The Human Factor

The component too often neglected in vehicle issues is the person involved in the operation.

The component too often neglected in vehicle issues is the person involved in the operation.

By Paul Hull

There are many new, helpful technologies, aren't there? In one afternoon's reading I must have come across dozens of devices that promised they could make the management of a utility fleet more efficient. If you meet fleet managers in groups such as those who attend the annual show in Williamsburg, Va., you'll understand what is nagging me about innovations in fleet management. It's the people who manage. It's the people who make the innovations worthwhile.

Very few of us understand all the scientific, mathematical and engineering principles that help improve aspects of fleet use such as fuel savings, hydraulic help, engine design, maintenance and troubleshooting. We do know, however, that the people who are expected to use new technologies must understand how to use them. Take something such as procedures for idling the vehicles or raising booms, procedures that can save wear and money if they are done correctly-a few quick words do not usually achieve the level of success we need and it's not sensible to assume that an operator "can understand anything to do with engines." New technologies that can improve performance are changes, so the expert on previous techniques may be lost in their operation. Training for the correct use of new technologies for fleet efficiency is necessary. Utility workers are like most other people; they are wary of changes, until proven, and one of the dangers is the employee who will not adapt to new methods or equipment-usually on the premise there is nothing wrong with what we have. Some people see every change as an insult to their current perfection. And how many operators' bad habits may be laziness or lethargy? It's the human factor that can decide if improved performance techniques work.

Vehicle Selection

Let's look at vehicles. Have you always bought equipment and vehicles from a certain dealer? Loyalty is a good habit for the customer and dealer, but it can assume that your established dealer has exactly what you want. At the risk of infuriating those who have had a utility's business and think that's how everything should stay forever, we would suggest that today's first step on the buyer's part is to determine and write down exactly what is needed to do the job correctly. Then you can go and see who has it. Your favorite dealership, of course, could be the first place to see if they can obtain what you want-but be selective. In the business world, to say that a truck is a truck is not true. Many options and components offered in a pickup truck or aerial work truck for your business are available; the responsibility for finding them is yours.

If you compare trucks with similar capabilities from different manufacturers, you'll find there is not much difference. Your favorite dealer's models may be-give or take a few aspects-as good as the other ones across town. I looked, for example, at comparisons for several pickup truck models from different manufacturers. They were all attractive, capable vehicles. The prices were similar. Three of the four had engines a little bigger than the fourth, but there was not much difference in power and torque for any of them. The payload of one of the four was considerably greater than the other three, and another one offered a longer bed-by almost two feet. The point is that these four, and many others like them in different configurations and brand names, are all well made, good performance vehicles with slightly different capacities in some areas. After studying many specs, I concluded there is a truck that will do your jobs for you, and do them for a long time. It seems to be less a matter of selecting the outstanding, best-advertised model as selecting the one you like from an array of excellent models.

Power, especially if towing is required, could be a top priority on your list of requirements. Full size and compact trucks have obvious differences in power. A vehicle that is little more than personal transportation for one or two people from one site to another could be a compact model. Compact pickups have shown their worth for towing non-business items such as boats and recreational, small trailers, and the towing capabilities of some compact models are impressive-good enough for many utility equipment items. Equipment such as brush chippers, air compressors and skid steers can be hauled by some of the lighter vehicles. Check with the manufacturers, remembering they will quote you the best possible towing capabilities. The numbers may vary according to the pickup's axle ratio, drivetrain, type of trailer hitch and its cab and cargo bed style. Regular cab trucks tend to be better than crew cabs and long beds; the difference could be as much as a few hundred pounds. In regard to the hitch, a fifth-wheel hitch in the cargo box will tow more weight than a simple ball hitch by the rear bumper. Chevrolet, Toyota, Nissan and Ford can provide good towing with their smaller pickups. You'll compare those efforts with the full-size strength of other Dodge, Toyota, Chevrolet, GMC and Ford pickups. You may be looking at almost 20,000 lbs. for some of them. All such information is readily available, and it won't take long to make decisions once you have decided what you are looking for. In the pickup market, changes and updates seem to constantly occur. It's difficult to keep up with enhanced and updated horsepower and torque ratings, and that is why we should do as much research as possible before our decision to purchase.

Maintenance of the Fleet

According to many professionals, success in vehicle maintenance depends on our ability to prepare a good program and to stay with that program. Maintenance is one of those tasks that must be done regularly if it is to work to our advantage. To think of maintenance as a negative aspect of vehicles in our fleet defeats its purpose; to equate maintenance with repair is just as pointless. We should not delay maintenance until something goes wrong because it is in the preventive maintenance steps that our biggest savings are probably achieved. A well-planned preventive maintenance program can help fleet managers keep vehicle repair costs and downtime to a minimum-but an inefficient, poorly designed program will waste time and money.

Are you tracking the right information carefully enough to make informed maintenance decisions? The details matter. Simply recording that front end work or boom fixing was completed on a vehicle, for example, does not give you enough information to detect failure trends for specific front-end components. As a minimum standard, your records should indicate the make and model of vehicle, date and mileage at the time of service, and services performed to specific components. When you get demands for maintenance between your scheduled maintenance intervals, check any unexplained incidents. Look for patterns or trends. If a number of particular failures occur on certain vehicles, see if it is possible to adjust your preventive maintenance program to eliminate those failures in the future. Vehicles are like other manufactured goods we use at work, at the office or at home, in that some of them will be more prone to problems with certain systems and components than others. You may need to develop a different preventive maintenance schedule for certain makes and models of vehicles in the fleet or for those operating in specific applications. Listen to your drivers' and maintenance technicians' evaluations of their vehicles.

A popular and reliable measure of the efficiency of your preventive maintenance program is the number of "touches" your technicians have on a vehicle. Assume you have a vehicle scheduled for preventive maintenance three times a year but discover it was serviced six times-the three scheduled services plus another three for various services such as government-required safety and emissions inspections. Every time a technician touches a vehicle, it costs you money and represents possible downtime. On average, every vehicle touch takes a minimum of an hour of labor. Proper planning can minimize these costs.

Maintenance for one vehicle may be too much but not enough for another. There isn't one magic number of hours or miles for every vehicle in your fleet. Start a schedule by going back to the manufacturer's recommendations for the type of service for which you are using the vehicle. If your preventive maintenance intervals are more frequent than the manufacturer recommends, try conducting a lubricant analysis, primarily of engine oil. Also check to see how much residual lubricant is present in unsealed joints at each service visit. If the oil analysis shows the oil is still good, there is still plenty of lubricant in each joint, and you have a good failure history, you may want to consider extending the service interval by a month and checking the same factors again. It's a combination of science with trial and error.

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