Pandemic will leave lasting impacts on fleet maintenance, parts procurement

As devastating as the Covid-19 pandemic has been, there have been beneficial changes made to fleet maintenance and parts procurement practices that will last long after the pandemic has ended.

During a Motor and Equipment Manufacturers’ Heavy Duty Aftermarket Dialogue webinar Jan. 25, fleet panelists agreed there were many operational changes made by their companies and suppliers that they hope will become permanent. Mari Roberts, senior director of transportation with Frito-Lay, the biggest private fleet in the U.S., noted her fleet uptime and PM compliance reached record highs over the past year, “which was the year we needed it the most.”

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She said the fleet saw surging demand for the products it delivers as consumers stocked pantries, and that its operations never shut down.

“At the beginning, our strategy was as long as we take care of our drivers, they’ll take care of everything else,” she said.

That was the same approach taken by Quality Transport, a 20-truck fleet based in Northcentral Illinois. Amanda Schuier, senior vice-president, said “Once we realized this was going to be a major operational challenge, we immediately went into taking care of the drivers. One goal was to not lay off any of our drivers and we have been successful with that.”

An unplanned benefit at Quality Transport has been that the company has fast-tracked investments in its technologies since the onset of the pandemic. A new dispatch system was rolled out, trailer tracking was deployed, and the fleet’s electronic logging devices (ELDs) were swapped out for a better system. Communication at the fleet has actually improved as employees have embraced technologies, Schuier added, and that extends to suppliers who have gotten creative to ensure the uninterrupted supply of needed parts.

(Photo: iStock)

“I hope that sense of community we established during this pandemic doesn’t go away,” she said. “I have never felt so in-tune with our employees as a whole as I do right now.”

Gerry Mead, executive vice-president of maintenance and equipment with Hub Group, said he was impressed at how agile employees were when adapting to working from home. He was equally pleased with how parts suppliers were able to keep the fleet running.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” he said.

Schuier cited the example of an ELD provider that offered reference cards drivers could carry in their trucks providing helpful information for navigating the pandemic.

“We took that card and laminated it and put it in all our drivers’ trucks along with personal protective equipment,” she said. “It made that company stick out to me…and made me feel like they were in it with me.”

Virtual training, meetings

When it comes to processes implemented during the pandemic that will remain in place, Mead said virtual training provided by vendors has in some cases been superior to in-person training. Everyone had a clear view of the lesson, unlike in person when those at the back can’t see what’s being demonstrated. Having an instructor available to take questions via video is better than watching a pre-recorded video or reading a bulletin, he added.

Internally, to keep technicians from walking the shop floor looking for parts and risking unnecessary interactions, Mead said those working the parts counter would deliver parts right to the vehicle being worked on.

“We saw an increase in productivity,” said Mead. “It’s something we’re going to continue. The parts person, in stead of sitting behind the counter, delivers those parts as they come in so we can keep the technicians turning wrenches.”

Virtual driver meetings have also proven to be more effective than in-person gatherings, Roberts added. Drivers with long commutes appreciate not having to drive into the office for a meeting and participation in those meetings has increased, as drivers can park and call in while on the road.

Online parts ordering increasing

Online parts buying has also increased during the pandemic, a trend likely to continue.

“That’s where it’s at,” said Mead. “That’s the way of the future. We are doing it where we can and where companies have built the portals.”

He said parts suppliers that aren’t developing online ordering portals will fall behind as the new generation of shop employees prefer online ordering.

Each of the three fleets represented on the panel are working to bring more maintenance in-house.

“No one is going to love your truck like you love it,” reasoned Mead.

The biggest challenge in doing so, he added, is ensuring high-usage parts are always readily available.

“There are some parts we need faster and we need to make sure suppliers know what they are and that they’re on the shelf ready for us to get our hands on within hours,” he said.

James Menzies

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 james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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