As construction fleets continue to face serious operational obstacles as demand outpaces supply, fleet managers must overcome equipment and labor availability shortages, rising material costs, and keeping workers happy and healthy during a global pandemic.
Three construction companies recently spoke with Work Truck magazine about successfully tackling serious fleet management challenges, plus two industry vendors revealed top industry roadblocks and how technology can help.
Granite Construction Updates Capex Cycle to Mitigate Supply Shortages
According to Chris Wolfe, vice president of equipment operations at Granite Construction Inc., headquartered in Watsonville, California, today’s top construction fleet management challenge is related to the supply chain, which could also be tied to labor shortages.
“We are finding that most OEMs are experiencing a delay in delivering new products, fleet pickup trucks being one of the most difficult at the moment,” he said. “This kind of delay naturally impacts our ability to obtain replacement parts on time, and we are seeing consistent delays in all areas.”
Wolfe manages a fleet of about 4,700 vehicles, with 2,700 pickups and cars and 2,000 trucks Class 3 through 8.
When demand outpaces supply, Granite’s immediate solution is usually renting. But since rental trucks have been challenging to come by, the company has successfully anticipated the percentage of additional vehicles it will need outside of its scheduled capital expenditure (capex) cycle and then ordered them during the capex cycle.
“We have substantial, large projects that are awarded and begin after our annual capex purchases, leaving very little lead time in the startup of those projects, so we never have a problem finding homes for those additional vehicles we order,” Wolfe said.
During the pandemic, some of the company’s employees worked under challenging conditions, further hampered by COVID-19 safety protocols.
“The pandemic taught us that our Granite teams are extremely resilient and have risen to the challenge to get the work done despite the COVID protocols,” Wolfe stated.
Much of the burden during the pandemic has been shouldered by the company’s mechanics and craft employees, who often worked in 100 degree-plus weather while wearing masks.
“Those folks deserve a medal for all they have adapted to and overcome,” Wolfe added.
Granite’s operational culture includes a robust safety program that focuses on employee well-being, including pre-shift and mid-shift safety discussions. There are also individual check-ins with employees to make sure they keep out of harm’s way in all environments they work in.
Other strategies Wolfe has employed to overcome supply chain issues include regularly communicating with suppliers, looking for creative acquisition strategies, temporarily extending vehicle life cycles, and communicating with operations about delays and other roadblocks.
“These challenges come in waves, and we all learn something during them that improves what we do in normal times,” Wolfe said.
Ram Tool Relies on Strategic Planning, Communications to Overcome Obstacles
Ram Tool Construction Supply Co., headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, has also faced severe challenges during the pandemic, including a lack of available new vehicles and replacement units. The company operates 850 Class 2–6 vehicles, 145 forklifts, and 30 trailers.
“It is a challenge to supply the fleet with trucks promptly,” said Sandra Martin, corporate fleet manager at Ram Tool.
Other significant challenges include driver shortages and increased demand for products and delivery. Because Ram Tool never closed during the pandemic, it continued to need vendors to satisfy its product and delivery needs.
“Compliance on mandated healthy practices during the pandemic is a challenge as well. Keeping all of our employees safe and happy is our number one goal,” Martin stated.
As a best practice, Martin uses short- and long-term strategic planning — focusing on adaptability to unpredictable circumstances — to alleviate many of the problems Ram Tool’s fleet has faced. She also employs clear and concise communication with vendors, laying out expectations, and builds a support network needed in all areas of fleet.
“Vendors that have bought into your goals are willing to accept the job and make a strategic partnership rather than just a buy-sell relationship,” she said.
The company has also faced supply chain issues and logistical roadblocks involving on-time product delivery to Ram Tool during the past couple of years.
“Forty-five ships with over 14,000 cargo containers are bottlenecked in the Port of Long Beach at this time. Many of those containers have items such as forklifts and critical products that we ordered in January,” Martin stated.
Plus, Ram Tool has faced technician shortages, altered predictive maintenance, and an inability of manufacturers to meet expectations on new orders and parts backorders.
