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Four ways a fleet’s C-suite can improve diagnostics efficiency

Nov. 2, 2022
Fleet executives have an abundance of diagnostics data that they can obtain from their vehicles today. Whether and how they choose to act on it will ultimately set them apart.

Fleet executives have an abundance of data at their fingertips every day. Whether and how they choose to act on it, however, will ultimately set them apart from the rest.

In particular, the diagnostics data that fleets can obtain from their vehicles today—from both electronic and mechanical systems—is becoming more critical to maintenance professionals, who, in turn, pass along that information to drivers, load planners, and end customers. That data has become increasingly more valuable amid ongoing supply chain challenges, as dealerships and fleet shops alike are already stretched thin.

Ultimately, the fleets that can obtain fault codes, recognize what the codes mean, and then fix the problems at their home base rather than relying on dealers, who are experiencing longer and longer lead times, are advantaged. That’s at least how Paul Pettit, VP of maintenance at Kansas City-based Riverside Transport Inc., sees it.

“Getting the vehicle back to our shop where we can control the speed to repair and the inventory is critical to us,” he advised. “There is a shortage everywhere, and if we can have the inventory on hand, our techs can diagnose and repair it.”

And in the long run, that process will save fleets time and money. Based on some conversations our Commercial Vehicle Group has had with experts in the industry, we’ve compiled four ways that a fleet’s C-suite can make the most of the diagnostics data available today.

1. Understand the importance of diagnostics to overall operations

As a fleet maintenance leader, Pettit has incorporated diagnostics in his previous work for fleets across the country. Relatively new to Riverside Transport’s operations, Pettit is implementing some best practices in the four shops he oversees between Riverside Transport and its sister company, Little Rock, Arkansas-based Transco Lines.

Overall, Pettit runs a dedicated fleet of about 1,600 tractors and dry van trailers.

“There’s a lot of good data you can get from the diagnostics,” Pettit said. “It allows you to be proactive with a breakdown scenario versus being reactive once the driver is broken down on the side of the road and calling you. It's one of the things that has evolved over the last several years and something all OEMs offer now.”

All too often, however, Pettit has noticed that diagnostics tools are being underutilized by fleets. And that, he believes, could be a costly mistake.

“Use these tools to your advantage to avoid some of the breakdown issues that you can see coming before they end up as long-term breakdowns,” Pettit advised.

It’s worth noting that diagnostics are more important than ever as the number of sensors and electronic connectivity points on vehicles has increased. Brandon Alexander, marketing manager for Thinkcar, has noted that newer vehicles have up to 350 sensors that emit a ton of data to help fleets’ maintenance and repair operations.

Because uptime is critical for fleets, diagnostics have been designed to help technicians analyze and repair equipment faster. Diagnostics also can help fleets track all sorts of vehicle information—from low coolant sensors to different severities of warnings, like “service now” or “service soon,” to help shops streamline efficiencies.

2. Provide dedicated triage areas

When it comes to identifying the root cause of a problem with the vehicle, information from the driver and the vehicle itself is critical. Fleets and service providers today are relying more and more on remote diagnostics technologies to initiate preliminary assessments of vehicles as soon as they arrive at the shop.

In turn, effective triage processes are the foundation of efficient maintenance service practices. By quickly determining a vehicle’s needs or the reason for an issue, shop throughput is enhanced, downtime is minimized. The key is in knowing all the information that is available to service personnel and, if possible, setting up triage bays.

At Riverside Transport, Pettit has set up a quick-repair bay, so when a truck comes in, he and his team could pull fault codes quickly and begin to diagnose the problem. If it’s a quick repair, Pettit strives to have the repair done within an hour or less to get the truck and driver back on the road. For repairs that will take longer, the maintenance team will begin looking for a loaner truck to get the driver back on the road.

“You can alert the planner to get their loads covered and start doing some other tasks in line with the down truck,” Pettit explained. “But it all starts with that first triage and first pulling of the diagnostics, looking at the fault codes, and then truly understanding what kind of a scenario you are up against.”

“I’ve worked with folks in the past that have prioritized their workload on a first-come, first-served basis, and I just don’t believe that is the right way to look at fleet maintenance,” Pettit advised. “You must have some priorities set as far as drivers waiting and folks with loads. That’s something I would always recommend—having the ability to get those folks back on the road as quickly as possible.”

