A never-ending evolution

Updated Jan 13, 2010

Changing operating profiles and technology – not financial conditions – should lead fleets to revisit their preventive maintenance programs.


Good fleet managers know that adopting a preventive maintenance program and blindly sticking to it forever is a mistake. PM programs are living, breathing things: They must adapt to changing technological demands. New vehicle systems require frequent re-examination and adjustment of PM practices.

Every truck fleet is unique with differing truck brands and models, geographic and environmental factors, and hauling applications that call for customized PM procedures. “Once, PM was thought of as a grease job and an oil change,” says Ken Eggen, vice president of fleet maintenance for Sibley, La.-based Tango Transport. “Now it is much more than that. It is when preventive maintenance is being performed on a tractor or trailer that you have the greatest opportunity to control cost.”

Mike Boarman of D.M. Bowman says that much of today’s equipment is far more advanced than in years past, and therefore the need for PM is greater than ever. “The only way to identify small problems before they become a major problem is to have a disciplined program,” says Boarman, director of maintenance for the Williamsport, Md.-based company.

Handling hidden costs
Cost is the driving factor behind many preventive maintenance programs. “We believe, and the data suggests, that following a structured PM program is critical to avoiding long-term problems with the vehicle and also reducing the amount of breakdowns,” says Michael Brannigan, Ryder System senior vice president and chief of operations for Fleet Management Solutions.

Brannigan says the direct cost of breakdowns is high enough, but the indirect costs of service disruptions that affect a customer’s business may be higher. That’s why Ryder focuses on “PM Currency” and “PM Quality” to avoid breakdowns and unscheduled maintenance that cause disruptions to customers’ business.

R.J. Molder thinks it’s easy to show the value of a PM program. “When you’re repairing something out on the road, it’s much more expensive than repairing it in your own garage,” says Molder, vice president of fleet services for North Canton, Ohio-based Kenan Advantage Group. “Anytime you’re sitting on the road, labor rates increase, and you’re also paying that driver to sit there and watch the technician work on his truck.”

For Molder, there are other inherent advantages to a robust PM program. “In this economy, it’s more important to tighten up our equipment utilization,” he says. “We’ve got to keep the maximum number of loads, per equipment, per driver, on the road. You’re not going to get that if you’re sitting on the side of the road.”

To the extent that some fleets cut back or cut corners on PM programs during touch financial times, those cost-saving efforts may be greatly misguided and counterproductive.

“Preventive maintenance always saves costs when it comes to general operating expenses, but the most dramatic costs tend to show up in terms of emergency and over-the-road repair bills,” says Jack Porter, fleet and service trainer for Decisiv, which supplies service management solutions to fleets, dealers and other service providers. “That’s why people have a tendency to cut back on preventive maintenance when cash gets tight.” Smart fleets only change their PM schedules when there is a fundamental change in their equipment or their operation of that unit, as in the introduction of auxiliary power units or a marked change in oil sample analysis, says Porter, who serves as a benchmarking facilitator for the Truckload Carriers Association.

It’s a sentiment Molder shares. “We’re very lucky at Kenan that our upper management is in tune with what our maintenance goals are,” he says. Those goals include providing drivers with safe equipment and also ensuring it’s safe to operate among the general motoring public. “We put the blinders on when it comes to PM. There is no deviation in our inspection process or anything based on economic conditions. We want a safe vehicle out on the road regardless of what the economy is doing.”

Technology as a driver
To be successful, preventive maintenance programs must be able to absorb new technologies as they enter fleets, and reliable benchmarks for new components must be developed to maintain acceptable equipment uptime levels. Given the array of new systems that have appeared as direct and indirect consequences of the industry’s push to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions regulations in the past decade, fleet managers have kept busy and will remain so as 2010 engines enter fleets.

Glen McDonald, director of maintenance for Memphis, Tenn.-based Ozark Motor Lines, can remember when PM largely meant changing the oil every 15,000 miles and greasing the chassis. “Today, we have better equipment with cleaner engines and extended-life components, and we’ve successfully used new options in oil and filter technology to stretch oil drain intervals out to 60,000 or even 100,000 miles,” McDonald says. “PM programs get a large portion of the credit for those advances.”

Change is perhaps the only constant when it comes to PM, and simple cost-per-mile calculations associated with PM programs often cannot identify evolving technical challenges related to drain intervals and other maintenance practices, says Robert Braswell, technical director for the Technology & Maintenance Council. A prime example came in 2002 with the introduction of EPA-mandated engines with exhaust gas recirculation technology.

“EGR engines in 2002 certainly had everybody revisiting their PM schedules for a variety of reasons – some of them anticipated, some of them not,” Braswell says. Most fleet managers thought oil drain intervals would be shortened after October 2002 because of the increased heat generated by EGR. Fleets already were studying oil drain intervals based on oil sampling – one of TMC’s recommended practices – in order to compare pre-established drain intervals with the condition of oil sampled from EGR engines to determine if they were consistent.

But in some cases, PM intervals changed because fleets found that component life was getting shorter due to higher underhood temperatures, Braswell says. Belt life, which previously lasted 60,000 or 70,000 miles, suddenly decreased to 20,000 or 30,000 miles. A good PM program won’t automatically detect reduced component life, he says. “If you had a maintenance program based on mean time to failure, you would catch that.”

Comparing EGR-model tractors to older ones would tell you the mean time to failure for belts is higher on newer models, as opposed to simply showing that the cost per mile for new tractors has increased, Braswell says. If the acquisition cost for a belt is less, but it fails more frequently than a more durable expensive belt, a fleet isn’t coming out ahead. “You have to factor in things like uptime, vehicle availability and resale values to have an effective PM program,” he says.