“Tags are delayed in every state where we have new vehicles ordered. Some are still four months out on hard plates. This keeps the fleet department busy getting temporary plates over and over,” Martin added.
The primary strategy to overcoming these obstacles, according to Martin, is being adaptable and implementing the right protocols to support operational goals while managing the uncertainties of day-to-day operation in an unpredictable environment.
Martin has three words of parting advice for fleet managers: “Adapt and overcome!”
Vallencourt Construction Focuses on Asset Health
Vallencourt Construction, headquartered in Green Cove Springs, Florida, has seen the supply of products and availability of the worker pool go down while demand goes up during the pandemic.
“This has been a unique economic situation,” said Daniel Vallencourt, the company’s vice president. “We’ve experienced over 25% growth, and it has been extremely challenging to find men, women, machines, and trucks.”
While the pandemic has been the primary driver of these issues, continued government spending has caused a significant amount of inflation, according to Vallencourt.
“Couple the inflation with supply issues, and you get massive increases in prices,” he stated.
The company, which operates 140 vehicles, including pickups, and 400 pieces of heavy equipment, has been focusing heavily on “asset health,” including its employees and equipment.
Vallencourt works with Samsara, which provides internet-connected sensor systems to monitor its assets, including both vehicles and drivers. The company installed dash cameras in its vehicles more than three years ago, and a GPS feature allows the fleet to track driver location, speed, and potential safety-related incidents. Alerts are sent when the system detects events such as harsh braking, turns, and acceleration.
Throughout the pandemic, these tools have helped Vallencourt focus on driver training, which in turn helps increase driver engagement, improve safety, and minimize accidents and maintenance costs.
“Samsara has revolutionized our on-road vehicle safety. I don’t want to jinx it, but we have seen a massive reduction in traffic accidents,” Vallencourt said.
The tools inform management which drivers are the best and need more training, and the cameras have saved the company from frivolous lawsuits that would typically have to be settled if they didn’t have video evidence.
Vallencourt advised fleets to invest in these types of tools to maximize fleet operations and driver safety.
“If you don’t know where you are, how can you know what direction to take?,” he stated, adding fleets should start by evaluating the current situation and then look for tools to help implement and improve changes made.
Fleets Don’t Need to Go it Alone, IntelliShift Can Help
The vendor/fleet relationship is vital in helping fleets manage operations and safety issues during the pandemic. The construction industry has been hit especially hard, according to John Carione, vice president of marketing at fleet solutions company IntelliShift.
“As a result of the costly and unpredictable pandemic, the construction industry faces a new set of challenges,” Carione said. “Fleet managers are in an increasingly critical role, working to figure out how to do more with less by prioritizing their maintenance efforts and putting their dollars where they will be most effective.”
Fleet maintenance is especially critical due to fewer available vehicles and drivers, as well as health restrictions prohibiting managers and employees from conducting business as usual, Carione added.
“As we saw last spring and summer, demand for drivers dropped drastically due to temporary construction project shutdowns, and many drivers and operators — from an already slim pool of skilled workers — sought out other more stable work or decided to leave the industry altogether,” he said. “In fact, in April 2020, trucking lost 88,300 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
IntelliShift’s customers saw a 10-15% drop in vehicles, and overall utilization declined by 25%. As cities reopen, demand is quickly rising without the workforce there to fill the jobs, according to Carione.
“This creates a driver shortage not only for the fleets but also for the right vehicles due to chip shortages, etc.,” he added.
Fleets don’t need to struggle to overcome these challenges alone. Intelligent fleet and safety management solutions can help fleets manage asset shortages. This type of technology gives fleet managers the ability to do more with less and create an efficient business model, according to Carione.
“Fleet managers need to have access to real-time location and health of construction fleet and equipment, as well as data about their workforce, so they can make smarter decisions to manage costs and grow the business,” he stated.
