Whatever it takes

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Jack Morris will be the first to tell you that Oak Harbor Freight Lines’ equipment and maintenance practices have been developed from “a lot of experience, and seeing what works.” And those practices seem to work just fine for the Auburn, Wash.-based regional LTL carrier, which hauls general commodities.

Morris, Oak Harbor’s director of maintenance, says his biggest challenge is to achieve near-perfect equipment utilization. “We’re at nearly 98 percent now, but we can always do better,” he says. “You only get there if you really listen to your people and, based on their input and your own experience, make changes slowly and continuously. Anything done suddenly and drastically is bound to be wrong.”

And Morris certainly has ample opportunity for new experience. His fleet is diverse: 134 linehaul power units – mostly Freightliners and Internationals with a 60/40 mix of Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel engines; 220 city tractors; 25 “hoopies” (straight trucks); 1,280 trailers – many of which have liftgates; and 100 forklifts. Oak Harbor operates out of 26 terminals, with major ones in Auburn, Portland, Ore.; Reno, Nev.; and Sacramento and Oakland, Calif. It employs 20 mechanics, including 11 based in Auburn.

Oak Harbor’s shops handle preventive maintenance and routine repairs, like lubes, filters, brakes, shocks and A/C work. “Heavy stuff,” like linehaul engine and transmission overhaul, is farmed out to trusted service vendors, says Jack Morris, director of maintenance.

No recycled tractors
One thing Morris has learned from experience is to avoid treating his linehaul and city tractors as interchangeable. Many fleets that operate in urban and interstate applications press their older, over-the-road tractors into city service, but Morris has found that practice less than ideal for Oak Harbor.

“Our engines are rated from 410 hp to a modified 470 hp, depending on run and load factor,” Morris says. “They’ve worked well for us, and they deliver over 7 mpg. But we run the linehaul equipment too long and hard for it to be reliable in urban situations. We like to get 800,000 miles out of them. After that, you’re faced with reduced reliability,” he says.

“We’ve found that a big-bore engine that’s been happily running over the road for that long has a tendency to develop chronic head-gasket problems when faced with a stop/go duty cycle.” For that reason, he specs dedicated tractors with 250-hp Cat 3126s for urban work.

Experience has confirmed the wisdom of another spec’ing choice on the city units – Allison MD 3060P automatic transmissions. “Traffic just gets worse and worse every day,” says Morris. “Drivers need to spend as much time as possible with their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. With an automatic, they can focus on conditions around their trucks.

“And automatics are great, maintenance-wise,” Morris adds. In a city application, a clutch is a wear-point – frequent clutch adjustment and replacement are real headaches in terms of cost and downtime. An automatic eliminates them.”

Oak Harbor’s city vehicles accumulate about 400,000 miles before they are traded.

Strong re-tirement program
For a fairly large, diversified fleet, Oak Harbor has a good track record with tires. “We had 41 tire failures last year,” says Morris, “and we expect considerably fewer this year.” He attributes these numbers to rigorous pressure-check and visual-inspection programs. “Ninety percent of our tire failures are due to running them underinflated,” he says. “We insist on pre-trip inspections, and dedicated yard men check the trucks before and after each trip. We even built golf-cart-based yard carts to make the job easier.”

Oak Harbor retreads its tires at least twice and usually three times. The company uses the retreads on drive and trailer positions, but not on steer axles, Morris says. “Incidentally, we match tires on a given axle by manufacturer and by height, not tread depth. We find that we get the best stability and handling that way.”

Morris moves older tires to city units. “We want to be sure they don’t go back into linehaul. And we take them completely out of service after six to seven years, regardless of their apparent condition.”

