"POOR maintenance is a cancer that eats away at a truck fleet," says Filiberto Cano. "By the time it's clear that there is a crisis, it's too late."
Cano, operations manager at Transportes Minerva SA, compares the tank truck carrier's preventive maintenance program to aggressive cancer prevention. "Our objective is to catch small problems immediately and make sure that they never have a chance to become big ones," he says.
This philosophy of rapid problem resolution permeates all levels of the Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico-based bulk edibles hauler and is a key component of its quality program. Quality got an extra boost in December 1999 when the carrier received ISO 9002 certification.
The quality focus, along with hard work and determination, has taken the tank truck carrier well beyond its origins. The trucking company got its start in 1964 as Fletes Mosa, a sister company of corn sweetener processor Arancia.
After the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began opening up the markets in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, Arancia established a joint venture with US-based Corn Products International Inc. In October 1997, the truck fleet was spun off and was renamed Transportes Minerva.
"The name was changed to give the company a fresh identity, the management team was changed, and the operation was thoroughly restructured," says Miguel N Cuadros Martinez, director general. "Our objective now is to improve and grow."
Varied Fleet Tanks were a part of the operation from the start, but the company also ran platforms and jaulas - open-top, stake-side trailers that are popular in Mexico. The tanks are still there, along with dry bulkers, but the other trailers are gone.
With a fleet of more than 250 vehicles today, Transportes Minerva is one of the largest bulk edibles haulers in Mexico. The carrier operates throughout Mexico and has a small amount of business going into Central America.
"Mexico is a good growth market, and 90% of the companies we serve are Mexican-owned," Cuadros says. "We want to stay focused on the Mexican market. That's where we see our best growth potential. The bulk edibles market in Central America is very small.
"Currently, there is not strong competition in food transport, but customer expectations are rising. Customers want high quality transportation with good security and on-time deliveries. Better quality equipment is being requested. Market globalization is driving the demand for higher quality bulk edibles transport. Influenced by the United States, food quality standards are being strengthened.
"Transportes Minerva is benefiting because we have built the sort of operation these customers want. It has given us a competitive edge."
Quality Certification Part of the competitive edge certainly has come from the carrier's emphasis on providing high quality service. "We obtained ISO 9002 certification because we want to be the best," says Ernesto J Teran Escobar, chief of quality at Transportes Minerva. "We didn't do it at customer request. We did it out of our own belief that this is what it takes to be on the leading edge."
The ISO 9002 program was developed over an eight-month period, and a major focus was on determining what it takes to make on-time deliveries. As part of the ISO certification requirements, performance is reviewed every six months, and adjustments are made in the quality process.
"We started from scratch when we created this system," Teran says. "We found duplicate functions, and there was little or no followup in dealing with problems. We have reduced operating costs by reducing mistakes. Employee morale has improved because we do a better job of training. We did a lot to strengthen the maintenance program.
"When we find a problem now, a report is generated within five days. We identify the root of the problem. Corrective action is defined, and responsibility for making the correction is assigned. All of this makes it possible to serve our customers better."
These customers include soft drink bottlers, candy factories, dairy plants, commercial bakeries turning out bread and cookies, and toothpaste producers. Among the products transported are liquid corn sweeteners, caramel color, corn oil, maltose, dextrose, milk, alum, and gluten.
Besides the headquarters terminal in Guadalajara, customers are served out of facilities in Queretaro, Queretaro, and Mexico City. Central dispatch in Guadalajara directs over-the-road activities throughout the system.
"Keeping track of individual shipments is one of our biggest challenges," Cano says. "We need to know where our vehicles are and if a shipment will be delayed. Any number of factors can cause a delay.
"For instance, security checkpoints between Guadalajara and Mexico City can cause a one- to two-hour delay. Vehicles are stopped so security officials can inspect documents and search for illegal drugs. We want to be able to notify customers when these delays occur.
