Keeping It at Its Best

Maintaining equipment’s best condition benefits everybody

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Maintaining equipment’s best condition benefits everybody

This may seem like a dream, but wouldn’t it be great if the equipment you bought today was still working perfectly in 2013? It’s not a mere dream, not simply wishful thinking. Most of the equipment you can buy today is very well engineered and made. In five years, with careful, regular maintenance, it could still be functioning exactly as you want it. That’s what maintenance does. Not performing regular, recommended maintenance achieves the exact opposite. We’ve all seen those opposites—the vehicles and machines that have been neglected since their purchase. They are sometimes offered as special deals. Some have even been touted as the victims of disasters. That’s accurate marketing. Such neglected equipment is the disastrous result of poor or inefficient maintenance, and they reflect a lack of commitment by their owners.

According to many experienced managers in our utility industry, the success of equipment maintenance (such as vehicles or aerial lifts) seems to depend on our ability to devise a thorough, practical program and to stick to that program, especially when it seems to be something we can easily postpone for other, more exciting jobs. Maintenance does not sound thrilling but it is one of those tasks that must be done, and done regularly if it is to work to our advantage. It’s a kind of insurance, if you like. You really don’t like to pay for it but you know you won’t survive without it. To think of maintenance as a negative aspect of vehicles or any equipment in our fleet ignores the benefits it will bring; to equate maintenance with only repair is just as meaningless. Delaying maintenance until something goes wrong is not profitable, because it is in the preventive steps of maintenance that our biggest savings are probably achieved. A practical, well-planned preventive maintenance program can help fleet managers keep equipment repair costs and downtime to a minimum, but an inefficient, poorly designed program can waste time and money.

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Engine image © Goce Risteski, Inspector image © Lisa F. Young, oil drops © Stephane Tougard | Dreamstime.com
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In recent years, manufacturers have become more directly involved in what you could call “lifetime maintenance” or the “life cycle of ownership” for their equipment. Behind this concern from manufacturers is the practical feeling that they would like you to continue to buy their products when you need more. For most customers, the critical factor in maintenance can be parts. Lack of availability of parts is a common reason given why customers defect to other brands. For the manufacturer, then, and the customer, having the right parts in the right places is essential. Assuring yourself that the right parts will be readily available when you need them (and even the best equipment will need spare parts at some time in its life) is something to do before you purchase new items for your fleet.

Perfect Parts Make Sense

It is not just the availability of parts that is important when minimizing downtime for maintenance; their quality is just as crucial. With the amazing growth in the market of ‘gray’ spare parts made by third-party suppliers, original equipment manufacturers have been enthusiastic in emphasizing the benefits of using genuine branded parts. Citing their exact fit and function, manufacturers claim that the only way to keep a machine’s original characteristics when it comes to reliability, performance and operating economy is to use original parts. This argument has considerable merit, as genuine parts have been designed and developed with the machine itself to act as a system of parts, rather than individual parts operating in isolation.

You may find some gray market parts that are close to the quality of the original manufacturer’s parts, but gray products are usually sold on the appeal of their price. To do that, the maker has to cut some corners. It used to be the normal comment to say that the gray parts were foreign made and, therefore, inferior. “Labor is cheaper “there”, so the work is worse.” That’s not true today, because many of the original parts are foreign made, too. It’s a complicated issue and everybody involved has a vested interest in his opinion, but you can be sure that parts offered at amazingly low prices should be considered with great caution, just as you would respond to vendors with ultra-cheap tools of any sort to offer.

Filters (for oil, air and fuel) are products where short cuts are often made to reduce maintenance costs, either by not replacing them, or by buying non-genuine replacements. This can be a false economy, as these relatively inexpensive components are important parts in utility equipment; they have to clean fluids and air from dirt and impurities. An inferior oil filter, for example, can become clogged, obstructing the oil circulation and leading to ‘oil stop’ and a costly engine failure. Even fuel is seldom completely clean. Particles (much smaller than you may be able to see) can blow in when filling. They can then, if not effectively filtered, damage the injection pump and cause corrosion. For machines that have cabs, the cab filter is probably one of the easiest filters to forget to replace, and yet an operator’s comfort levels and alertness are largely affected by the work environment—which in turn affects machine productivity.

