Trimac Stresses Excellence Commitment Through Vehicle Maintenance Program

Feb. 1, 1999
In Virtually everything it does, Trimac Transportation Services Inc stakes out a leading-edge position. This is as true in the maintenance department

In Virtually everything it does, Trimac Transportation Services Inc stakes out a leading-edge position. This is as true in the maintenance department as in other sectors of the company.

This leading-edge strategy has helped make the Calgary, Alberta, Canada, company one of the dominant tank truck carriers in North America. In Modern Bulk Transporter's 1997 Gross Revenue Report, Trimac ranked first with revenues in excess of $446 million.

"Our objective at all times is to be the most outstanding tank truck carrier in the industry," says Barry Davy, Trimac vice-president of quality assurance. "We do that in many ways. For instance, we adhere to high operating standards, while aiming to achieve the lowest cost through operational excellence.

"Throughout our company, we stress the importance of doing jobs right the first time, while providing our customers with the highest levels of service and safety. This commitment to excellence is continuously reaffirmed through training programs and management leadership by example. We have earned ISO 9002 certification, and we are a Responsible Care partner in both Canada and the US."

Trimac operates one of the largest tank fleet systems in North America. From offices throughout the United States and Canada, managers direct the activities of 2,026 tractors and 4,505 trailers. Vehicles are dispersed among 97 terminals, 44 of which have maintenance shops. Fourteen wash racks are in the system.

One of the most sophisticated Trimac washracks is in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, and there is also a dedicated operation that handles only intermediate bulk containers. The state-of-the-art tote facility is automated and has earned ISO 9002 quality certification. Other Trimac cleaning racks handle primarily tank trailers, and most are open to the public.

The repair shop network meets approximately 75% of Trimac's maintenance needs, and most of the facilities even take in outside work. The shops are certified to perform all government-required inspections and tests. Trimac shops comply with both the US HM-183 cargo tank rules and Canada's CSA B620 regulation for code tanks.

Three shops have "R" stamps and perform a broad range of tank repairs and overhauls. Two of the code shops are in Canada (Edmonton, Alberta, and Oakville), and the third is in Houston, Texas.

"These code shops are strategically located for easy access by a majority of our fleet," Davy says. "They enable us to be more cost-effective, and they shorten equipment downtime."

Maintenance strategies systemwide are coordinated by the Equipment Standards Committee, which includes Colin Hughes and Harv Rober, trailer design; Bill Januszewski and Doug Rutter, equipment purchasing; Andy Caruana, Eastern Division maintenance manager; George Scott, Western Division maintenance manager; Garry Peacock, Prairie region maintenance manager; David Richardson, maintenance director (eastern US); and John Green, maintenance director (western US). Davy is the committee chairman.

"We look at what is working on the equipment side and what isn't," Caruana says. "We address all maintenance-related aspects of the business, including equipment specifications. We meet together once or twice a year, and we participate in quarterly conference calls throughout the year."

Equipment decisions are never made solely by the Equipment Standards Committee. Caruana stresses that group members always consult with drivers and maintenance employees when specification changes are under consideration.

Under guidance from the Equipment Standards Committee, Trimac has reduced the number of suppliers and developed long-term relationships with suppliers like Freightliner and Polar Tank Trailer. All trailers have been specified with fall protection since 1994.

Antilock braking has been specified on Trimac vehicles since 1993, and the carrier has standardized on the Meritor WABCO system. New tractors and trailers are being ordered with Groenveld automatic chassis lubrication systems. Con Met preset aluminum hubs and Meritor trailing axles also are preferred components.

Company-owned tractors are kept for approximately 412 years on a 700,000-mile trade cycle. On the other hand, the average age of tank trailers in the fleet is in the 12-year range.

It's up to the maintenance program to ensure that all of the vehicles are kept in the best possible shape. The key is a preventive maintenance record archive that is shared systemwide through the Trimac computer network. The historical information in those maintenance records is invaluable.

"We call on our maintenance managers to use the data to find new opportunities for maintenance cost reductions," Davy says. "In today's operating environment, tank truck carriers are under incredible cost pressures. Maintenance is one way to help control and reduce costs.

