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Excessive downtime is an old problem. There’s no changing the fact that when a truck is out of service, employees can’t work. The results are far too familiar to fleet managers: delayed progress on jobs, customer dissatisfaction, and dollars lost. Fortunately, innovative fleet managers are tackling the old problem of downtime with some innovative techniques — and keeping their trucks on the road.

Watch the Downtime Clock

Perhaps the simplest way to reduce downtime is to tailor the downtime standard against each customer’s requirements.

“The downtime clock for the police department (24/7) will be different from public works, which may operate a 40 hour per week schedule,” said Bob Stanton, recently retired fleet manager for the City of San Antonio. “Make sure the downtime being measured is reflective of the duty cycles for each customer.”

Likewise, scheduling maintenance and repairs during off hours is an easy way to eliminate downtime.

Stanton also suggested fleets properly measure downtime by only looking at the factors the fleet controls.

“Fleets should assure the downtime being measured is downtime under the control of the fleet,” he said. “Fleet doesn’t control, nor should its downtime measure include, downtime related to accidents, abuse, or other outside factors.”

Promote Customer Accountability

The flip side of measuring only the downtime fleet controls is being able to hold customers accountable for that downtime. The more customers care for the trucks they drive, the more likely they’ll be to continue to operate them properly and avoid trips to the repair shop.

To promote customer accountability, Stanton suggested fostering a partnership with them and working together to reduce downtime.

“Customers must be as invested in downtime reduction as fleet; it’s too easy to ‘blame’ fleet. When customers understand and partner with fleet in downtime reduction efforts, they will assure drivers exercise due care in vehicle operations, perform a proper pre- and post-trip inspection, and present their vehicles to fleet for scheduled service, downtime can be significantly reduced,” he said. “Driver accountability is a key factor that many customers ignore, unfortunately.”

Stanton said downtime is never a one-way street, but rather a shared responsibility.

“When the fleet and the customer understand this shared responsibility they will both work together to assure downtime is minimized as they both recognize the potential rewards in doing so,” he said.

Use the Right Vehicle for the Right Job

Another way to prevent repairs is proper vehicle selection. Overtaxing trucks can lead to downtime fast, which is why choosing the right truck for the right job is so important. Without proper payload and GVW for the job, the result is excessive breakdowns and downtime due to repairs to engines, transmissions, tires, springs, brakes, and more.

Anthony Foster, corporate fleet manager for Pioneer Natural Resources, put it this way: “Would you ride on an elevator with a 4,000-pound capacity if it had 6,000 pounds of people on it? We all know eventually that elevator is going to break. So, where the accountant’s perspective may be to buy a less expensive truck with a lower payload and GVW than is needed, in the long run, that improper vehicle choice will cost you more because of downtime.”

To secure the right fleet vehicle, the fleet manager must be able to communicate effectively.

“It is critical for the fleet manager to have an effective communication method or tool to ensure proper vehicle selection,” Foster said. “Pioneer has accomplished this by creating a ‘Vehicle Request’ form and a ‘Specialty Body Request’ form, which shows payload availability with catalogs for each potential option to ensure proper GVW and maximum payload capacity.”

Foster said the first consideration for vehicle selection is deciding what vehicle manufacturers meet the bulk of the fleet’s requirements, including function, durability, availability, and cost considerations.

Next, Foster suggested reviewing what vehicles can be utilized by function rather than status.

“For Pioneer, we’ve been able to utilize two basic vehicle specifications (Ford F-150 Crew Cab and F-250 Super Cab) for 80 percent of requests for our light-duty fleet,” he explained. “Of course, heavy-duty has a variety of job function requirements; however, we’re able to leverage through a single manufacturer (Peterbilt), which helps us better understand possible downtime for each vehicle.”

Be Proactive About Service

Just as proper vehicle selection prevents trucks from going down in the first place, so does regular preventive maintenance. However, maintenance takes trucks out of service — and the problem of downtime resurfaces.

But, fleets can be smarter about the way they handle service, said Foster. First, identify when services are due and get them all done at once — as well as any other needed repairs, he said. Second, use a shop that offers a wide range of capabilities so all services can be handled in one stop.