In some cases, new technology has proven to be a boost to PM programs. APUs spec’d to comply with anti-idling regulations have had the unintended benefit of increasing engine oil and filter life. “Most fleets with APUs should already be revising their mileage estimates between oil change intervals,” says Porter, who describes the formula as straightforward: If a truck’s idling times have decreased from 40 percent to 10 percent, the fleet should look at increasing that vehicle’s mileage intervals according to its engine hours instead of odometer readings to obtain a comparable replacement point on oil and filters.

APUs also need maintenance, which means integrating their care into the vehicle’s overall PM inspection schedule, Braswell says. “Sometimes they get neglected. Sometimes they’re tied into the main power unit, but other makes have independent cooling systems, which makes them easier to forget about in the grand scheme of things.”

Measuring and managing
Technicians should help identify and address changing technical requirements. “Anybody can grease a truck, but the most important thing about a PM inspection is the inspection itself,” Molder says. “We want intelligent eyes and hands on all areas on the unit. I want somebody who’s out there looking for chaffed air lines or cracked frames or loose bolts – things like that.”

Kenan’s preventive maintenance program focuses on having a trained, skilled technician looking at the unit at the proper interval. “I’m a staunch supporter of manually greasing a truck,” Molder says. “There are a lot of automatic greasing systems out there. But when you’re actually making technicians do it, you know his eyes have been examining the unit.”

Braswell says TMC has learned much from its SuperTech competitions over the past five years. One of the program’s unsung benefits is that it allows participating fleets to see where their technicians taking part in the competition are making mistakes. “One of the biggest areas we’ve identified is in the area of understanding electrical fundamentals,” he says.

Braswell continually is amazed at statistics showing more than 50 percent of electrical components returned as cores to manufacturers, such as alternators and batteries, show no problems when OEMs inspect them prior to being rebuilt. “And that really comes down to the technicians not understanding the proper diagnostic procedures, or not knowing how to use diagnostic tools in a correct way for that procedure,” he says. “There is one major fleet in this competition that took this lesson to heart, and they improved their maintenance program because of it.”

Communication is key, Molder says. “You’ve got to roll up your sleeves, get out of your office and get down on the shop floor, and talk to the guys actually turning the wrenches and find out what they’re seeing.” Molder also has implemented more formal procedures: Regional maintenance supervisors representing each of Kenan’s operating companies report to him regularly, and Kenan also hosts biannual meetings to go over equipment specs, PM schedules and other issues. Participants also make recommendations on tweaking maintenance practices.

Similarly, Ryder also uses an internal tracking system to actively plan and schedule PM on its trucks and trailers by vehicle type and profile across the network. The system also allows Ryder technicians to set lead times based upon date or by mileage accrued. “These tools allow us to drive higher levels of preventive maintenance accuracy to make sure we are getting the required work completed within established lead times,” Brannigan says. Ryder also constantly evaluates fleet performance so that it can modify its PM or general maintenance practices, he says.

“With regards to scope, our overall PM practices have not changed dramatically over the past several years,” Brannigan says. “As the program has matured, we have been able to reduce the number and frequency of PM tasks through comprehensive engineering analysis and ongoing continuous improvement efforts.” From a process standpoint, Ryder also has made minor changes as to how it performs PMs: The company now is reorganizing its PM bays using Lean Six Sigma principles to ensure proper tooling and equipment, as well as the proper layout of the bay itself.

Continuing education
Effectively measuring a preventive maintenance program is crucial to its success, says Braswell, who recommends using Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards, which were developed in conjunction with TMC. Many maintenance software manufacturers and all major OEMs use VMRS to code parts, labor functions and reasons for repair, as well as for failure codes. “You don’t even have to know what VMRS is to use it,” Braswell says. “Many software reports have it imbedded in their systems, and all you know is that you get really good reports out of that off-the-shelf software vendor.”

VMRS allows users to compare vehicles to vehicles, components to components and even technicians to technicians, Braswell says. “That’s a really powerful tool that allows you to assess your overall program and target areas you need to improve upon without being overwhelmed by data, because it’s information you need to affect changes – not just data.”

Braswell also encourages fleet managers to participate in TMC, which can provide resources for small fleets struggling to implement a cohesive PM program, as well as larger fleets with established programs. “We don’t tell you what the intervals are – we give you formulas to determine what they should be for your own applications and fleet.” Braswell says TMC’s Shop Review Practices also provide excellent tools that allow managers to compare their operations with consensus criteria that TMC members have developed based on years of experience and manufacturers’ recommendations.

As 2010 approaches, it’s a sure bet PM programs will begin looking closely at new selective catalytic reduction technology and diesel exhaust fluid storage and delivery systems. At Ozark, McDonald expects to make changes to the program next year to deal with new SCR technology based on Ozark’s experiences three years ago with integrating EGR technology. “We’re not testing any 2010 units and probably will not take delivery of any until April to June of next year,” he says. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Still, McDonald isn’t intimidated by the prospect of new SCR-related PM checks. “EGR is a system, just like SCR will be,” he says. “You add it to the PM checklist, and as you learn more about the characteristics of the system, you adjust your processes.” For trucks with EGR, Ozark initially reduced its oil drain intervals by 5,000 miles. “As we got miles on the trucks and collected data, we have pushed the drains back out, and I suspect we’ll do the same with SCR until we get a handle on it,” McDonald says.