"We're putting Qualcomm satellite tracking and communications systems in all of our longhaul tractors. Our drivers also carry cellular telephones."
Delivery Challenges Like so many tank truck carriers, Transportes Minerva faces the added challenge of a majority of customers requesting 8 am delivery. The carrier has tried to change that habit by offering small price breaks for alternate delivery times.
The customer does come first, though, and Transportes Minerva does its best to provide the service requested. The importance of customer service is one of the first things taught to newly hired drivers.
Transportes Minerva currently employs about 130 truck drivers. Even with high expectations and strict hiring requirements, the carrier has no trouble finding enough drivers, according to Ramon Serrano, manager of human relations. In fact, the carrier has a waiting list of driver candidates.
Only experienced truck drivers are considered, and Transportes Minerva prefers individuals who are currently employed. "We rely on recommendations from our own drivers, because they know the sort of people who fit our requirements," Serrano says. "They do their recruiting at toll plazas and restaurants where drivers congregate."
Drivers need at least three years' experience with cargo tanks to be considered. They must be between 23 and 50 years old.
Those who meet the basic requirements are invited for an interview. Technical and practical skills are examined, and applicants are given a medical checkup. Work histories are thoroughly reviewed.
Driver Training Once hired, a driver attends approximately 100 hours of training before being sent out on the road. Defensive driving and a variety of technical issues are covered. Other topics include the quality program, customer service, company history, and health and family issues. "We believe a good family life means good work performance," Serrano says.
A review of Mexico's new hours of service for commercial drivers is an important part of the training. The rules take effect in March, and they mandate four hours of driving, followed by a two-hour break, and then four more hours of driving. After that, drivers must be given at least eight hours of rest.
"The federal government will run checkpoints throughout the country to ensure compliance with the new hours-of-service rules," Serrano says. "We don't anticipate any problems, because we're already running these hours. Most of the shipments we handle are not particularly time-sensitive."
Safety is another part of the training program. Jose Antonio Ramos, safety director, points out to newly hired drivers that driver error tops the list of the four fundamental aspects contributing to accidents. The other factors are road conditions, vehicle problems, and a range of variables including weather.
"We remind drivers of the importance of staying within the speed limit (56 miles per hour on turnpikes and 53 mph on other highways," Ramos says. "We also talk about the importance of driving appropriately for conditions such as fog and rain."
Training Updates Retraining is a key element in the safety program. Drivers receive frequent updates on defensive driving, as well as the technical aspects of operating a vehicle efficiently. Instructors review shifting skills and fuel economy measures during training updates.
Preventive maintenance is covered. Drivers are shown how to detect and deal with mechanical problems before a vehicle breakdown occurs. They are reminded during the training sessions of the importance of stopping every four hours to make a walkaround inspection of the tractor-trailer rig.
The focus on safety has brought a low accident rate and has also earned awards. In 2000, the company received the top safety awards handed out by the Asociasion Nacional de Transporte Privada (National Association of Private Transport). Safety achievements also were recognized by the Secretariat of Communications and Transport.
Ramos adds that the safety program is one of the factors that has helped Transportes Minerva build a loyal driver force. Competitive pay is another factor. Drivers receive a competitive wage that includes base pay and a commission for each trip.
Tractor Fleet Loyalty also has been promoted by providing drivers with late model tractors with plenty of comfort features. The carrier runs approximately 100 tractors, as well as about 50 tank trucks that are used to service smaller customers.
"Our goal is to run trucks and tractors that are no more than three years old," Cano says. "Besides appealing to the drivers, new equipment costs less to maintain. You have to do a lot more to keep up old trucks. We want to focus our resources on preventive, rather than corrective, maintenance."
Kenworth T800 and International 8100 conventionals dominate in the tractor fleet, while International and Mercedes-Benz chassis have been specified for tank truck applications. Tractors have engines in the 435-horsepower range, and the newest tank trucks were ordered with 250-hp engines.