“If you have a window that won’t roll up and down, and you need an oil change, go to an establishment where you can get the oil changed and the window fixed,” Foster suggested. “Lumping services together will reduce your downtime.”

Minimize Shop Time

Of course, keeping up on routine maintenance services won’t always prevent vehicles from going down. So, when the inevitable happens, getting trucks in and out of the shop in record time is key. 

For fleets with their own maintenance facilities, Stanton suggested several strategies to increase throughput in the shop:

  • Make sure parts are always available.
  • Refine the repair order process to eliminate wasted steps.
  • Work after hours so repairs are performed when vehicles aren’t needed.
  • Partner with vendors with effective contracts that reward and penalize performance and quality.

The more streamlined the repair process, the faster trucks get back on the road.

Pay Extra for Parts & Repairs – and Save Money?

Minimizing shop time is different for fleets that rely on third-party repair shops and don’t have control over parts availability. But, when these fleets leverage a portion of the funds that would be lost due to downtime, they can regain this control.

As Foster noted, “If you can’t prevent downtime, attack it.”

The costs of downtime will be different for every fleet, but in the oil field industry, the cost of an out-of-service truck is frequently greater than the purchase price of a new one. So, when parts aren’t available or a repair shop has a backlog, Foster attacks.

If too many vehicles are in the repair line ahead of his trucks, he offers to pay double for labor. If the shop won’t negotiate, he finds a shop that will and has the truck towed there.

In another instance, one of Foster’s diesel trucks with a utility bed and crane suffered major engine failure. Because the truck was needed desperately in the field, Foster had to act fast to get it back in action.

Even though the truck was under warranty, a dispute with the manufacturer prevented quick engine replacement. So, he acted.

“I went ahead and paid for the engine and finished the paperwork later — that way the truck wasn’t sitting there while the challenge was resolved,” he said. “I had the engine overnighted and paid extra to get it done within three days.”

Had Foster outsourced the work to another hired truck, it would have cost $1,200 an hour — much more than to expedite the repair.

Foster encountered a similarly costly situation during his time with Cox Communications. A production truck out on the road was inoperable due to malfunctioning brake lights and switches, but the part to fix it was unavailable. With the risk of missing out on $1 million to $2 million of production a day, Foster hired a tow truck and towed the truck around the state so it could continue to broadcast.

“It cost $10,000 in tow costs, but that was $7 million dollars in production that would have been lost. It would be crazy to say I couldn’t get the job done because I couldn’t get a $26 part,” he said.

Whether the costs of downtime are major or minor, when fleets know the true costs of their downtime, they know how much leverage they have to negotiate.

“When a truck goes down, a lot of people just say put them in a spare vehicle,” Foster said. “What’s the cost of that vehicle? It’s usually more than what it takes to expedite a repair.”

Know When the Wheels Fall Off

Sometimes reducing downtime is all about knowing when to say goodbye. Foster encourages fleets to ask a key question: When does it make financial sense to turn in the vehicle before excessive repairs become necessary?

“Knowing your lifecycle cost is key. As we like to say in the oil field industry, ‘when do the wheels fall off?’ ” he said. “For instance, we have found our optimal replacement time is at 90,000 miles for super-duty trucks. Beyond that, there are more frequent downtime occurrences. By having this criterion, you’re able to remove a problem before it actually occurs.”

At higher mileage and age, trucks are more likely to go down, and repair time often goes up, keeping units off the road for longer and more frequent intervals — with less work getting done.

“I look at it this way: When your vehicle is down, it’s no different than if I shut the door to your office and don’t let you in. If that happens, you’re not going to be very productive,” Foster said.

Get the Foundation Right

Overall, a solid foundation is key to reducing downtime. With proper vehicle selection, downtime measurement, and lifecycle and repair strategies on hand, fleets set the course for less downtime — and are better prepared to act when downtime occurs.

Foster put it this way: “If you don’t get the foundation right, you’re always going to be in downtime mode.” 

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