Covid-19 is bringing lasting change to the truck shop

John G Smith

The empty shelves admittedly left me with an uneasy feeling in the early days of Covid-19. Grocery store aisles were stripped bare of staples. Shoppers had hoarded toilet paper of all things.

Was it time to give in and stock up like everyone else? What kind of stresses would the supply chain have to bear?

Parts procurement teams faced similar questions of their own. The concerns were hanging over every purchasing decision, everywhere. But as supply chains were largely restored over the past year, thanks in no small part to truckers and their essential services, it’s important to acknowledge that the shop procurement process has changed along the way.

It is no longer business as usual. The pandemic is actually reshaping what usual will become.

There may even come a time when we’re thankful for the changes that emerged because of a few temporary barriers.

Covid-19 mask
(Illustration: istock)

Look no further than the plexiglass screens that now divide parts counters. I have to believe – or at least hope – we will be able to close the six-foot gap and return to deals by handshake someday. But the need for a safe distance has altered the way some information is exchanged.

The business of truck repair was already on a digital path, of course. Hand-scrawled repair orders have steadily given away to databases and Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standard codes. Covid-19 has simply accelerated the pace of change. In the past year, we’ve seen more repair details communicated by smart phone and computer than ever before.

Once you track something it can be measured. And once it can be measured, it can be improved.

During this year’s Heavy-Duty Aftermarket Dialogue – held virtually because of Covid-19 – Hub Group executive vice president of maintenance and equipment Gerry Mead referred to other benefits that have been realized through the broader use of online training in the shop. Participating technicians don’t need to struggle for a view from the back of a crowd. Everyone with a computer monitor gets a front row seat.

There’s an added benefit to broader online training where it’s possible. The push for digital lessons is capturing more of the institutional knowledge that’s lost when long-time employees retire. And they were retiring at an accelerated rate before Covid-19 came along.

Pandemic-related restrictions have even pushed for better workflows in service bays. In a bid to reduce face time at a parts counter, more shops are having goods delivered straight to technicians. It’s a step that keeps people on task, and enhances productivity.

More of these parts are being sourced through online channels, too. SAF-Holland, for example, saw e-commerce activities surge from 7% to 25% of sales. Increases like that are leading suppliers to make all-important investments in their online platforms. Volvo and Mack’s recently unveiled parts platforms are 10 times faster than their predecessors, and reduce the steps needed to log in, source the right parts, and placed the orders.

Wayne McKitrick, vice-president of sales at NA Williams, said his team stepped up contact by phone, email and video to replace a traditional “feet on the street” strategy. Maybe it will be possible to serve more customers, and more effectively, with fewer people in the field.

Covid-19 still has plenty of additional challenges in store. As 2021 began, manufacturers faced shortages of the computer chips that play a central role in building a modern truck. They’re the types of issues that could lead to bottlenecks and production slowdowns. And they likely won’t be the last product-specific shortages in the year to come.

But amidst all the chaos, shops and suppliers alike are adapting, and realizing better business practices along the way.

Maybe some good will come out of this mess after all.

 

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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