Pettit emphasized the importance of putting long repairs in a certain area of the shop and having technicians designated strictly to quick repairs in another area, so drivers with trucks that might have a 15-minute repair aren’t stuck behind others that will take hours.

“It just helps prioritize and get those drivers back on the road,” he explained. “It can help reduce your driver frustration and turnover and help increase the utilization of the equipment. I think there is some older methodology in our industry that is outdated. You show up first and they put you in line—you may be behind four or five trucks that have several-hour repairs. That is not the way I recommend running shops.”

That old-school mentality, Pettit noted, could spark frustration across the board as it undermines the component of teamwork between a fleet’s maintenance operations and drivers.  

“Our job is to help support drivers and provide a solid piece of equipment that will help them run as many miles as they can,” Pettit stressed. “If we are holding them up because of a lack of efficiency on our side, it can cause some frustration among the drivers and the shop.”

3. Invest in training

Ongoing technician training is key to commercial vehicle diagnostics. To interpret today’s diagnostics data, technicians must understand what it all means while having a strategy in place to actually interpret the information.

One best practice for interpreting the information, according to Pettit, is partnering with truck and trailer OEMs and component suppliers to have ample dealer-level, or as close to it as possible, technician training for fleet maintenance shops. That, he added, will help fleets save on expenses over time.

“Speed to repair can help improve your driver satisfaction, you can improve your customer-service scorecard, you can improve your vehicle utilization, and you can reduce that downtime and get those trucks back on the road,” Pettit said.

Pettit also uses an internal scoring system to measure OEM against OEM, repair order counts, days down, parts inventory, etc. “In the long run, we know who to partner with because there is definitely a cost for down days of equipment,” he said.

Part of Riverside’s training process is keeping telematics subscriptions and designating one or two technicians to watch fault codes.

“If you don’t have somebody watching that data and don’t have somebody acting on it, first of all, it’s a waste of money on the front end, and you’re missing excellent opportunities to act on that stuff in advance,” Pettit said.

4. Invest in tools

Tools are a fundamental piece of initiating a quick and efficient shop operation. According to Jennifer Grabowski, product manager at Bosch Automotive Service Solutions, a battery tester and a diagnostic code reader are essential tools for any heavy-duty shop.

“Before starting a diagnostic scan of the vehicle, a battery tester should be used to test the state of health and state of charge percentage of the battery,” Grabowski related. “It’s important to make sure the battery is properly charged before using a diagnostic tool, as a low battery can generate erroneous trouble codes during a diagnostic scan.”

One tool that can help lower a fleet’s total cost of ownership is a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), particularly as tires continue to rank high on the list of a fleet’s top operating costs. Investing in tire-monitoring tools can help fleets and their drivers make the most of the equipment they have and help them identify a problem tire and get ahead of repairs before a failure occurs.

Using TPMS during pre-trip tire inspections and post-trip analysis will significantly decrease the likelihood of having a tire-related roadside call, allowing for greater utilization of driver’s hours of service, explained Craig Smith, marketing manager for Pressure Systems International. Since most TPMS sensors also report temperature, brake issues can also be detected and addressed.

“Common situations of blown tires or wheel-end thermal events are safety related for both the driver and other drivers on the road,” Smith advised. “Avoiding them is an obvious benefit to the driver and the fleet. However, adding a TPMS is just one part of the solution, as the driver still needs to diagnose and react.” 

Having this data monitored remotely by fleet operations departments allows the driver to focus on driving with fewer distractions, Smith added.

“Drivers and fleets will also benefit by remotely checking the health of vehicles and avoid assigning them to equipment in need of maintenance, and make sure the asset is ready to hit the road before the driver even steps into the cab,” he said. 

For any maintenance event, having access to the right repair information, tools, and technician training will lead to better repair plans and efficiency. And the earlier that fleets can leverage the data they have on hand to begin diagnostic procedures and decision-making processes, the better off they’ll be.

This article originally appeared on FleetOwner.com.

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore is the Executive Editor of FleetOwner magazine. She has reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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