Training for your Aging Fleet

As cost reductions have come to have a higher priority in recent years, much of our transportation and equipment fleets have been allowed to age several months beyond original projections. In many cases, months are becoming years.

A central problem that perhaps has gone unnoticed is that as fleets have been allowed to age due to budget concerns, training budgets have been slashed for the same reasons. Maintenance and repair expertise is even more important as fleets age, and lack of proper training can adversely affect this expertise.

The airline industry has been extremely focused on fleet aging concerns in recent years, as many carriers look to reduce costs. Among their solutions to address rapidly aging airplane fleets: improving/standardizing maintenance criteria and more targeted and focused maintenance training programs. In fact, the FAA has recommended collecting data from each carrier's training programs and establishing a model inspection and repair training strategy that reflects industry best practices.*

While the concerns at vehicle fleet companies are difficult to address without reviewing their strategies and cost analyses regarding fleet aging, most can agree that maintenance costs rise the more a fleet ages. The trade-off is that the longer equipment can stay in service, rather than being replaced, the more profits are enabled.

But there is likely some "point of no return" where maintenance costs and customer satisfaction become adversely affected.

Of course, even before a fleet ages beyond projections, the fleet business should place a priority on preventive maintenance training. Analyze your PM processes and related training and see how well they are working. Missed or improperly performed preventive maintenance contributes to higher incidences of expensive repairs being required later.

The next step, particularly for higher-level diagnostic technicians, is to look into any kind of "predictive maintenance" training that is available or could be developed. Predictive maintenance involves systematic condition monitoring in order to predict when major failures are likely to occur.

In some cases, less expensive maintenance can prevent major failures. This may involve - but is not limited to - analysis of electronic control system data and recordings, lubricant analysis, vibration analysis and, in some cases, even acoustic and infrared analysis. Even your higher-level technicians will likely need some training in this area.

Wiring and electrical systems are particularly vulnerable as vehicles and equipment age. Exposed terminals, dry or cracked connector terminal seals and even small cuts in insulation can cause major problems with age due to corrosion and rot. Advanced electrical diagnostic techniques, such as voltage drop testing, become extremely important in these scenarios and can play a major role in predictive electrical system maintenance.

While there is no doubt that training costs can sometimes be seen as lower priority compared to core business expenses, what are the ultimate costs to operator safety, customer service and potential major repairs caused by a poorly trained maintenance staff?

The airline industry recognizes the need to continue training, even in tough economic times, especially when fleets are allowed to age. Why do many of our vehicle and equipment fleet companies not recognize this as well?

* Andersen, Don. Aging Airplane Systems Investigation. Boeing Aero, No. 07.

Stephen Howe is a 24-year veteran of the automotive, heavy vehicle and heavy equipment technical training business. He is a former president of the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC) - a global, non-profit organization dedicated to recognizing outstanding training and to sharing best practices in the automotive and heavy vehicle industries.