Zen And The Art Of Fleet Maintenance

Experienced fleet managers can save 10 percent to 20 percent in maintenance costs - depending on their operation's condition - if they devote just 20 percent of their time on analysis and long-term planning.

Although many fleet managers who advance to higher positions are strong on buying, repairing and selling equipment, they are weak in analysis and long-range planning - the functions that give their companies the competitive edge.

Analysis and long-term planning particularly are important when determining fleet size - a well-known factor in lowering transportation costs.

One way to help optimize fleet size is to change shop hours.

For example, if all your mechanics worked only day shifts, every truck serviced is one less truck out on the road. To complete your routes, you must use spares, which often are the oldest and least reliable vehicles in your fleet. Spares also are the costliest to maintain, yet you have to keep them ready for use when newer trucks are being serviced.

Switching your mechanics to evening/night shifts should allow you to get rid of most of the reserve trucks, thus slashing maintenance costs and reducing the fleet size without affecting customer service. While this move likely will lower employee morale temporarily, in the long run, it could save jobs.

The High-Tech, Intuitive Fleet The meaning of the acronym "PM" is evolving. Originally meaning "preventive maintenance," now, many fleet managers are using the initials to stand for the latest buzz word, "predictive maintenance." Accurately predicting maintenance needs allows managers to extend inspection schedules without increasing breakdowns.

To accomplish this, however, various data must be compiled - an effort that can become cumbersome and time-consuming. Installing two computers behind each driver's seat to monitor driver activity and vehicle operations is one solution.

Additionally, a keypad could be wired inside the vehicle cab to allow drivers to record non-monitored systems that require maintenance or repair, such as broken mirrors.

Computer-compiled information paid off right away for Los Angeles-based McKesson Water Products whose system recorded as many as 390 openings/closings on trucks in one of its locations - a figure substantially higher than the company's standard estimate of 200 to 250 per day.

Using this information and the manufacturer's design limits for brass door hinge bushings, the fleet manager, Roger Weaver, was able to predict when the bushings would fail and then scheduled them to be replaced before they broke.

Most managers believe that fleets cannot be managed successfully without a computerized equipment maintenance management program - which can cost $1,200 per truck - and they're correct. With today's technologically-advanced equipment, shortages of "good" technicians and the outpouring of regulations, these programs are a must for any fleet using more than five trucks.

Reports from these systems can be used for spec'ing the proper vehicles, developing and policing maintenance procedures and determining necessary training. Other operational data that computers can monitor include oil and water temperatures, rpms and number of times the starter is engaged. This data can help technicians predict failure and schedule repairs to be completed beforehand so as not to pull trucks off their routes.

Placing bar code readers in the shop lets mechanics log when each work order is started, record the amount of time needed and compare his hours to the average timeframe. Using such data, a manager can determine which mechanics are taking too long to complete a task and can bring them up to speed through training or with new tools.

Barcode readers also can be used to track parts charged to a job and report vendors, warranties and inventory.

Don't forget that efficient, timely preventative maintenance also will reduce component repair costs. Since the procedures and individual tasks within an inspection are well-known to supervisors and mechanics, make sure everything gets completed on each inspection and that inspections are performed at proper intervals.

Personnel Management Employees rank as the highest single maintenance cost. Shift staffing levels and work scheduling must be set properly and reviewed continually.

Since operations constantly are in flux, the number of vehicles in and out of a terminal or material recovery facility (MRF) must be monitored so the service load for each shift can be adjusted properly.

A fleet manager's success depends on people. Since shop productivity flows down to, not up from, the shop floor, supervisors on different shifts and in various departments must have supervisory skills. When managing a fleet maintenance staff, managers and supervisors should:

* Select, screen, train and then reevaluate technicians on the job before they become permanent employees. Remember that all-purpose mechanics generally have different strengths and weaknesses.

For example, some top-rated diesel engine mechanics may never get the knack of successfully troubleshooting electrical problems. Use their strengths.

* Encourage communication between management and mechanics.

* Assess the number of diagnostic instruments, tools and shop equipment to be proportionate to the employee number and the work performed. An out-of-balance relationship kills productivity.

* Establish proper relationships. Is the maintenance department's relationship with other departments conducive to maximum cooperation?

* Consider employee training a "cost of doing business." With changes in personnel and equipment, training should be on-going.

Virtually all suppliers have programs available that can be of great assistance, and some shops have a formal practice of matching new mechanics with experienced mechanics several hours a day or on specific repair jobs - often to the benefit of both.

* Maintain parts inventory levels at the proper relationship of units to dollars. How often particular parts are used, the full cost of carrying an inventory and same-day availability are all factors to consider when deciding how much inventory to carry.