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Riding the storm out

June 25, 2021
The varied ways fleets are managing maintenance practices in the wake of the recent health crisis.

Trucking relies heavily on economic forecasts to make decisions and figure out what's coming next. This evaluation allows for future business planning, including plans for the maintenance department. But what happens when something unexpected and unprecedented impacts the entire world?

As an essential business, even while the world changes and fleet operations adjust, fleets need to remain operational to remain viable.

Talking with fleets in different segments of the industry, it is safe to say there is no clear standard for how the current state of global affairs has impacted their maintenance departments and business overall.

From proactive to reactive

“With truckload, we expect the financial impact to have a negative domino effect for months to come,” says Jarit Cornelius, vice president, asset maintenance and compliance at Sharp Transport. “Because of this, we have had to rely on all of our department heads to really think outside the box and find a way to shrink expenditures, but still be able to take care of business.”

Cornelius mentions their fleet has been reevaluating a number of maintenance processes to adjust spending – at least in the short term – such as assessing inventory purchases, adjusting technician hours, extending oil drain intervals where possible, and more readily filing and managing warranties.

“From maintenance alone, we've put all of this effort into proactive practices over the years, and now we're having to tell everyone, if it doesn't absolutely need it, don't buy it,” Cornelius says. “We have a tire program that means certain tires get pulled at a certain tread depth in order to salvage casing conditions and have it repurposed for another application.”

For the short term, Cornelius advises the fleet has lowered the company’s tread depth threshold to extend tire life — still above U.S. DOT requirements, of course.

Since there is no playbook for how to manage a business through a pandemic, Cornelius says the fleet has taken more of a reactive approach for implementing some solutions like those mentioned above – compared to their traditional proactive maintenance approach – to work through challenges. Driver input has been critical, Cornelius adds, to understand what’s happening on the road and what drivers are hearing, compared to what the fleet is managing internally.

No downshift, but changes

Others I’ve talked with have not seen a significant change in the way their fleets manage maintenance processes or spending.

“We are always evaluating our costs and identifying new opportunities to be more efficient and have continued that plan throughout this crisis,” says Chris McQuillen at Hirschbach Motor Lines.

He advises the fleet has managed a shift in types of hauls but has not seen a drop in overall business.

Operations and spending have not slowed down for Griffin Pavement Striping either, says their Fleet Manager Eric Moore. He confirms planned road and construction projects have continued as scheduled and have sometimes been able to get ahead of schedule due to less vehicle traffic interference.

The fleet has implemented additional safety measures in order to allow drivers and personnel to remain socially distanced. This has caused some adjustments in vehicle service since more vehicles are out on the road at a given time.

“We’ve had increased fuel costs, maintenance needs, and equipment failures due to our team members driving separate vehicles to each project so that we comply with social distancing requirements,” Moore says.

As it relates to managing vehicles out of service, Moore has worked with other departments to create a schedule to accommodate increased vehicle needs from project to project.

Moore anticipates the rise in vehicle use may very well increase the frequency of maintenance intervals in the future.

Other fleets have taken this time to adjust their maintenance approach depending on the status of the business segments they’re serving. Bryan Stewart, director of maintenance for Jones Logistics, confirms their maintenance department has stayed busy. For the business segments that have seen an increase, Jones Logistics maintenance department has seen a subsequent uptick in workload. For the business segments that have slowed, the maintenance team has spent that extra downtime scheduling additional equipment inspections and preventive service.

“During this time, we have really had a chance to look at equipment and find and fix issues that could become problems later down the road,” Stewart says. “It is not often you get to keep equipment in your shop all day and go over it without [operations] needing it. I feel that in the long run what we have learned during this time will save us money in the future.”

Reader feedback

“It has been so difficult to put definitive measures in place with updates on COVID-19 changing on a daily basis,” Cornelius says. “All of that being said, I've never been more proud of this entire organization. The way we all rolled up our sleeves and just dealt with the punches as they came across has been so reassuring that we have the best team in the business. Everyone from the driver’s seat to CEO has gone above and beyond.”

I am interested to hear from more fleets to understand how you’re weathering the storm. What practices have you implemented or removed from your regular maintenance processes – if any – to help address the current challenges?

About the Author

Erica Schueller | Media Relations Manager | Navistar

Erica Schueller is the Media Relations Manager for Navistar.

Before joining Navistar, Schueller served as Editorial Director of the Endeavor Commercial Vehicle Group. The commercial vehicle group includes the following brands: American Trucker, Bulk Transporter, Fleet Maintenance, FleetOwner, Refrigerated Transporter, and Trailer/Body Builders brands.

An award-winning journalist, Schueller has reported and written about the vehicle maintenance and repair industry her entire career. She has received accolades for her reporting and editing in the commercial and automotive vehicle fields by the Truck Writers of North America (TWNA), the International Automotive Media Competition (IAMC), the Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Azbee Awards.

Schueller has received recognition among her publishing industry peers as a recipient of the 2014 Folio Top Women in Media Rising Stars award, acknowledging her accomplishments of digital content management and assistance with improving the print and digital products in the Vehicle Repair Group. She was also named one Women in Trucking’s 2018 Top Women in Transportation to Watch.

She is an active member of a number of industry groups, including the American Trucking Associations' (ATA) Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC),  the Auto Care Association's Young Auto Care Networking Group, GenNext, and Women in Trucking.

In December 2018, Schueller graduated at the top of her class from the Waukesha County Technical College's 10-week professional truck driving program, earning her Class A commercial driver's license (CDL).  

She has worked in the vehicle repair and maintenance industry since 2008.

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