. “The good—and maybe the bad—part about VMRS is there’s no one set way to use it. It’s very flexible,” Poster contends. All that variance may have added to confusion among fleets about the system’s use.

VMRS standardizes and captures info about maintenance done on trucks and all their components. For just about anything on a truck, the system includes nine digits that break down into groups of three and indicate (1) system, (2) assembly, and (3) actual component. For instance, explains Poster, take “013 002 023”—”013” is the braking system, “002” is rear brake parts, and “023” is brake drum.

To help keep track of what’s done in the shop, a fleet could be using as few as just the three initial digits tying a given part to its overall system. Additional code groups can identify things such as part manufacturer, reason or complaint why a vehicle came in for maintenance, service/repair procedure that’s done, and more.

And this particular “old dog” VMRS is quite fluid and alive. Fresh product codes are added frequently, Poster tells Fleet Owner—new codes can be requested free of charge—and there are “about 9,000” manufacturers now listed. So VMRS is designed to keep up with all the new parts, devices and components now going into trucks.

“As we enter into this world of software and computerization, we’re adding in new codes to reflect labor that’s done. It’s the same with parts,” Poster says. On that latter note, “a lot of people don’t realize it, but VMRS can be almost like building your own vehicle identification number,” he says. “There are codes in VMRS that can identify your assets.

“Is it a construction vehicle? Is it a fire service vehicle? Is it logging? Is it a standard less-than-truckload vehicle? You can identify that,” Poster continues. VMRS codes can also identify indirect types of technician labor like snow removal or truck washing, he notes, allowing fleets to keep track of time where techs may be paid but aren’t working on trucks.

Thus, he explains, VMRS can provide many shades of information about a part on a truck being worked on in the shop as well as labor, and that information is standardized, accessible and usable in a range of ways.

While truck telematics and other vehicle-centric data get a lot of attention in a fleet’s cost control strategies, consider the list of information VMRS can describe that’s neat and ready for analytics, Poster points out. And according to Riemer, if you’re not using this standardized maintenance notation/communication system, trying to drill into this information and analyze it readily is “nearly impossible.”

Real-world use

Jarit Cornelius, maintenance manager for truckload carrier Sharp Transport, considers himself fortunate to have had mentors who used VMRS as that standardized maintenance-coding language. But it’s nowhere near industry-wide adoption, he finds.

“A lot of fleets don’t believe in it or don’t know enough to use it,” he says. “And on the vendor side, they may be using the system in-house. As far as sharing that information and using it to the benefit of their customers, I don’t see that being done. But there’s huge potential in using it,” he contends.

Most scheduled maintenance of Sharp’s fleet of some 120 tractors and 350 trailers is done at its Ethridge, TN, headquarters, Cornelius explains. One of the most useful capabilities of VMRS he’s found is its potential to identify  cost trends.

“A couple of years ago, our drivers were calling us from the road telling us their air line was broke or was leaking,” Cornelius recalls, “and we’d have to get them somewhere to put a new one on.” It was an unfamiliar problem, and while  running monthly reports with VMRS codes, Cornelius noticed there was a spike in code 013/brake system.

“I started to drill down with my VMRS codes and found in the repair orders that the air lines were breaking behind the gladhands [i.e., coupling devices] when [drivers] were tethering them to the trailers,” he recalls. “We hadn’t been putting in gladhand grips then, so we bought gladhand grips, added that to our preventive maintenance service for those trucks, and we haven’t had that problem ever since.”

A more complex problem turned up with the fleet’s auxiliary power units (APU). Sharp had a spike in drivers calling in with APU failures, “so we’d have them either looked at over the road or checked out in-house” and discovered there was an alternator issue, Cornelius says. “Running reports off of VMRS, we were able to drill down to see what was going on. We’d been throwing some alternators on these trucks—but were we just changing parts or were we getting to the root cause?”

After some discussions with the APU supplier and sending some technicians for training, Sharp deduced that the problem actually wasn’t the APUs or the alternators.  “It was a voltage regulator issue with the wiring on the alternators themselves. So again, we were able to revamp what we were doing on APU services.”

In addition, Cornelius notes that VMRS helps his company keep a much leaner and more responsive, at-the-ready stock inventory.

“Our physical inventory used to be $200,000+ a year. We just ran a physical inventory for year-end 2015, and for the second year in a row, we finished at I think 96% accuracy,” he says. “We’ve reduced our overall costs. We’re down to the $65,000-$75,000 range, and that’s everything.