There are several ways technology can help overcome the current challenges construction fleet managers face, according to Carione, including:
- Reducing IT spend by combining fleet telematics and asset tracking with compliance, safety, maintenance, fuel management, and routing to enable more efficient operations.
- Optimizing the dispatch of assets by verifying the actual location and availability of fleet vehicles and assets so they can be moved to new job sites with confidence.
- Gaining real-time visibility into the location of construction fleet and equipment, as well as using geofencing and non-powered asset tracking to prevent theft and unauthorized usage of high-value assets.
- Extending the life of fleet and assets by automatically scheduling preventative maintenance when an operator flags an issue. This helps reduce fleet and equipment downtime, as well as the total cost of ownership.
- Reducing risk and improving compliance by maintaining total compliance with solutions for hours of service (ELD) and completing digital inspections for vehicles, assets, job sites, and more.
Moving forward, Carione advised fleets to take a step back and reevaluate current operations to determine if they are using their current set of tools most efficiently.
“With the right technology, fleet managers and operators can capture, analyze, and transform data from equipment and assets and refine and iterate business processes every day to help lower costs,” he stated. “With the evolving pandemic, it’s important to not only know the location and productivity of your high-demand assets, but also to create an efficient, flexible business model that improves your bottom line.”
Another factor to keep in mind is the constantly changing rules and regulations in the construction industry, making it difficult for fleet managers to plan for the future when demand is unpredictable.
“Even so, operational delays will no longer be acceptable, so fleet managers must be able to improve efficiency to meet timelines and remain competitive,” Carione said. “Additionally, there will be increased importance of having all reporting digital and accessible in a single platform so compliance reports can be generated at the push of a button.”
These strategies will help keep businesses agile in a changing environment versus spending valuable operational time tracking down information and manually creating required reports, according to Carione.
Trux Underscores Technology Benefits for Fleets
Trux works with fleets to implement logistics software, including GPS tracking and back-office tools.
Bart Ronan, chief executive officer of Trux, has seen fleets struggle throughout the pandemic, including finding skilled drivers and rising labor costs.
“Construction fleets are seeing quite a few challenges, all while trying to meet the increased demand that comes with the current backlog of work being completed across the country,” he said. “These challenges will only be heightened by the additional money that will flow into the industry through the infrastructure bill. Additionally, this past year, in many ways, expedited eTicketing in the industry.”
While regulations and guidelines are currently handled on a state-by-state basis, some states are farther ahead than others, making it tough for fleets to know what is required in their state and how to meet those new requirements, according to Ronan.
When Trux talks with fleets about day-to-day operational challenges, they primarily hear about five recurring challenges:
- Dispatching and communication challenges.
- Lack of visibility.
- Asset utilization concerns.
- A lack of a single source of truth for ticketing/load slips.
- Inefficient invoicing processes.
“Fleet owners and managers had to get creative in how they manage their fleet. Digital tools have made it possible to dispatch from anywhere. eTicketing has become more widespread, even on smaller projects,” Ronan stated. “And fleets, in many cases, are still struggling to digest and interpret ongoing eTicketing requirements.”
To meet current challenges and prepare for projects that the infrastructure bill will generate, Ronan urged fleets to leverage technology. This includes logistics platforms that help fleets streamline communication, gain real-time visibility, get more out of their assets, create a single source of truth for project information (like units/tons delivered), and streamline back-office processes.
“Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. If there was ever a time to think about adopting technology, it’s now,” he said. “Digital tools can help organize your team, even if they can’t always be in the same room.”
Assessing available technology doesn’t need to be difficult, according to Ronan, even during a pandemic. In fact, he thinks now is the best time to evaluate and implement new tools, especially since the infrastructure bill is set to bring a lot of extra funds into the industry.
“Finding the right tool to meet your specific needs is critical. Not all technology is equal, and there are endless options,” he said. “Be sure to talk with your team, find your pain points, and make sure the solutions you evaluate are built for [your specific needs]. Choosing the right technology partner can help you achieve your operational goals and provide you with ongoing support.”