The newest tractors were specified with air suspensions. In addition, Transportes Minerva is ordering antilock braking (ABS) on over-the-road tractors. ABS is not mandatory in Mexico at this time.
Tractors also are equipped to provide hydraulic power to run the product pumps on the tank trailers. "We're putting hydraulics on all of our new equipment," Cano says. "Pumping hardware holds up much better with hydraulic power. Some of the products we haul become very viscous in cold weather."
Tanks account for about 150 of the trailers in the fleet. Transportes Minerva also has 17 dry bulk trailers. Tank trailers are supplied by Tanques y Equipos Industriales SA de CV (TEISA) and Polar Tank Trailer Inc. TEISA built all of the truck-mounted tanks. Dry bulkers are from Industrias Gonzalez SA de CV.
Polar's tank trailers are typical of the units in the fleet. The noncode sanitary tanks are constructed of 10-gauge 304 stainless steel with a 2B finish. Interior welds have a W-4 finish. The cleanbore straight-barrel tanks have a 5,900-gallon capacity.
Tanks are insulated with four inches of fiberglass compressed to three inches. Jacketing is 22-gauge bright stainless sheet for the barrel and 18 gauge for the heads.
Product discharge is through a four-inch Ultra-Flo stainless steel butterfly valve in the rear-mounted pump cabinet. Tanks also have a 20-inch Polar domelid with FDA-approved white Buna-N gasket and one Girard three-inch vacuum breaker.
Running gear includes a Hendrickson Turner HT-300 air suspension, Meritor axles, MeritorWABCO ABS, and steel disc wheels. Among other components are Austin landing gear and Truck-Lite wiring and lighting.
Company Shops Vehicle maintenance is handled at company shops in Guadalajara and Queretaro. All vehicles are on a 20,000-kilometer (12,400-mile) service schedule that forms the foundation of the preventive maintenance effort. Engine oil and filter are changed, and lube points are greased. Brakes are checked.
"We pay close attention to brakes," Cano says. "We've improved brake lining life with better driver training. Lining life ranges from 60,000 to 80,000 kilometers (37,200 to 49,600 miles)."
At customer request, cargo tanks are passivated every six months. While the customer objective is to prevent contamination, passivation also helps protect against pitting and other corrosion.
In addition to the regular service schedule, Transportes Minerva vehicles are inspected briefly everytime they are brought to the shop or are washed. Wash workers catch a lot of small problems like broken lenses on lights.
"We wash our vehicles frequently, which means they get inspected a lot," Cano says. "Image is the reason for the wash frequency, and it's important enough that we even pay for exterior cleaning while vehicles are out on the road. Tank exteriors are polished every eight months."
Exterior cleaning is provided at all three Transportes Minerva terminals. The carrier also has foodgrade tank cleaning capabilities at the Guadalajara and Mexico City locations. The wash racks are open to other foodgrade carriers and operate in accordance with the Coke standards.
Inhouse Design Designed and fabricated inhouse, the wash rack in Guadalajara is five years old and cleans about 30 tanks a day. The wash operation in Mexico City handles 35 to 40 foodgrade tanks every day.
The tank cleaning strategy at Transportes Minerva is focused on avoiding and eliminating conditions that might contribute to cargo contaminations. That is why gaskets and seals on product-handling hardware are changed every three months at a minimum. The domelid gasket is replaced at least once a year.
A three-step cleaning process is followed at the wash racks: tanks are rinsed with hot water at 96C (204F), followed by sanitizing with 120C (248F) steam. A final rinse is with cold water. The amount of time at each step varies by product density, but the entire process takes 1.5 to two hours. Steam is generated by a 60-hp boiler.
Once the wastewater cools, solids are filtered out. The water is then released to the city sewer, and the solids are hauled away from processing into animal feed.
By providing clean, well-maintained equipment and stressing on-time deliveries, Transportes Minerva provides a premium level of service that Mexico's bulk edibles shippers are coming to expect.