Location: Auburn, Wash.
Director of maintenance: Jack Morris
Equipment: 134 linehaul power units – mostly Freightliners and Internationals with a 60/40 mix of Caterpillar C-12 and Detroit Diesel Series 60 engines; 220 city tractors; 25 straight trucks; 1,280 van trailers. Linehaul hp: 410-470, City hp: 250
Freight: General commodities
Challenge: Providing near-perfect equipment utilization
Solution: Listening carefully to equipment users and maintainers, conducting failure analysis and making changes slowly and continuously.

In or out?
Oak Harbor maintains its vehicles both in-house and through outsourcing. “We run three shifts at our shops here and in Portland,” says Morris. “Twenty-four hours a day, five days a week.” Morris’s team performs all of Oak Harbor’s preventive maintenance and routine repairs, such as lubes, filters, brakes, shocks and air conditioning.

The “heavy stuff,” such as linehaul engine and transmission overhaul, is farmed out to trusted service vendors. “When I find a vendor I like, we get married,” jokes Morris. “It takes time to build a successful relationship. We’ve made it happen, but it only works if you both start with the same end in mind – quality work at a fair price.”

To make life easier for technicians and to reduce parts inventory, the fleet’s specs are as standard as possible. “I like components to be interchangeable from truck to truck,” says Morris. “If I can’t get a truck with the components I want, I won’t buy it.”

Oak Harbor’s engine-oil changes are done on a monthly basis at between 10,000 and 18,000 miles. That may not seem very venturesome in this age of extended intervals, but “we really don’t have any engine problems,” Morris reasons. “We’re not going to extend that interval, because oil is cheap insurance.” The fleet uses mineral-based engine oil from a single supplier (currently ExxonMobil), and synthetic lubes in its manual transmissions and drive axles. Oil analysis is performed on all vehicles on a regular basis.

Forklift repair is an area where unconventional wisdom has paid off for Oak Harbor. Ferrying equipment from one location to another usually isn’t profitable, Morris acknowledges. “But we bring major forklift work here and to Portland and, if necessary, send a loaner forklift back to the original location. We ferry them to where the expertise is; if needed, we have the ability to remove and replace a 4-cylinder forklift engine in seven hours,” he says.

Failure analysis
Oak Harbor experiences very few equipment failures, Morris says, but the carrier uses failure analysis to learn from the few that do occur. “We have to understand why a failure occurred, or we can’t fix the root cause. Sometimes, it turns out to be a design or build flaw, in which case we work with the manufacturer to correct the problem.”

One particularly hard-to-diagnose problem involved ABS wheel speed sensor failures. “Turns out, the leads were secured together with the brake air lines,” explains Morris. “During their pre-trip inspections, our drivers pump down the brake system, as they should, to make sure the low-pressure warning is working. The expansion of the brake lines under repeated, high-pressure applications caused the tie straps to make very small cuts in the ABS lead insulation, allowing moisture to get in.”

Often, of course, there’s nothing wrong with the equipment – until it’s subjected to improper driving techniques. Morris uses data generated by engine electronic control units to ferret those out. “We watch rpm and vehicle speed very carefully,” he says. “For example, if there’s a time interval where we see 75 mph at 2300 rpm, we know the driver has been overspeeding down a hill in gear. That’s bad, because our engines are programmed to cut fuel above 65 mph, and running the engine at high rpm with no fuel tends to damage injectors.

“Or, we might see that the engine was idling, but vehicle speed was 75 mph. Something doesn’t add up, and we know the driver’s been coasting down a hill. That’s a safety issue.”

But, for all Morris’ high-tech sleuthing and troubleshooting, he’s quick to point out that cost-benefit ideas often come from his people who are close enough to the front lines to see improvement opportunities that might not be obvious to management.

For example, “our people suggested reducing the number of parts vendors we use, and it’s resulted in cost savings, not only on the parts, but on work orders as well. Another suggestion was adding a swing shift to give better coverage and reduced man-hours. That’s why you’ve got to listen,” he emphasizes. “And everyone has to keep the main objective in sight. Our job is to work together with the sales and customer service staffs to meet customers’ needs by keeping clean, dependable trucks available for service.”