A Panel comprised of tank truck industry professionals at the National Tank Truck Carriers Maintenance Seminar agreed that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in order to survive in a tight economy.
Keeping equipment in tiptop condition and analyzing operations regularly to avoid failures down the road allow a company to stay in the passing lane in a vacillating marketplace.
Among those on the panel sharing their expertise were Pete Nativo of Transport Service Co, Jim Greco of Distribution Technologies Inc (DistTech), Bill Ebert of Superior Carriers Inc, Paul Baute of Grammer Industries Inc, Roon Parenzin of Flying J Transportation, and Charles Wilson of Bulk Transporter who moderated the discussion.
Maintaining vehicles means having a pool of expert mechanics, which Flying J said is becoming more difficult than recruiting and retaining truck drivers.
Nativo pointed out that retaining certified mechanics, especially those certified for hazardous materials, is an essential requirement of any shop. He recommended raising salaries when mechanics become certified in certain areas, such as brakes, air conditioning, and hazmat. Many suppliers will provide the training, he added.
“We are seeing fewer of our mechanics leaving us after going through a certification program,” he said.
Parenzin agrees that improving training programs is beneficial not only for improved performance, but for retention. The training program at Flying J takes into consideration the trainee's strengths and weaknesses.
Greco recommended a full analysis of each maintenance location to see what is required. “As tight as things are, we don't want to have too many mechanics that aren't needed,” he said.
At two DistTech locations a staggered four-day week is in place that includes working on the weekend. In 1998, the carrier began a bonus incentive program for mechanics and continues it today.
At Grammer Industries, Baute said the company has a bonus program that is based on the profitability of the shop. Another program was developed to provide additional training so that mechanics could be promoted.
AT Flying J, Parenzin said maintenance employees are being offered bonuses where appropriate and veteran employees also receive bonuses for referrals who are hired.
Ebert said that successful mechanic retention at Superior Carriers is influenced by allowing mechanics and tank wash personnel opportunities to move into various jobs as openings become available.
Greco said that DistTech calculates the number of mechanics in its workforce on the number of vehicles in the fleet and the amount of maintenance time needed. He suggested carriers identify the work that is typically called for and then determine the type and number of mechanics needed.
In addition to mechanic staffing challenges, carriers are beset by other market demands, particularly those related to federal regulations. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engine emission regulations become more stringent in 2010, carriers are beginning to make arrangements to handle urea at their terminals. The product is used in new engines that have selective catalytic reduction (SCR), a technology designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx).
Ebert noted that Superior Carriers with 35 shops, and most of those supplying fuel, will have to have urea on site.
Some in the industry are projecting there will be a billion gallons of urea to be transported when the engines are on the road, and many carriers are looking at that market for expansion. Wilson noted that bulk urea will have to be transported in stainless steel dedicated tank trailers in order to maintain purity.
With maintenance and new fuel concerns nudging the tank truck industry, members of the panel emphasized the importance of using technology to analyze operations in order to obtain optimum efficiency.
Nativo said that monitoring tractor diagnostic software can prevent what might become mechanical problems at a later time. Poor fuel economy performance can indicate that the vehicle requires an inspection for possible mechanical trouble or that driver habits may be contributing to the fuel economy drop. He pointed out that some carriers reward drivers with bonuses for achieving good fuel economy.
Greco seconded Nativo's remarks, noting that at DistTech the mpg data is reviewed weekly. “The important thing is to be able to measure things,” he said. The carrier assesses tractor idling time, uses low-profile tires, has tire inflation monitoring systems on several tractors, and has reduced the fleet speed limit to 62 miles per hour. “Our drivers are required to idle as little as possible,” he added.
At the same time, Greco said that some idling reductions have been achieved with auxiliary power units (APUs) the carrier has installed in a trial, although the jury is still out based on further use. “Drivers reducing speed and idling time still get the best bang for the buck,” he added.
Ebert said monitoring idle time and fuel mileage through a satellite tracking system has proved effective for Superior Carriers. He also estimated that single wide tires produce about a 2% improvement in mpg. However, he noted that all trucks in the fleet may be similar, but the loads they haul make a difference in the fuel economy achieved.
And then there is the question: When to trade tractors and tank trailers?
Nativo said Transport Service typically follows a 600,000-mile/six-year cycle. In 2009, the carrier plans to buy 35 new tractors, some on the trade cycle and others for market growth. About 15-20 trailers are scheduled for purchase for both foodgrade and chemical service. The foodgrade tank trailers will replace some in the fleet while the new chemical trailers will respond to market growth.
At DistTech, Greco said tractor leasing works in some areas of the carrier's operation, but the carrier expects to add about 30 power units from acquisitions and new tractor purchases to its company fleet in 2009 while other units will be retired. He estimated that a terminal should have at least 15 company-owned tractors to be cost-effective, particularly to add a maintenance person.
Baute said Grammer Industries has replaced a number of tank trailers in the past couple of years. Ebert said Superior likely will add 100 tractors in 2009, but will purchase more if new business requires it.