Big data brings big opportunities, challenges: Ryder’s Dawson

TORONTO, Ont. — The deluge of data being generated by today’s trucks can be overwhelming to manage. Now imagine you have 180,000 vehicles generating such data and you’ll empathize with Bill Dawson, vice-president of maintenance operations and engineering with Ryder System.

Dawson was a keynote speaker at the Canadian Fleet Maintenance Summit (CFMS) held in Toronto today.

“Having access to that data and being able to use it are two very different things,” Dawson said of the data generated by today’s vehicles.

The availability of such data has completely changed the role of the technician, Dawson said.

“The technician’s life, historically speaking, was about the mechanical aspect of the job and the tools associated with that. Now, most of what we do is electronic,” Dawson explained.

Ryder has a skills competition for its 5,200 technicians and those who finish among the top often do not fit the traditional profile of a mechanic.

“The folks that are competing at an elite level now and getting to the top are not what we’d consider historically to be our most sound mechanical technicians,” Dawson said. “They are the best by far at managing information. They tend to be on the younger side. They come up using this technology and they’re open and accepting of technology and they’ve mastered it. That, in the future, is what’s going to separate the quality of technicians from the excellent to the average.”

Ryder, said Dawson, is using data generated by its customers’ vehicles to better understand their businesses and to help them improve their efficiency. It can also be used to become easier to do business with, for example, by allowing customers to self-select maintenance appointments.

That data can also be used by Ryder to help its customers select the best spec’s for their specific application. Perhaps most importantly, analyzing data can help Ryder help its customers better understand their operating costs.

“There are a lot of folks in our business that truly don’t understand their costs and don’t have a system to support measuring their costs properly,” Dawson explained.

Ryder has developed a Total Cost of Operation (TCO) tool that helps its customers compare their operating costs against industry standards.

Dawson gave other examples as well of how Ryder is using big data.

The company is aiming for the elimination of unplanned downtime, by analyzing data generated by the fleet. This involves moving towards predictive maintenance, replacing parts before they break based on data generated by like vehicles in similar applications. Today’s remote diagnostics platforms are only the beginning, Dawson said, noting he looks forward to the day when the call centers can be eliminated and the truck will tell the operator directly what is wrong and how to react.

Dawson also noted preventive maintenance programs can be improved through the interpretation of data. Today, he said, application is often overlooked when a PM program is developed.

“There’s a big difference between hauling milk in Brooklyn and hauling mattresses in Nebraska,” he said. “Heat, idle time, stops are all going to drive component wear and failure at very different rates.”

Dawson envisions a day when every truck will have a unit-specific PM program.

“There may be trucks you only see once a year and trucks you’ll see seven or eight times a year,” he said.

Because Ryder services trucks built by all the OEMs, the training of technicians is paramount, Dawson said. Ryder provides its technicians with about 40 hours of training each year, using new methods including YouTube, social media and distance learning. This is important, because warranty recovery is a big dollar item for Ryder and the OEMs want to be ensured the technicians working on the equipment are properly trained.

Dawson also looks forward to being able to use big data to better manage the company’s parts inventory system.

“When you route vehicles based on fault codes and you know where they’re going and what the failure is, there’s no reason the part shouldn’t be there when needed,” Dawson said.

Of course, the potential of improving efficiency through the analysis of big data will only be possible if overseen by a capable manager. As a result, the role of the maintenance manager is evolving, Dawson said.

“These maintenance managers now need to be data-driven, they need to be analytical, they need to be able to (wade) through the noise and make key business decisions and that’s different than walking through making sure the shop is clean,” he said. “It’s going to change the nature of the people we promote into these jobs the recruiting we undergo to find them and how we performance manage the people we have. Those who’ve done the job a long time and have one set of skills may not have the skills they need to carry us and you into the future.”


James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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