The Human Factor: Decides if Improved Fleet Management Techniques Work

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / JSlavy
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / JSlavy

by Paul Hull, Utility Products contributing editor

There are many new, helpful technologies, aren’t there? In one afternoon’s reading, I must have come across dozens of devices that promised they could make utility fleet management more efficient.

If you meet fleet managers in groups such as those who attend the annual show in Williamsburg, Va., you understand what nags me about innovations in fleet management. It’s the people who manage. It’s the people who make the innovations worthwhile.

Few of us understand all the scientific, mathematical and engineering principles that help improve aspects of fleet use such as fuel savings, hydraulic help, engine design, maintenance and troubleshooting. We do know, however, that the people who are expected to use new technologies must understand how to use them. Take something such as procedures for idling the vehicles or raising booms–procedures that can save wear and money if done correctly. A few quick words usually do not achieve the level of success we need, and it’s not sensible to assume an operator can understand anything to do with engines.

New technologies that can improve performance are changes, so the expert on previous techniques might be lost in their operation. Training for the correct use of new technologies for fleet efficiency is necessary. Utility workers are like most people: They are wary of changes until the changes have been proven. One of the dangers is the employee who will not adapt to new methods or equipment, usually because “There is nothing wrong with what we have.” Some people see every change as an insult to their current perfection. And how many operators’ bad habits are laziness or lethargy? The human factor can decide if improved performance techniques work.

Vehicle Selection

Let’s look at vehicles. Have you always bought equipment and vehicles from a certain dealer? Loyalty is a good habit for customers and dealers, but it assumes an established dealer has exactly what you want. At the risk of infuriating those who have had a utility’s business and think that’s how everything should stay forever, we suggest you first determine and write down exactly what is needed to do the job correctly. Then you can see who has it. A favorite dealership could be the first place to see if it can obtain what you want, but be selective. In the business world, to say that a truck is a truck is not true. Many options and components offered in a pickup truck or aerial work truck are available.

If you compare trucks with similar capabilities from different manufacturers, you’ll find there is not much difference. Your favorite dealer’s models might be as good as the other ones across town, give or take a few aspects. I looked, for example, at comparisons for several pickup truck models from different manufacturers. They were all attractive, capable vehicles. The prices were similar. Three had engines a little bigger than the fourth, but there was not much difference in power and torque. The payload of one of the four was considerably greater than the other three, and another one offered a longer bed by nearly 2 feet. The four are all well-made, good performance vehicles with slightly different capacities in some areas. After studying many specs, I concluded there is a truck that will do your jobs for you for a long time. It seems to be less a matter of selecting the outstanding, best-advertised model as selecting the one you like from an array of excellent models.

Power, especially if towing is required, could be a top priority. Full-size and compact trucks have differences in power. A vehicle that is little more than personal transportation for one or two people from one site to another could be a compact model. Compact pickups have shown their worth for towing nonbusiness items such as boats and recreational small trailers, and the towing capabilities of some compact models are impressive–good enough for many utility equipment items. Equipment such as brush chippers, air compressors and skid steers can be hauled by some of the lighter vehicles. Check with manufacturers, but remember: They will quote the best possible towing capabilities. The numbers may vary according to the pickup’s axle ratio, drivetrain, type of trailer hitch and cab and cargo bed style. Regular cab trucks tend to be better than crew cabs and long beds; the difference could be as much as a few hundred pounds. Regarding the hitch, a fifth-wheel hitch in the cargo box will tow more weight than a simple ball hitch by the rear bumper. Chevrolet, Toyota, Nissan and Ford provide good towing with their smaller pickups. You’ll compare those efforts with the full-size strength of other Dodge, Toyota, Chevrolet, GMC and Ford pickups. You might be looking at nearly 20,000 pounds for some of them. Such information is readily available, and it won’t take long to make decisions once you decide what you’re looking for. In the pickup market, changes and updates seem constant. It’s difficult to keep up with enhanced and updated horsepower and torque ratings, so do as much research as possible before purchasing.

Fleet Maintenance

According to many professionals, success in vehicle maintenance depends on preparing a good program and staying with it. Maintenance must be done regularly. To think of maintenance as a negative defeats its purpose; to equate maintenance with repair is just as pointless. Do not delay maintenance until something goes wrong because the biggest savings are probably achieved during preventive maintenance. A well-planned preventive maintenance program can help fleet managers keep vehicle repair costs and downtime to a minimum, but an inefficient, poorly designed program wastes time and money.

Are you tracking the right information carefully to make informed maintenance decisions? Details matter. Simply recording that “front-end work” or “boom fixing” was completed on a vehicle, for example, does not provide enough information to detect failure trends for specific front-end components. As a minimum standard, records should indicate vehicle make and model, date and mileage at service, and services performed to specific components. When you get demands for maintenance between your scheduled maintenance intervals, check unexplained incidents. Look for patterns or trends. If a number of particular failures occur on certain vehicles, see if it is possible to adjust your preventive maintenance program to eliminate those failures in the future. Vehicles are like other manufactured goods used at work, the office or home; some will be more prone to problems with certain systems and components than others. You might need to develop a different preventive maintenance schedule for certain makes and models of vehicles or for those operating in specific applications. Listen to drivers’ and maintenance technicians’ evaluations of their vehicles.

The number of “touches” technicians have on a vehicle is a reliable measure of the efficiency of your preventive maintenance program. Assume a vehicle is scheduled for preventive maintenance three times a year but was serviced six times: the three scheduled services plus three for services such as government-required safety and emissions inspections. Every time a technician touches a vehicle, it costs money and represents possible downtime. On average, every vehicle touch takes a minimum of an hour of labor. Proper planning can minimize these costs.

Maintenance for one vehicle might be too much but not enough for another. There isn’t a magic number of hours or miles for every vehicle. Start a good schedule by going back to the manufacturer’s recommendations for the type of service for which you are using the vehicle. If your preventive maintenance intervals are more frequent than the manufacturer recommends, conduct a lubricant analysis, primarily of engine oil. Also check how much residual lubricant is present in unsealed joints at each service visit. If the oil analysis shows the oil is still good, there is still plenty of lubricant in each joint, and you have a good failure history, you might want to consider extending the service interval by a month and checking the same factors again. It’s a combination of science with trial and error.

Paul Hull is a contributing editor for POWERGRID International magazine’s sister publication Utility Products.

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