"We have to constantly look for cost reductions, including determining whether it's more effective to handle maintenance inside or outside of Trimac. I don't know that we'll ever reach a point where no further cost reductions are possible. However, we do arrive at points of diminishing return."

Maintenance data is managed by ShopFax software that has been extensively modified into an inhouse system that is now called Shop Plus. Data enters the Shop Plus system through bar code readers that are carried by the mechanics. Trimac began outfitting the shops with bar code readers about four years ago.

"They streamlined our data collection process and helped make paperwork processes more consistent," says Fred Klapp, who spearheaded the implementation effort. "Our maintenance records are much better today. Mechanics took to the bar code system and computers very quickly. We should not have been surprised that they adapted very well to the new systems given their interest in technology."

Work orders are printed out with a bar coded number assigned, and each mechanic keeps a laminated sheet of bar coded job functions in his toolbox. On the sheet is the mechanic's bar coded identification number. All parts are tagged with bar codes.

At the start of the workshift, a mechanic picks up a bar code reader in the maintenance supervisor's office. He scans the ID code on his bar code sheet, and the reader automatically logs his on-duty time.

When the mechanic begins a project, he scans the bar code on the work order. He also scans in the appropriate bar code for the work to be done. The system is not so automated that notes can't be written on the work order as needed. Work orders are still turned in to the shop supervisor after a project is finished.

At the end of each shift, mechanics turn in the bar code readers, which are downloaded into the shop computer. Clerks make sure that any written details from the work orders are added to the bar code reports.

All of the information is made available systemwide throughout Trimac. The Shop Plus application interfaces with the new Field Support System software from TMW Systems. The dispatch-based system has been heavily customized to meet Trimac's needs.

The switch to the new TMW software started two years ago, and the project will be completed by the end of this year. Maintenance components in the TMW software include a database of all vehicle repair and service records. An alert shows with each vehicle record when preventive maintenance or government-mandated inspections and tests are due.

The alerts consist of a sequence of green, yellow, and red tags and begin 15 days prior to a due date. When service or inspections are past due, the equipment is locked out by the program. Only the branch manager is authorized to override the system, and he must have a very good reason for doing so. The override is automatically logged.

As preventive maintenance or inspections come due, tractors and trailers are routed to the nearest Trimac shop. The facilities range in size from two-man operations that handle little more than routine vehicle service to the large division shops.

Most tank trailers in the Trimac fleet are on a schedule that calls for PM inspections at least every 60 days. Mechanics are constantly evaluating equipment condition, and they will notify Trimac's main offices in the United States or Canada if they think overhaul or upgrade is warranted.

"On a chemical tank, the shell quality is what determines the extent of upgrade," says Jesse Harrison, shop manager at Trimac's Houston terminal. "On a major overhaul, Trimac invests around $20,000, and we expect an additional six to 10 years from the trailer.

"Besides looking at the overall condition of the trailer, we also consider how much use it gets. Field evaluations are sent to our main offices, and the Equipment Standards Committee makes the final decision on which trailers to upgrade."

Among other factors, the barrel thickness must be evaluated to ensure that it is in compliance with the relevant codes. Recent upgrades have included the addition of automatic chassis lube systems, antilock brakes, super domes with welded assemblies consisting of vacuum breakers, pressure-relief valves and air inlets, stainless steel framing for the running gear and dollies, underride bumper, and jacketing and insulation replacement as needed.

The work is performed by skilled Trimac mechanics and welders who receive regular training updates. Trimac has worked hard to build a stable maintenance team, and the average tenure is eight to 10 years. "The statistic is distorted because we've added a lot of people through corporate expansion over the past several years," Caruana says.

He adds that Trimac wants to be the preferred place of employment. "We pay a competitive wage, and we provide ample resources to enable mechanics to perform their jobs well," he says. "We do our best to match a mechanic to the work.

