Looking Back: Part 1 – The truck maintenance evolution
June 1, 2002
As Truck News officially comes of age and celebrates its 21st birthday this year, we decided it would be appropriate to take a look back at how the industry has evolved since we first hit the street. ...
As Truck News officially comes of age and celebrates its 21st birthday this year, we decided it would be appropriate to take a look back at how the industry has evolved since we first hit the street. Focusing on three key areas of concern – maintenance, fleet operation and turning the wheels for a living – Truck News presents a three-part series on how the business has grown and evolved over the past two-plus decades.
This first vignette examines trucking’s dirty work and how life in the shop has transformed since 1981 as seen through the eyes of one of Canada’s most respected wrenches…
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – According to Jim Pinder, maintenance manager of John Grant Haulage – a fleet primarily moving cement powder and various forms of resins – the biggest change has come in the way of attitudes.
“When you thought of the shop it was that greasy building out behind the terminal,” says the 1998 Volvo Trucks Canada Canadian Fleet Maintenance Manager of the Year. “But it’s not that way anymore.”
Referencing the high-tech facilities of today, like Cummins Mid-Ontario and Tormont Cat, he says the use of computers has significantly cleansed the role of the shop staff.
Issues like tracking and adhering to manufacturer warranties have become job one in most cases.
Even the engines of today are electronic in nature turning yesterday’s grease monkey into today’s highly trained technician.
“The whole philosophy of fleet maintenance has changed,” he says.
“Twenty-one years ago the shop fixed equipment, today we do a lot more preventative maintenance.”
Things like engine rebuilds are now a function of the dealership, while fleet folks handle the things that keep the rigs rolling on a daily basis.
While some of today’s carriers stretch drain intervals to as much as 90,000km, Pinder says even the 40,000km industry-average was unheard of in the early ’80s.
“Twenty years back 12,000-16,000km was about all you saw,” he explains, crediting oil analysis with giving truckers the confidence to make the switch.
Once you could physically, and affordably, see your engine oil was still holding its own, leaving it alone past the traditional threshold was a simple next step.
He explains another key function of the shop disappeared altogether at about the same time.
“Back then, you always did your bottom-end bearing changes at about 160,000km,” says the fleet man.
“You’d bring the truck into the shop the night before … and drain all the oil out of the engine.”
The next day you’d pull the caps and change the connecting rod and crankshaft bearings.
Putting it all back together meant ‘plastic gauging’ – crushing a thin piece of plastic to test proper alignment ensuring the prescribed amount of oil could squeeze through to lube each connection.
“Because the bearings are made to last nowadays, we don’t do this anymore,” he explains.
“Plus you can’t get everything to fit together as well as the way it’s engineered at the factory.”
Tolerances have become too tight and this very dirty task has all but vanished from the job description of the fleet maintenance professional.
Maintaining a truck’s suspension system has mutated a great deal over two decades, as well.
“It used to be that tractors all had spring suspensions so the whole truck would take a real pounding,” says Pinder.
“Shop technicians spent a lot of time fixing components that were literally split in two because of these constant jarring movements.”
When the industry migrated to air suspensions it meant a lot of these repairs were eliminated, but initially it meant much more work for big repair facilities much to the chagrin of truck owners and insurance companies.
Because early air bags offered little rigidity, top-heavy loads became unstable.
On sharp turns the vehicle would lean too far and the off-kilter centre of gravity dumped many rigs dirty-side-up on the highway shoulder.
“Now the standard highway spec is a combination air/leaf suspension system,” he explains.
“It doesn’t allow the vehicle to twist and torque as much, while still providing a smooth ride to protect a rig’s sensitive componentry.”
Because these multi-faceted systems are constructed by stacking metal on metal there are u-bolts, which constantly require tightening.
It’s a small price to pay, however, when compared to the alternatives.
Don’t mistake these changes for meaning today’s mechanics are under-worked, mind you. The shift in how vehicles are spec’d has also brought a host of new duties to occupy their time.
“Back in 1981, a deluxe interior package was a truck with two coats of paint,” jokes Pinder.
He remembers his early days working at Mack’s now defunct Oakville, Ont. plant when he very seldom saw a rig roll off the line equipped with air conditioning.
“So-called creature comforts are now standard specs,” he explains.
“Tilt and telescopic steering, as well as power steering, windows and locks all come with additional maintenance costs.”
He estimates fleets spend an extra 1.5 cents per kilometre on the upkeep of these types of systems.
While margins are thinner today than they ever were in 1981, the way the industry has migrated to longer hauls and away from predominantly regional routes means providing the driver with a more comfortable work environment is a huge key to success.
In 1981, he says many truckers spent the winter months wrapped in moving blankets or wearing Skidoo suits while behind the wheel.
“With all of the advances in cab insulation, construction and heating, a lot of guys now go down the road in track pants and a short-sleeved shirt,” he says.
Recommended shop procedures are nothing if not fluid and in fact two of the biggest changes in how things are done revolve around one key fluid in particular.
“When I started working in my dad’s shop the trend was switching from using grease to oil in the wheel ends,” says Pinder.
“Now everyone has pretty much gone back to grease for the same reasons we used to use it.”
If a seal fails, you don’t end up with contaminated componentry, since the grease tends to stick to where it is supposed to stay due to its viscosity.
“Some of the older guys who can remember being told to make the switch in the first place, just laugh when they think about it now.” n
– Next month, Truck News examines how operating a fleet has changed over the last two decades.