Lubricants can be equally important in maintenance programs. While one oil may look very much like another and appear to have the same composition, genuine manufacturer oils often contain protective additives that reduce wear, bind water, carbon, sludge and metal particles, as well as neutralizing acids. What this means in practical terms is that the engine operates more freely and consumes less fuel. Even hydraulic oils matter, with approved oils coping better with high temperatures, and transmission oils reducing noise and friction. When using recommended oils, manufacturers can provide oil analysis services to ensure that performance is being maintained. Go 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.

How’s the climate in your part of the world? Climate, especially with extremes of hot and cold, can require increased attention in terms of maintenance, as machine life can be seriously shortened if not cared for appropriately. Hot temperatures, when combined with dusty or sandy working conditions, require careful attention. There are some parts of North America where the winter temperatures are wicked, and hostile to all equipment. Maintenance to combat such attacks is essential. It becomes clear that there is no single pattern of equipment maintenance that would be suitable for every community in North America, but it is not too challenging to find out what is best for your location… And to do it.

Preparing a Maintenance Program

Having a maintenance program means that you have a written, recorded program, not just a system that exists only in a manager’s head. If you’re sick and off work, or if you leave, that should not mean that the program collapses for want of direction. This applies to the biggest and smallest utilities, and to contractors who work with them. Accurate records become most helpful as they grow. They tell you what happened, when it happened, and they can point to aspects of maintenance about which that you might otherwise have had no knowledge. Analyze your records of fleet maintenance, because just having the records does little on its own. (That would be like using your operation manuals only for coffee mug coasters.) You must try to detect patterns of failure or wear that will help you plan your future maintenance. Does the information recorded help you to make informed maintenance decisions? The details really count. Recording that “engine work” or “boom repair” was completed on a utility vehicle does not give you enough information to detect failure trends for specific components. As a minimum, your records should show the make and model of vehicle (or other equipment), date and mileage at the time of service, and services performed to specific components. Details do take a little extra time to record, but their value makes the effort worthwhile. A point made to me by one manager was that technicians who are unwilling to write details on their maintenance records may also be unwilling to read instructions before they do their work.

What if the unexpected happens? When you get demands for maintenance at times other than at the intervals you scheduled for preventive maintenance, investigate the why of the situation. Look for patterns or trends in unusual maintenance requests. If a number of specific failures occur on certain machines or vehicles, assess the incidents and see if it is possible to adjust your preventive maintenance program to eliminate those failures in the future. You may need to develop a different preventive maintenance schedule for certain makes and models of equipment in your fleet or for those operating in specific applications. Listen to the equipment evaluations of your operators, drivers and technicians. One size seldom fits all in maintenance. A generic preventive maintenance program, hastily planned and implemented, may not work equally well for all fleets, or even for all equipment within a particular fleet.

How important is the actual schedule of your preventive maintenance? You can measure the value of your program by the number of times your technicians work on a particular piece of equipment. Every time a technician works at (or even looks at) a vehicle, it costs you money and represents potential downtime. On average, every visit to a maintenance technician takes a minimum of an hour of labor. Proper planning can minimize these costs. Let’s say your fleet has a vehicle scheduled for maintenance three times a year, but you find it was actually brought in for service on six occasions. There were the three scheduled services, but also another three times for various services such as government-required safety and emissions inspections. Good scheduling would have enabled these inspections to have been handled at the same time as the preventive maintenance.

You can improve and fine-tune your maintenance schedule by using your records to calculate your fleet’s average service life for various components, so you know when to replace them. For example, say you determine that one component fails, as an average, at around 85,000 miles. Your preventive maintenance schedule calls for 8,000-mile service intervals. Your service schedule, then, should include a replacement of that component as part of the first preventive maintenance service after the vehicle has reached 77,000 miles. Be thorough in your research, for it is possible to set preventive maintenance intervals too close together. Intervals should be based on the type of vehicle application, usage (mileage, hours, operating environment, etc.), OEM warranty requirements and regulatory requirements.

Let’s repeat that one cover-all-equipment preventive maintenance schedule will not be adequate for efficiency. What’s ideal for one piece of equipment (or machine or vehicle) may be too much for and not enough for another. There is no magic number of hours or miles for every vehicle in your fleet. You can be sure, however, that your good equipment will not work as well nor last as long if it is not given regular, careful maintenance. Maintenance is a way to save money, not a fanciful way of spending it.

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