"In a company as big as ours, strongly motivated mechanics have good advancement opportunities. During annual appraisals, they can discuss their career objectives." The carrier looks for experienced mechanics with tank skills, but that has become a real challenge. Low unemployment in both the United States and Canada has meant shortages of qualified people.

In an effort to counter those shortages in Canada, Trimac's Oakville shop participates in an apprenticeship program administered by Ontario's provincial government. Apprentices are accepted following high school graduation. Some have taken vocational classes in vehicle maintenance while in high school.

The training program lasts three to four years and includes one day a week of classroom study at a local technical school. During the fourth year, the apprentice can specialize in a certain aspect of vehicle maintenance. Exams are given throughout the program, and apprentices must maintain passing grades.

After eight months to a year, apprentices are ready to handle some jobs on their own, according to John Corrigan, maintenance manager of the Oakville shop. The apprentice is certified as a journeyman mechanic after successfully completing the program.

The apprentices learn early on that the training never really ends. Trimac managers try to schedule a number of training updates annually for the mechanics.

"We're trying for two seminars a year, but we're not always able to do that for every shop," Caruana says. "One objective of our training program is to achieve maintenance uniformity. In addition, technology changes so rapidly that the only way we can keep up is through regular retraining."

Safety is the first subject studied by newly hired mechanics, whether they are apprentices or have years of experience. Shop safety policies are reinforced through brief toolbox meetings that are held every week. The meetings are conducted at the beginning or end of the shift, and mechanic participation is encouraged.

Shop safety awareness also is promoted through an award program. Rewards are given to mechanics for each year they complete with no lost-time or compensable injuries. The rewards start with safety pins for each accident-free year. Mechanics receive a gold watch at three years, a belt buckle at five years, and a plaque at 10 years.

Fall protection is a key safety concern. Implemented five years ago, the Trimac fall protection policy states that no one can leave the ground without fall protection. In the shops, this means mechanics wear harnesses with lanyards attached to fall-arresting devices.

Confined-space entry is another significant safety issue. Mechanics receive extensive training before being allowed inside a tank trailer. Only clean, dry tanks are authorized for entry, and procedures must be followed to the letter.

Mechanics and welders start by filling out a Hazard Evaluation Report and Hot Work Permit. Type of product hauled most recently must be noted on the form, as well as the reason for entering the tank.

Pre-entry procedures call for the mechanic to remove all caps and plugs; open the domelids, manifolds, and valves; and disconnect or blank off all supply lines. The atmosphere in each compartment must be tested, and the process must be repeated every two hours as long as workers remain in the tank.

"No one goes in a tank if the meter reading is even slightly outside our approved range," Corrigan says. "We simply don't take chances."

The approved range for oxygen is 18% to 23%. Explosion levels must be at zero. Toxic levels are determined from the material safety data sheet.

Workers are limited to two hours at a time inside the tank. They must wear a respirator and a rescue harness with lifeline. Lights carried into the tank must be explosion proof, and the vessel must have forced-air ventilation. When a mechanic will be welding inside the tank, he must have hearing protection, a fire extinguisher, welding helmet, gloves, and leather work boots.

The attendant, who remains on top throughout the entry, has an air horn in case of an emergency. Trimac policy is to perform rescues from outside the tank whenever this is possible.

Quality standards are stressed alongside safety in the Trimac operation. Every effort is made to ensure that mechanics have the right tools for the job. To this end, the carrier provides a yearly $350 tool allowance.

Master gauges are used to calibrate the gauges used by the mechanics. Calibration is done daily for the tire gauges. "We have found that the typical tire gauge used by mechanics can be off by as much as 18%," Corrigan says.

Redundant gauges have been added to the pressure- and vacuum-test equipment. The gauges must give identical readings or the devices are recalibrated. All gauges are uniquely identified and a test log is kept.

Welding machines receive yearly preventive maintenance checkups to ensure that voltage levels are correct. The program helps reduce the possibility of flawed repairs.

With its focus on quality, the maintenance program has enabled Trimac to excel in areas of regulatory compliance. Driver morale and customer satisfaction have been enhanced, and equipment is maintained in prime condition.