“It’s partnering with the right vendors for parts and them understanding what our objective is and what we do as a maintenance program—and they’re really good at that—as well as stocking the right parts,” Cornelius contends.

How far to take it?

“When most people think of VMRS, they only think of the nine digits that describe the components,” Decisiv’s Riemer says. “But there’s so much more to it. If that’s all you use it for, you really miss the power of VMRS. 

“All fleets want to know what kinds of assets they have, how frequently they’re breaking down, why they’re breaking down, and what kinds of service events they have,” Riemer continues. “Relying on people’s notes and other things, you really can’t do the analyses people want these days. You’re not using a common, standard, accessible format.

“Trying to do text-based analysis of freehand text and [maintenance] reporting is almost impossible,” he adds. 

Scattered notes and documentation aren’t only more work for techs, Riemer says, they don’t give fleets the information in a usable format to streamline maintenance. “When downtime becomes the reason that you pick or don’t pick a vendor, you need to find a better way of communicating,” he says. “I think VMRS can be that foundation and can make the process smoother, better, faster, and easier.

“VMRS lets people do real reporting and analytics on data that’s typically very unstructured: lots of notes, lots of handwritten stuff, people writing paragraphs and shorthand,” Riemer continues. “That’s very difficult to use for any statistically meaningful analysis.”

Even if a fleet’s maintenance/service providers aren’t using VMRS coding, Cornelius says that can be done internally. Sharp adds VMRS codes to invoice for necessary over-the-road repair work. “It probably takes 30 seconds, if that,” he contends. “The majority of our services are in-house, but stuff happens—tires blow, trailer lights go out,” he notes. “We collect all those invoices and put them into our maintenance software using VMRS codes.”

Riemer contends a foundation of VMRS can help fleets get a handle on, track and manage outside maintenance costs the same way as in-house costs, and the key is the standardized communications format. “If I want to be able to look at contract maintenance just like I do it in-house, VMRS really gives me that consistent way of doing it,” he notes.

Decisiv’s maintenance software platform “really uses the full breadth of VMRS,” he explains, putting at fleets’ disposal all the advanced code sets that attach more descriptive information to maintenance events. And software can use VMRS as a basis for other things; e.g., the Mitchell 1 TruckSeries suite can call up part diagrams, test and repair procedures, and more.

Tracking labor

Mitchell 1’s TruckLabor labor management application also utilizes VMRS codes, notes Scott DeGiorgio, general manager of the company’s commercial vehicle group. “VMRS can capture all the pieces in a labor estimate as it pertains to a fleet,” he says. “Say a trucking company is running down the road, a truck breaks down, and they take it to a shop; the company uses VMRS.

“They’d know all the elements that need to go into the repair, and you can now transfer that to a labor time. So if the fleet wanted to get a feel for ‘what this job should cost me when I’m outsourcing it,’ that’s where the value of VMRS comes in,” DeGiorgio explains.

Jack Schell, associate product manager for truck products at Mitchell 1, notes that fleets or others like insurance companies could use such labor costing information to compare different maintenance providers. “It cost ‘X’ at this dealership and ‘Y’ at the one across the street; why are those differences there?” Schell says.

Given the range of things that can be done—and confusion—with VMRS, on-demand fleet maintenance executive Darry Stuart recommends fleets determine for themselves “how shallow or how deep they want to go” with the system. He advises an approach where a fleet decides what it wants to do with VMRS, then uses only the elements necessary for that.

“If you start off at basic ‘shallow,’ you will have more information at your fingertips than you would without using the system,” Stuart says. “Go semi-shallow and you’ll have more information and an easy way to sort it. If you go deep, you’ll have data galore.” The key is knowing how to use the information.

One fleet Stuart worked with found tire costs in its Florida operations were “going through the roof.”

Tracking costs with VMRS helped the company uncover some theft of tires but also that the environment—coarser asphalt, seashells, etc.—was a contributing factor. “VMRS didn’t fix the problem, but it showed there was one. It gives you the ability to drill down into each truck and each component as microscopically as you want to look at it,” he explains.

Maintenance is often “the last to get the money and funding,” says ATA’s Poster, “but it’s where the most waste can be.” He contends VMRS can be a powerful tool not only for fleets to manage maintenance but to identify and dissect waste, and invites them to ask any questions they have.

“Feel free to pick up the phone and call me at 703-838-7928 or email [email protected],” he says.  

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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